Nicholas Castellanos standing on first base CC by 2.0 License
Free-agent signings and trade-deadline acquisitions are becoming more and more impactful in modern-day baseball. Teams have huge decisions to make about their player personnel during the season and the offseason. The 2021 season saw a ton of talent moved, both in the offseason and at the trade deadline. Making moves to sign and extend players in the offseason is a vital part of any franchise’s success, but this process comes with a ton of risk built in. Underperformance and regression can affect a player at the worst times, leaving front offices regretful after taking a chance on a so-called star. This article will examine three of the worst signings and extensions during the 2021 offseason, and how these players affected their respective teams.
Nick Castellanos was one of the most sought-after offensive players of the 2021 offseason. Coming off a monster campaign in 2021 with the Cincinnati Reds, Castellanos was eager to get his well-deserved paycheck. The Philadelphia Phillies were the team to take that chance on him. Looking at his 34 home runs with 100 RBI and a .309 batting average are enough to make any team break out of their checkbooks. However, a handful of Castellanos’ underlying statistics and percentiles from 2021 pointed to a player that was due for a huge drop-off in production. While his expected stats like xBA and xSLG both clocked in strongly at 93rd and 91st percentiles respectively, Baseball Savant had Castellanos in the 15th percentile for Whiff% and the 5th percentile for Chase Rate in 2021. The flashy offensive production, highlighted by a .576 SLG and well above average percentiles in max exit velocity and hard-hit percentage, led teams to trust that the veteran could continue to produce at this elite level.
Phillies fans and their front office were very optimistic after adding Castellanos to an already-impressive lineup. They would sign him to a 5-year $100 million contract in hopes of getting some of his infamous power numbers. Unfortunately, Castellanos let down his team and his new fanbase with a very underwhelming season in 2022. In 136 games, Castellanos could only manage to slash .263/.305/.389 with 13 home runs and 62 RBI. A 187-point difference in slugging in just one year of difference is a very extreme regression. Every major hitting statistic fell off the table for Castellanos in 2022. His wRC+ went from 139 to 94, meaning he went from being 39% better than the average MLB hitter to 6% worse than average in just one season. He got on base 57 points less than 2021 (.362 OBP to .305) and struck out 2.6% more (20.7% K rate to 23.3%). Perhaps the worst metric difference comes when looking at his fWAR differences. Castellanos posted a 3.5 fWAR in 2021 and a -0.7 fWAR in 2022. Seasons like these really put a downer on a supposedly good off-season move by the Phillies. To add insult to injury, the Phillies paid Castellanos $20 million for him to produce negative value on the field. He also is an extreme defensive liability, landing in the 3rd percentile for Outs Above Average, 6th for Outfielder Jump, and 44th for Arm Strength. To Castellanos’ defense (pun intended), a Bryce Harper injury caused him to play in right field way more than he would normally have. Even with this fact, Castellanos hurt the team more than he helped in the 2022 regular season. He looks to redeem himself at the time of writing, as he finds himself in the World Series. He could erase his bad performance with a couple of clutch moments in the next couple of games.
José Berríos was signed to a 7-year $131 million contract during the 2021 offseason. The Blue Jays traded for him during the regular season and liked what they saw out of him. They liked him so much that they decided to commit to an average of $18.7 million a year for his arm. In 192 innings in 2021 pitching for the Twins and Blue Jays, Berríos had a solid 3.52 ERA with a 26.1% strikeout percentage and 4.0 fWAR. Berríos has always been a good pitcher. He has very good control, always ranking above average for his walk percentage. In 2021, he was no different, boasting an impressive spot in the 85th percentile for BB%. His other stand-out percentiles from his 2021 season are an 80th for Chase Rate and a 66th for K%. These are not among the best of the league by any measure, but they were good enough to put him in the top 2 of the majority of pitching rotations in 2021. However, his Baseball Savant page for 2021 revealed a lot of red flags for his future production. He ranked in the 28th percentile for Barrel%, 31st for Whiff%, 46th for xBA, and 44th for xSLG. Berríos’ success in 2021 could fairly be described as lucky. His expected stats being below average paired with the fact that he surrendered a lot of hard contact pointed to a pitcher who was due to regress in the near future. Not surprisingly, he did just that in 2022.
Berríos was bad in 2022. He is widely regarded as one of the most disappointing players from this year, and he most definitely earns a spot on this list of underperformers. In the same number of starts as 2021 (32), Berríos pitched 20 fewer innings. This suggests that he pitched deeper into games in 2021 and brought more value by saving his bullpen from long outings. Quite the opposite happened in 2022, as he mustered a 5.11 ERA with a weak 19.8% strikeout percentage. Compared to his 3.52 ERA and 26.1% strikeout rate from 2021, Berríos looked like a brand new pitcher, and not in a good way. His percentiles turned ice-cold, as he found himself below the 10th percentile in xERA, xBA, and xSLG. The regression he was supposed to experience happened (shocker). This type of fall-off-a-cliff regression is sadly becoming more common as players are being used for a handful of max-effort, all-star seasons, and then disappearing. This all-or-nothing approach to the game categorizes the season that Berríos had in 2022. The good news for him is that he has six more seasons to get the massive target off of his back and not be deemed a contract bust.
Mark Melancon is the least-risky signing of the players on this list. The 37-year-old inked a 2-year $14 million contract in the 2021 offseason with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Melancon had his best year since his 51-save 2015 last season. He put up a 2.23 ERA in 64.2 innings with the San Diego Padres. He racked up 39 saves and struck out 22.3% of batters. This type of production from someone who has been in the league since 2009 is a very rare thing. The Padres trusted Melancon with many save opportunities, and he did not disappoint. Melancon was exceptional at inducing weak contact. According to Baseball Savant, in 2021, he ranked in the 88th percentile for Average Exit Velocity and the 76th percentile for Barrel%, further proving the ability of his soft-contact pitching. On the flip side, Melancon was in the 20th percentile for xBA (implying a lot of luck went into the outs he got on balls in play), 14th in Whiff%, and 25th in Chase Rate. These ranks point to a pitcher who let up a lot of contact that should have fallen for hits but simply did not. The biggest red flag of Melancon’s was the difference between his actual ERA and his expected ERA. His actual ERA was 2.23 while his xERA was almost 2 full points higher at 4.21. The Padres must have seen the warning signs, making them the only team on this list that smartly observed the underlying numbers and chose to not sign the player in question. To be fair, Melancon’s age puts him at a much larger risk for his production to regress, and other teams across the league were keen on his abnormal season in 2021 (emphasized by his signing with the Diamondbacks). But, credit to the Padres for not being blinded by the flashy stats that Melancon put up in 2021.
Melancon had a season to forget in 2022. For the 2023 season, he finds himself in the last year of his contract. It would not be surprising to see him retire after next year. The combination of regression and age is proving to be too much for him. Melancon had a 4.66 ERA (a 4.78 xERA), 18 saves, and a measly 14.2% strikeout rate. All of his percentiles dropped, as he found himself in the 3rd for K%, 4th for xBA, and 15th for xERA. Thankfully for Melancon, there was not a ton of expectation for him to do well in Arizona. His success over his 14 big-league seasons is what defines him. He makes this list to show what an aging pitcher combined with negative underlying performance statistics will inevitably end up playing like as his career continues.
None of the players on this list had a good 2022 season. They all had great seasons in 2021, causing teams to take chances on them for the future. Investing in baseball players will always be one of the riskiest things to do in all sports. Baseball is a brutal game that sees once-great players turn into the worst versions of their athletic selves in very short amounts of time. The players above have time left in the league, some more than others, to prove themselves to their fans. Can players bounce back from seasons of this caliber? The baseball gods are the only ones who can answer that.