MLB’s offseason has arrived, and with it, so has the official opening of free agency. Each team’s exclusive five-day negotiating window has closed, contract options have been exercised or declined, qualifying offers have been extended (and rejected), non-tender decisions have been made and now, finally, any team can negotiate with any free agent — with an eye on capturing the World Series 11 months from now.
With several big names on the market — including quite possibly the biggest name in the history of baseball free agency — there will be a lot to keep track of in the coming weeks and months. So we’re here to help: All winter long, we’ll be grading each major free-agent signing right here.
2023-24 MLB free agent grades
Aaron Nola: Seven-year, $172 million deal with Phillies
With Nola entering free agency for the first time after nine largely very good seasons in Philly, item No. 1 for GM Dave Dombrowski this offseason was resigning the righty — or filling the hole behind Zack Wheeler with someone else. You could argue that the Phils should’ve pursued option B, at least for a little while; Nola pitched to a 4.46 ERA in the regular season, after all, and there are certainly other top-end pitching options out there via free agency or trade.
But Dombrowski didn’t have a ton of trade assets to work with — certainly not enough to land, say, Corbin Burnes or Tyler Glasnow in a league-wide bidding war — and you can understand why the Phillies preferred bringing Nola back rather than making a run at someone else on the open market. Blake Snell is six months older than Nola and has significant durability questions, second Cy Young Award aside. Eduardo Rodriguez and Jordan Montgomery don’t have Nola’s track record and are reportedly interested in signing elsewhere. Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s age (25) and ace upside made him an awfully enticing option, but his market figures to be white-hot, and it’s hard to blame Philly for locking down Nola now rather than running the risk of missing out on Yamamoto and winding up with no one. (Especially given the Braves’ very real interest in Nola.)
Besides, it’s hardly like this can be considered an overpay: Yes, seven years is a long time for a pitcher already on the wrong side of 30, and yes, $172 million is a big number. But Philly has money to spend, and $24.5 million a year is really No. 2/high-end No. 3 money in today’s market — an accurate reflection of what Nola projects to be for at least the next few years. Sure, the end of this contract is likely to hurt, and things could get really ugly if Bryce Harper and Trea Turner fall off the aging cliff as well. But that was going to be true no matter what, and the Phillies are rightfully prioritizing another World Series run in 2024. Ensuring another frontline option behind Zack Wheeler was critical to that mission, and Nola on a reasonable deal fits the bill.
Kenta Maeda: Two-year, $24 million deal with Tigers
You’d be forgiven for not paying much attention to the Detroit Tigers in 2023, but they were one of the league’s quieter pleasant surprises, finishing second in the AL Central at 78-84. They have budding young stars at the plate in Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and Kerry Carpenter, plus several intriguing young pitchers in Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Reese Olson and Sawyer Gipson-Long. After years in the wilderness — and given the state of their division right now, especially with the Twins’ commitment to slashing payroll — now is the time for Detroit to finally dip back into free agency in a meaningful way as they push toward contention.
They’ve done just that in signing Maeda, who’ll turn 36 in April and has established himself as a quality Major League pitcher over seven years in the States. He got off to a rough start to 2023 as he made his return from Tommy John surgery, but he figured things out as the year went along: Upon returning from the injured list in late June, he posted a 3.36 ERA over 17 appearances (16 starts). The further he gets from his rehab, the sharper he should be, and his lack of reliance on his fastball — he throws it the third-most often of his pitches, behind his splitter and slider — should help him age gracefully. For as many promising youngsters as Detroit will have in its rotation next season, they were in desperate need of a known quantity or two, especially with Eduardo Rodriguez moving on. Maeda isn’t the flashiest, and it would be nice to see Chris Ilitch follow in his late father’s footsteps and open up the pocketbook, but he fills a need at a reasonable price.
Sonny Gray: Three-year, $75 million deal with Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals entered this offseason knowing that they needed a total overhaul of a starting rotation short on both depth and impact talent. President John Mozeliak wasted no time addressing the former, signing veterans Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson to one-year deals earlier this month. Now, he’s addressed the latter, signing former Twins righty and 2023 AL Cy Young runner-up Gray on a three-year, $75 million deal. Gray may not have the upside of Blake Snell, the workhorse track record of Aaron Nola or the upside of Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto. What he is, however, is a genuine frontline talent, one who posted a 2.90 ERA over 303.2 innings (56 starts) across two years in Minnesota — including a 2.79 mark in 184 innings this past season. He also brings some much-needed swing-and-miss to a Cardinals rotation in desperate need of it: Gray’s 9.0 K/9 would have been far and away St. Louis’ best in 2023, and their only two starters who even cleared 8.0 (Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty) are currently free agents.
The Cardinals’ rotation currently lines up with Gray, Miles Mikolas, Lynn, Gibson and a number of potential No. 5 options including Steven Matz, Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore. That’s certainly better than how things looked at the end of the 2023 season, but it also doesn’t figure to scare any of the teams St. Louis has to gain ground on in the NL. Mozeliak and Co. figure to still be on the hunt for another option to slot in behind Gray, with a reunion with Montgomery the most enticing possibility
Luis Severino: One-year, $13 million deal with Mets
Severino, 30, has long been injury-prone — multiple injuries, including Tommy John surgery, limited him to only 120 innings from 2019-22 — but over his first seven years in the Bronx he’d established himself as one of the better starters in the game when actually on the mound. And then, in 2023, the bottom totally and inexplicably fell out. A shoulder injury in spring training cost Severino most of the first two months of the year, and when he finally did make it back, he was awful: His 6.65 ERA was the seventh-worst among all starters who threw at least 80 innings, and he also had the second-highest HR/9 in the league.
Severino was a bit better over the season’s final weeks, and the Mets will have to hope that he’ll be able to build on that progress in 2024. Again, this was one of the game’s top starters once upon a time: He pitched to a 3.18 ERA with 450 strikeouts in 384.2 innings from 2017-18, earning an All-Star nod and Cy Young votes in both seasons. Looking under the hood, there’s no immediately obvious explanation for his sudden decline last year, and a one-year represents a worthy gamble on upside with a pitcher familiar with the demands of pitching in New York — while giving Severino flexibility to reenter the market next year if he does indeed bounce back.
Of course, a worthy gamble is far from the only thing the Mets need to fix their depleted rotation. Kodai Senga and Jose Quintana are locked in, but beyond that there are a lot of question marks — questions that Severino doesn’t necessarily answer, given all the risks he comes with. Expect new president David Stearns to add at least one and likely two more arms at some point this winter, whether via free agency (Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Eduardo Rodriguez, Michael Wacha) or the trade market (Tyler Glasnow, Corbin Burnes). If Severino third-best pitcher New York adds this winter, it makes a lot of sense; if he’s the only one, well, we’ve got problems.