On Monday night, Cubs starter Jake Arrieta carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Red Sox, just one start after taking a perfect game into the seventh inning against the Reds. Like with that start, Arrieta wasn’t able to write his name into the history books, though the dominating performances have cemented him as one of the most intriguing breakout players of the season. However, the unusual event Monday night might not have been that Arrieta followed a perfect game attempt with a deep run at a no-hitter; it’s that Red Sox shortstop Stephen Drew actually got the base hit that ended the attempt.
That’s because, since re-joining the Red Sox, Drew has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster at the plate. He’s come to the plate 69 times, and that single off of Arrieta was one of just nine hits he’s managed; including hitting into a double play and getting thrown out attempting a steal, Drew has made 59 outs with those 69 plate appearances, a staggeringly awful 86 percent out rate. He’s batting just .136, and even when you account for his three walks and three doubles, his .163 wOBA ranks him behind 30 pitchers, players who aren’t exactly selected for their hitting prowess. While many different people have contributed to the Red Sox’s struggles this year, Drew’s futility is one of the primary reasons this team has fallen 7 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays in the AL East.
Things haven’t gone much better for the other free agent who waited until midseason to sign; despite collecting three hits last night, Kendrys Morales is hitting just .238/.270/.333 since joining the Twins, and unlike Drew, he doesn’t have any defensive value to fall back on. As strictly a designated hitter, Morales’ entire value is tied up in how well he hits, and in 89 plate appearances in Minnesota, his .262 wOBA is lower than the career mark set by defensive specialists like Darwin Barney or Brendan Ryan.
Between them, Drew and Morales have combined to be worth one win below replacement level in just 158 plate appearances; their combined performance, extrapolated over a full season, would challenge Jim Levey’s 1933 record for the worst season in baseball history. And Jim Levey didn’t make the equivalent of $17 million that year, which is the combined salary that Drew and Morales will earn this season.
Clearly, Drew and Morales are not this bad. Good players go through slumps, and both are just going through some particularly nasty ones at the moment. But the fact that they are going through them at the same time, right after signing midseason and skipping out on spring training, suggests that it might be a while before another free agent follows in their footsteps.
Both Drew and Morales are represented by Scott Boras, and both players trained at a facility provided by Boras during the offseason and after the season began, with both unemployed because of their contractual asking prices. While neither participated in a major league spring training, they weren’t sitting at home eating Oreos and watching "Seinfeld" re-runs. However, given their struggles to re-acclimate to major league pitching, it is fair to question whether this kind of private training compound can simulate the preparation players are used to getting from participating in spring training. Especially considering that this midseason signing thing didn’t work out so well for the last guy who tried it either.
In both 2012 and 2013, Roy Oswalt decided to wait until after the season began to sign a free agent contract, and in both cases, he made his first appearance of the season toward the end of June: June 22 in 2012 and June 20 in 2013, to be exact. Over those two half seasons, Oswalt threw just a grand total of 91 innings, because in both cases he was atrocious and pitched his way out of a job. His combined ERA over the final two seasons of his career was 6.80.
While Drew and Morales may very well come out of their funks and end up producing down the stretch, this is now the third consecutive year that a sign-a-veteran-at-midseason trick looks to be a total waste of money for an acquiring team. And it’s unlikely that any of these players are particularly happy with how this has worked out for them either.
Both Drew and Morales turned down a qualifying offer worth $14 million at the beginning of the offseason; Drew eventually signed for $10 million, while Morales got $7.5 million. And while waiting until midseason to sign means that they can’t be restricted by the qualifying offer system again this winter, their 2014 performances are going to make it unlikely that they’ll receive any offers for that kind of money anyway. Skipping out on spring training in order to avoid the qualifying offer is only a wise financial maneuver if it doesn’t harm the very performance you’re counting on to lure teams into making a substantial offer to begin with.
Now, it should be noted that players have successfully skipped the first few months of the season and performed well before. Two years ago, Andy Pettitte unretired during spring training, rejoining the Yankees in May and throwing 75 excellent innings before getting hit by a line drive and missing most of the rest of the season. And in both 2006 and 2007, Roger Clemens did the midseason signing thing, pitching well down the stretch for both the Astros and Yankees. There is precedent that it can work.
But those were cases where the question wasn’t really so much about the money as it was about the continued desire to compete, and of course, neither Pettitte nor Clemens was pursuing a new long-term contract after his return. For Drew and Morales, it was a calculated risk to avoid having draft pick compensation tied to their free-agent status and attempt to land the multiyear contracts they were originally seeking. It is difficult to see either player convincing a team that they’ll be worth that kind of deal this winter, especially now that both have aged another year since teams passed on the right to give them multiyear contracts last winter.
This winter, the value of the qualifying offer is expected to rise to around $15 million. Teams were previously aggressive in making the qualifying offer to marginal free agents like Drew and Morales in an attempt to earn a draft pick as compensation, knowing that the players weren’t likely to skip out on a chance to test their value on the market. However, now that the league has seen three players end up signing for less money on a one-year deal after declining the qualifying offer — Nelson Cruz took $8 million from the Orioles toward the end of March — and Drew and Morales have personified the risks of trying to show up midseason and perform at their previous levels, I imagine teams and players alike will be more cautious in the decision to extend or reject the offer.
If a team makes a marginal free agent a qualifying offer this winter, $15 million and a guaranteed job might look a lot more enticing than being next year’s Stephen Drew or Kendrys Morales.