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Fair or Foul: Grading the first few offseason free agent deals

As the remainder of the awards gets handed out for the 2021 MLB season, many teams are already looking ahead to free agency and how to improve their rosters for the upcoming 2022 season. Here are some of the signings teams have already made and a letter grade to go with them. 1B Brandon Belt: Accepted one-year, $18.4 million qualifying offer from the San Francisco Giants

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Despite being limited to just 97 games this season, Belt still posted a 2.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) per Baseball Reference. Belt hit .274, his highest mark for a full season since 2016, while also posting his highest slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ of his career for a full season. 

With his age-34 season coming up next, Belt’s prospects for a long-term deal were low. With younger options like Anthony Rizzo or Freddie Freeman on the market, and an even younger Matt Olson being floated in trades, Belt was not going to get a higher annual value, and he gets to remain with the Giants team he helped lead to 107 wins.

Grade: A

SP Eduardo Rodríguez: Signed five-year, $77 million deal with the Detroit Tigers

After posting a 4.16 ERA over six seasons with the Red Sox, Rodríguez bit the hook early at a multi-year deal with an up-and-coming franchise in the Tigers. Since 2017, the Tigers have turned into a laughing stock of an organization. That began to change in 2021, with strong campaigns from talent like Eric Haase, Akil Baddoo and Casey Mize. 

With more talent like outfielder Riley Greene and infielder Spencer Torkelson on the way, and arms like Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning eyeing a big step forward in 2022, Rodríguez can anchor that rotation while the youngsters develop. 

E-Rod is no ace, with many of his most dominant outings coming against the New York Yankees — whom he might face just once or twice a season now — but he will be dependable and give the Tigers much-needed innings.

Grade: B

SP Andrew Heaney: Signed one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers

The last two deals, and the two before this one, all make much more sense. How Heaney managed to net nearly $9 million for his efforts last season is a work of financial genius. In 2021, Heaney went 6-7 with a 5.27 ERA in 18 starts for the Los Angeles Angels. That’s bad enough, but he then went on to post a 7.32 ERA in 35 2/3 innings after getting traded to the Yankees. 

Heaney was so bad in the Bronx that he got booted from the rotation, and he pitched no better out of the bullpen. His fastball was straight as an arrow — and not overwhelmingly fast — his curveball didn’t curve and he served up home runs made to order. 

The moral of the story is that other than his impressive 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings this season, there is no other reason to be excited by his efforts in 2021. The Dodgers do not need Heaney, and he will likely not help them out — but L.A. will also spend money on anyone that moves, so this deal won’t hurt them.

Grade: D-

SP Noah Syndergaard: Signed a one-year, $21 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels

From a former Angel to a future Angel, Syndergaard’s last two seasons went fully by the wayside. Back in 2016 with the Mets, Thor posted a 2.60 ERA and finished eighth in NL Cy Young voting. That season showed what he could do for the Mets as one of their aces for years to come. Unfortunately, injury and underperformance are all that define the five seasons since then. 

Syndergaard threw just two innings on a major-league mound in the last two years, so a multi-year deal seemed unlikely. After he turned down the qualifying offer from the Mets, the Angels swooped in and took a short-term gamble on the big righty to try and finally get quality pitching talent to Anaheim. 

If he stays healthy, Syndergaard will be one heck of a No. 2 starter behind Shohei Ohtani, but his injury history and the recent history of the Angels’ pitching are both big roadblocks that could sit in his way.

Grade: C+

SP Justin Verlander: Signed a one-year, $25 million deal to return to the Houston Astros

Here’s another hurler who has barely pitched in the last two years. The big difference: Syndergaard just turned 29 in August, while Verlander will turn 39 in February. Nevertheless, Verlander was a highly targeted arm early in this offseason. Teams all over the East Coast, especially the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, all tried to bring in Verlander, and his former team in the Tigers may have also tried to do so.

Ultimately, Verlander decided to stay in Houston, giving them a much-needed veteran leader for the young pitching staff currently led by Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez and Rookie of the Year runner-up Luis Garcia. 

Verlander impressed at a tryout for teams, thus leading everyone to believe he can come back and dominate like in 2019 and many seasons prior. However, the boom-or-bust dynamic with Verlander’s age and return from Tommy John surgery mean this signing cannot be graded as a slam dunk.

Grade: B+

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