Jason Heyward, a notorious slow starter throughout his big league career, predictably started slowly in his first month with the Cubs (with no help from a balky wrist, which he first started dealing with way back in the first week of the season).
Entering the weekend set against the Pirates, Heyward owned a .216 average and .259 slugging percentage to go along with a .272 wOBA and 63 wRC+ in his first 135 plate appearances. It is the kind of woeful slump that raises eyebrows, especially after the player in said slump signed a deal that could be worth $184 million over eight seasons.
But here is the thing: Heyward isn’t the only big-money free agent signing working through an early-season slump.
There were seven players who signed deals worth $100 million or more and three more who reached agreements on multi-year contracts worth at least $15 million per season. And as it turns out, a notable handful of those players have struggled early:
- David Price is working through a change in his delivery as he tries to get out of his rut. The Red Sox southpaw signed a free agent deal worth $217 million, but pitched to a 6.75 ERA (which is bad) in his first seven starts, despite a 2.93 FIP and 2.94 xFIP (both of which are good) and a 29.0 K% that ranks 10th in all of baseball. Some of that’s bad luck, but some of it also appears to be genuine struggles. If (more likely, when, based on track record) Price completes a turnaround, Thursday’s performance against the Astros will likely be circled on the calendar. Price struck out 12 and walked only one batter while allowing only one run in 6.2 innings in a win.
- Zack Greinke shocked the baseball world when he spurned the Dodgers and Giants for a $206.5 million deal with the Diamondbacks this offseason with absolutely no rumors in the run-up. Equally shocking is his slow start to the year. Greinke’s FIP (3.60) and xFIP (3.50) suggest better times area ahead and that 5.26 ERA will progress to a career mean, but there is still some concern. His fastball has lost a tick and it looks as if hitters are starting to get around on it more often. Complicating matters are Greinke’s struggles in his home ballpark.
- Tigers signee Justin Upton is on pace for his first 200-strikeout season. He entered the weekend with a .221/.257/.324 slash line, 55 wRC+, and .255 wOBA. Upton’s struggles are highlighted by a 37.5 percent strikeout rate, and magnified by a 4.9 percent walk rate. He appears to be pressing with a new team in a new league. Manager Brad Ausmus could move him from the No. 2 spot in the order, even though he didn’t seem to make such a move want to earlier this season. And just to make things that much more interesting, Upton made his first career start in center field in Thursday’s loss to the Orioles.
- Mike Leake picked up his first win on Tuesday for the Cardinals against a woeful Angels lineup. Prior to that, Leake had pitched to a 6.03 ERA/5.13 FIP/4.27 xFIP. He had stranded only 56.7 percent of runners. Leake owned a lowly 14.6 K% and had been hit hard to the tune of a 35.9 percent hard-hit rate. Despite his struggles, Leake has maintained a positive outlook. So far, though, he hasn’t done much to replace what the Cardinals lost when John Lackey headed to the Cubs and Lance Lynn headed to the operating room.
- Alex Gordon signed the biggest contract in Royals franchise history last winter, but has yet to recapture the form that helped earn him such a payday. Gordon entered the Royals’ weekend series against the Braves with a .239 average and 30.6 percent strikeout rate. However, his on-base percentage (.351) and walk rate (11.2 BB%) and 106 wRC+ were at or above league average. If Gordon can cut his strikeout rate back to around where it was from 2013-15 (20.3 percent) it could help revive Kansas City’s offense.
Heyward has company on the early season struggle bus. But, like his fellow ballplayers working through slumps, each have either a strong track record or a set of encouraging peripherals that suggests things could get better sooner or later.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.