Analyzing every MLB free agent signing: Rays' record Zach Eflin deal, Tigers' Matthew Boyd move show pitching is pricey

Baseball’s hot stove is firing up. The annual winter meetings are less than a week away — they're set to begin Dec. 5 in San Diego — and some teams are beginning to make moves, sign free agents and lay the groundwork for the 2023 season.

Let’s break down all the MLB free-agent deals, assessing whether they made sense for the team and the player.

Tampa Bay Rays reportedly sign starting pitcher Zach Eflin to three-year, $40 million deal

The Rays are issuing their largest free-agent contract ever — yes, really — to Eflin, a right-hander they will presumably use as a starter following an inspired, possibly-game-elevating turn in the Phillies bullpen. Eflin is 28 and has rarely been much better than average, but the evolution of his repertoire while he worked in relief has created a sense that he could markedly improve on that.

Does it make sense for the Rays? If the curveball, which looked great out of the bullpen, continues to play up when Eflin returns to starting, this could work out nicely. Expect the pitch to retain its increased stature among his offerings.

The Rays likely see Eflin as a pitcher who can produce above his previous level. But it’s worth noting that the starting pitching market is hot to start the offseason. Pitchers coming off abjectly bad or totally injured seasons are getting $10 to $12 million a year, so it’s possible that this is the going rate for someone viewed as, at the very least, a serviceable arm.

Does it make sense for Eflin? Few teams are more adept than the Rays at finding and maximizing a pitcher’s best qualities, so Eflin — who had been with the Phillies since a trade in December 2014, when he was still a minor-leaguer — is probably in good hands. And like other pitchers who have come off the board, he exceeded salary expectations. FanGraphs’ crowd-sourced contract projections had Eflin getting $10 million a year for three years. Instead, he will wind up with an average annual value of $13.3 million.

Detroit Tigers reportedly sign starting pitcher Matthew Boyd to one-year, $10 million deal

Speaking of the frothing starting pitching market … Boyd returns to the Tigers after one season, two employers and a whopping 13⅓ innings away. Detroit, under a previous regime, non-tendered an injured Boyd after 2021. He signed with the San Francisco Giants but didn’t return to pitch until they had dropped out of contention and traded him to the Seattle Mariners. The lefty’s return was brief but impressive. He logged a 1.35 ERA as a multi-inning reliever.

Does it make sense for the Tigers? It certainly seems like a steep price when you consider that Boyd made $5.2 million on a one-year deal last season … and then barely pitched. But Scott Harris, the new Tigers president of baseball operations, is the executive who signed Boyd last winter, when he was with the Giants. He clearly believes there is something here.

Does it make sense for Boyd? Seems great! He goes back to Detroit and back under the wing of a front-office leader who seems to have big plans for him. Boyd is certainly good enough to slot into a Tigers rotation that will at least begin the season without the two young starters — Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize — who were slated to replace him at the front of the line.

Houston Astros reportedly sign first baseman José Abreu to three-year deal worth about $60 million

There were two proven, veteran first basemen on the market, and the defending champion Astros have snagged one of them to reload their lineup. After coming up short in trying to lure Anthony Rizzo from the Yankees, the Houston front office — currently led by team owner Jim Crane and a band of assistant GMs, apparently — has reportedly secured the services of Abreu, the longtime White Sox slugger. The San Diego Padres were also rumored to be interested in Abreu.

The 2020 AL MVP probably isn’t going to match that blistering, 60-game bonanza, but in the two seasons since then, he has run up a consistent, contact-heavy, .284/.365/.463 line, 31% better than the average MLB hitter by the park-adjusted wRC+ metric. That makes him a top-30 hitter in baseball and a particularly durable one even entering his age-36 season: Only nine players have logged more games than Abreu (656) the past five seasons. As a bonus, he’s widely viewed as a clubhouse leader who was known as a mentor to young White Sox stars.

Longtime White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu is reportedly joining the World Series champion Astros on a three-year deal. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Longtime White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu is reportedly joining the World Series champion Astros on a three-year deal. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Does it make sense for the Astros? Well, if Abreu makes about $20 million, as the Houston Chronicle’s Chandler Rome reports, it will match Rizzo’s annual salary with the Yankees to a tee, so that all lines up. The surprise here is that the Astros dished out three guaranteed years for a player about three years older. Abreu doesn’t have glaring red flags, but age will undeniably affect a player whose game is built on excellent contact skills — whether it’s by draining away extra bases or slowing his reflexes.

As of now, though, the extra bases and power seem to be immediate concerns, as Abreu posted a career-best strikeout rate last season. Houston’s Crawford Boxes figure to goose the right-handed Abreu’s homer total at least a bit, but his isolated power did dip below MLB average for the first time in 2022, despite strong exit velocities. Translation: Some homers are turning into doubles, and a lot of doubles are turning into singles. Maybe he can stall or reverse that trend temporarily, but there is some downside in guaranteeing a third year.

Does it make sense for Abreu? Look, signing up to play for the Astros is as good a bet as any player can make on reaching the World Series. Entering the home stretch of an accomplished career that began in his native Cuba, Abreu hasn’t yet experienced a deep playoff run. With Houston, he will replace Yuli Gurriel with a similar but bolder skill set and can get some DH days when Yordan Alvarez roams the outfield. He might need more than just occasional DH spells by the time 2025 rolls around, but that’s a problem no one will fret about if the Astros keep up their winning ways over the next year or two.

Chicago White Sox reportedly sign starting pitcher Mike Clevinger to one-year deal worth more than $8 million

Multiple reports indicate that the former San Diego and Cleveland starter is joining the White Sox on a bit of a pillow contract. MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi says the deal is worth more than $8 million, while The Athletic's Jim Bowden reports that the guarantee is $12 million.

The gist seems clear for Clevinger: The long-haired righty is looking to put together a full season and perhaps reestablish the level of performance he maintained earlier in his career. From 2017 until he went down with an elbow injury in 2020, Clevinger logged a terrific 2.96 ERA across 489 1/3 innings. That injury, which required Tommy John surgery and kept him sidelined for all of 2021, came just a few starts after the trade that sent him to the San Diego Padres.

He threw 114 1/3 innings for San Diego in 2022, but his fastball velocity was down about 2 mph from earlier norms, and his strikeout rate plummeted accordingly. His 4.33 ERA was about 12% worse than league average by park-adjusted ERA-, making him more of a fringe rotation piece than the solid No. 2 the Padres traded for.

Does it make sense for the White Sox? One-year deals are almost always solid plays in a vacuum, but the $8 million guarantee would make far more sense than $12 million. Clevinger has been a very productive starting pitcher before, but the decline in his stuff since Tommy John is worrisome. Assuming the White Sox plan to rebound from a rough 2022 and compete for a division crown, they won't want to truly count on him in a rotation that starts strong with Dylan Cease and Lance Lynn, and inking Clevinger won't be much of a consolation prize as Abreu, the franchise face, walks out the door.

Does it make sense for Clevinger? In returning to the AL Central, Clevinger will hope to regain the footing he had in Cleveland. A one-year deal certainly makes the most sense, as he will aim to reframe his value and hit the market on a stronger note. Just last year, the White Sox and pitching coach Ethan Katz squeezed a shockingly good campaign out of Johnny Cueto, so this isn't the worst landing spot for arms in need of some new ideas.

Pirates sign first baseman Carlos Santana to one-year, $6.7 million deal

ESPN's Jeff Passan reports that the young Pirates are adding the veteran Santana. Still capable as a defender, he's a solid clubhouse presence with a very patient approach at the plate. His batting averages are often ugly (.202 in 2022 with Kansas City and Seattle), but he walks more than 15% of the time to boost his on-base percentage. Also of note: The left-handed Santana could notch some extra hits thanks to the new limits on the infield shift.

Does it make sense for the Pirates? This might be a little bit of a two-part move. Step 1: Acquire Santana as the shift goes away. Step 2: Try to flip him to a contender at the trade deadline. He joined the Mariners in the summer of 2022 and whacked 15 homers in 79 games down the stretch. If he doesn't pop, oh, well, he can mentor the Pirates' up-and-coming hitters.

Does it make sense for Santana? I don't know if this is actually Santana's thinking, but if you want to be very sure you'll land with a contender for a playoff run, maybe the best bet is to sign with a rebuilding team such as the Pirates. He'll turn 37 in April and hasn't won a World Series, despite a couple of deep postseason runs with Cleveland.

Veteran first baseman Anthony Rizzo is reportedly sticking with the Yankees on a two-year deal with a club option for 2025. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Veteran first baseman Anthony Rizzo is reportedly sticking with the Yankees on a two-year deal with a club option for 2025. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

New York Yankees re-sign first baseman Anthony Rizzo to two-year, $40 million deal with club option for 2025

There was reportedly a race between American League powers — the Houston Astros and the Yankees — for Rizzo’s services. With a one-year qualifying offer in hand, Rizzo stayed in his newfound home in the Bronx on a multiyear deal. It’s $17 million per year, with an option for the third year that comes with a guaranteed $6 million buyout.

The steady, left-handed first baseman is no longer an MVP ballot mainstay, as he was in his Chicago Cubs heyday, but his appeal is nonetheless apparent for contending clubs. He’s playoff-tested, still plenty powerful and always capable of providing a professional at-bat. He and Jose Abreu filled the same general niche on the free-agent market, and the Yankees stuck with the veteran first baseman they know.

Does it make sense for the Yankees? Yes, Rizzo’s experience and left-handed, fly-ball swing are perfect fits in the Bronx.

Does it make sense for Rizzo? Yes. He’s got plenty left to contribute for teams chasing championships, and securing a multiyear deal is a win.

Los Angeles Angels sign starting pitcher Tyler Anderson to three-year, $39 million deal

After breaking out with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2022, left-handed changeup artist Tyler Anderson leapt at a three-year offer from the Angels — nearby in geography and … not anywhere close in terms of contention or pitching development know-how.

After seeing pop-up relievers — Robert Suarez and Rafael Montero — sign for similar or greater sums, it’s surprising a starter such as Anderson, coming off an outstanding season with a 2.57 ERA, signed so quickly for a relatively modest amount.

The Dodgers tendered Anderson a qualifying offer, which could have given him a chance to replicate his strides forward on a one-year deal worth $19.65 million. Instead, he will try to port the excellence down the freeway with a club that has a much, much worse track record of helping pitchers succeed.

Does it make sense for the Angels? A big yes here.

Anderson was my favorite midtier starting pitcher to bet on in this winter’s free-agent class. What he did with the Dodgers smacked of a real, sustainable breakout. It might not be 2.57 ERA good, but his underlying numbers showed a pitcher whose cutter and changeup allowed him to attack in the zone, limiting walks while avoiding hard contact. The Angels and general manager Perry Minasian will have to hope they can help Anderson sustain his gains, but I suspect the $13 million rate for Anderson will be a serious bargain by offseason’s end.

Does it make sense for Anderson? Maybe. Getting three years is great, but I’m skeptical he couldn’t have gotten the same with even more guaranteed money once bolder names such as Chris Bassitt and Nathan Eovaldi came off the board. There’s also the matter of sustaining his Dodgers success. Hopefully he found himself and can maintain the changes, but the Angels’ recent history doesn’t inspire confidence if he hits a speed bump.

San Francisco Giants re-sign outfielder Joc Pederson on one-year, $19.65 million qualifying offer

The best platoon player in baseball is returning to the Giants. His first year in the Bay Area produced a career year as Gabe Kapler & Co. put him in good position to succeed. But this isn’t a simple matter of facing fewer lefties. Pederson boosted his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate to career-best levels and turned in a .274/.353/.521 slash line, 44% better than a league average hitter, per the park-adjusted wRC+ metric.

Does it make sense for the Giants? Yep. The Giants’ roster is in flux, but they could use a bat that packs as much punch as Pederson’s in their expansive park. Committing to only one season? Even better.

Does it make sense for Pederson? He probably wouldn’t have the $19.65 million annual value on the open market, so if he feels comfortable in San Francisco and believes he can replicate the heightened production, this could work out well for him. Pederson will still be only 30 on Opening Day.

Texas Rangers re-sign starting pitcher Martin Perez on one-year, $19.65 million qualifying offer

The veteran left-handed starter has found a home in Texas. The definition of a meh back-end starter for most of his career, Perez returned to Texas after three seasons away and posted a career-best year, with a 2.89 ERA in 32 starts. Everyone was happy!

So happy, in fact, that the Rangers, amid an attempt at returning to contention, declined to deal him at the deadline and then gave him the qualifying offer to see if he wants to try to run it back. Answer: He does.

Does it make sense for the Rangers? I can’t pretend I understand Perez’s breakout year. He missed more barrels in 2022, but most of his numbers point to regression toward a more average future. I wouldn’t have dished out a $19.65 million offer to Perez, based purely on projections. That said, this is a case where the gap between public information and the team’s knowledge of Perez might be the entire story. Texas hasn’t been pinching pennies, so if the Rangers like Perez in their rotation and clubhouse and aren’t going to skimp on other reinforcements, keeping him around is great.

Does it make sense for Perez? Yes. Sticking where he has had success is perfectly reasonable, and there’s no way he would have matched that annual salary on the open market.