What Past Spring Training Signees Say About 2024’s Remaining Free Agents

What does the past tell us about the Boras Four’s future?

Our long national nightmare is kind of, sort of almost over.

Cody Bellinger and Matt Chapman have found their 2024 homes, signing with the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants, respectively. Like many big-name players of years past. Bellinger and Chapman spent months on the market in search of a big deal. Unlike them, neither found it, with both signing short-term contracts with opt-outs after each season. Their signings bring the baseball world closer out of the offseason and toward the regular season.

Still out in the cold are pitchers Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery. Neither has agreed to or found the contract they or their agent, Scott Boras, seek. The pitchers hold baseball in flux without knowing when they might sign. The season is practically here, yet who knows when either pitcher will be part of it?

While it seems impossible in this endless wait that mirrors years past, Snell and Montgomery will sign in the not-to-distant future. With who and when are shots in the dark, but both will play baseball in 2024. It just might not be under the contract they or Boras prefer.

But what player will they be in 2024? And how will their delayed signing affect the quality of their play? Unlike guessing which team and when these players might sign, we can answer this question. These four players are not the first to wait well into the offseason to find their future home. MLB’s free agency is pocked with players who dragged out their decision until February, or March. What can those past delays tell us and did they affect a player’s production the following season? Can they help deduce who Snell, Montgomery, Bellinger, and Chapman will be in 2024 and what their waiting game might mean for their future?


Manny Machado


Manny Machado’s free agency is similar to the current state of affairs. The then-26-year-old had numerous suitors, including the Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, and New York Yankees. But despite in-person meetings, neither Machado nor the teams interested could agree to a contract. The calendar flipped from December to January and into February with no decision imminent. Then, on Feb. 19, 2018, Machado chose the San Diego Padres, agreeing to a 10-year, record-setting $300 million deal.

Three days later, Machado held up his new team’s jersey, talked during his introductory press conference, and joined the club. Eight days later, Machado made his spring training debut with the Padres. From there, the shortstop-turned-third baseman had 26 days and 15 games to adjust to his new surroundings and find his swing before the Padres opened their regular season against the San Francisco Giants on March 26.

Machado came out of the gates cold. The slugger slashed .236/.325/.368 with just four home runs, 12 RBIs, five double plays, and 30 strikeouts through 29 games in March and April. The team, however, didn’t mimic their new star’s struggles. The Padres were 17-14 on May 1, just one game behind the second-place Arizona Diamondbacks and two games behind the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. If Machado found himself at the plate, the Friars had a chance to play meaningful baseball for the first time in years.

The Padres had their prayers answered immediately. Machado responded with a good May and an incredible June. His 1.063 June OPS was 10th in all of baseball that month. His 11 home runs that month were tied for the most in baseball, while his 29 RBIs were third. It wasn’t just a great month in comparison to his contemporaries. It was a great month of baseball in context with Machado’s career. His 2019 June OPS was only bested by 2018 and 2022’s April-March and 2022 and 2023’s July. Whatever hurdle existed for Machado in April and March was far in his rearview.

While their star thrived, the Padres went 25-28 during the two best months of Machado’s season. The team began July in fourth place in the West with the fifth-worst run differential in the NL. The season was starting to slip away from the Padres.

Machado cooled down in July, dropping from his vaunted 1.064 OPS to a .844 OPS in July, but things came undone in August for the newly minted $300 million man. Of his 27 games played that month, Machado went hitless nine times. Adding insult to injury, Machado only had five multi-hit games during this stretch. The two resulted in a .221/.290/.337 August slash with a below-league-average OPS of .626, two home runs, eight RBI, and 23 strikeouts. The death spiral continued into September. Machado went hitless in 17 of his 25 games, including a 0-for-11 and a 0-for-22 stretch, adding to a September slash line of .193/.323/.361 with a .685 OPS.

Machado’s 2019 by Month

Once Machado went down, the rest of the ship followed. The Padres finished with a 70-92 record, the eighth-worst in baseball, 36 games behind the first-place Dodgers, and on a six-game losing streak. April and March’s dreams surrendered to September’s reality. The hope of playing meaningful baseball deep into the season was extinguished. The hope for it could only return next season.

Which, in part, shouldn’t have come as a shock. The 2019 Padres bore many similarities to the 2018 Padres, a 66-96 team. The return and the continued underperformance from regular starters Eric Hosmer, Ian Kinsler, Wil Myers, Manuel Margot, and Franmil Reyes contributed to the team’s downfall, as did the team’s pitching staff, whose 4.60 ERA ranked 18th in baseball. Even the additions of Machado and 84 games of Fernando Tatis Jr. couldn’t change the inevitable awaiting the team.

While impossible to know, Machado could’ve seen the cliff ahead and put too much on his plate to compensate. Whether a shortened spring training was the culprit, he ended his debut season with the Padres with a .796 OPS, the then-fifth-worst mark of his career. The only seasons Machado finished with a lower OPS were 2017, 2014, 2013, and 2012. These seasons come with their complexities. Machado played just 82 games in 2014 due to injury, he made the All-Star team despite his problems in 2013, and 2012 was his debut season as a 19-year-old. Even 2017 saw Machado hit 33 home runs and 95 RBIs. 2019 should’ve been different. Yet his tenure started far from meeting the Padres and Machado’s expectations.

Luckily, Machado has been and continues to be everything the Padres wanted and more since 2019. Over the last four seasons, he’s made two All-Star teams, finished in the top three for NL MVP twice, won a Silver Slugger, and posted 17.9 fWAR, the eighth-most among all qualified players during that time. The Padres rewarded Machado with a new contract before the 2023 season, agreeing to an 11-year extension that will tie him to the club for the rest of his career. All said, there’s no buyer’s remorse in San Diego.


Bryce Harper


Despite their positional differences, Bryce Harper’s free agency is the closest mirror to Snell’s. Both entered free agency as former All-Stars and award winners, Harper won the 2015 NL MVP, and Snell the 2018 and 2023 Cy Young. Harper, also like Snell, didn’t rush to decide. Likewise, teams didn’t rush to offer a contract to meet their respective expectations. The Philadelphia Phillies met those expectations on February 28, 2019, landing Harper to a record-setting contract.

For those who can recall, Harper’s introductory press conference didn’t happen in a Philadelphia press conference room. It happened on the Phillies’ spring training field, where the team was eight games into their preseason slate. Harper only had a week to acclimate himself before his spring training debut on March 9. From there, he had 19 days to get comfortable in the build-up to his regular-season debut against Atlanta on March 28.

How did this abridged ramp-up affect Harper? On the surface, it didn’t. The former NL MVP slashed .260/.372/.510 with 34 home runs, a career-high 114 RBIs, a .882 OPS, 126 OPS+, and 4.0 fWAR in his first year with the Phillies. Harper led the Phillies in home runs, RBIs, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, and total bases while tying for first in steals. He was a dynamo when viewing 2019 in its totality. But other cracks appear upon further examination.

Notably, Harper’s first-half numbers were far worse than his second-half numbers. Through the first 90 games of 2019, Harper slashed .253/.370/.470 with 16 home runs, 62 RBIs, and a .840 OPS. These numbers are hardly pedestrian. Don’t mistake this for that, but this isn’t the production of a $330 million player, either. In context with the rest of the sport, Harper’s .840 OPS ranked 57th among all qualified players throughout the first half of the season. At that point, Daniel Vogelbach, Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal, Hunter Dozier, Luke Voit, and Yoán Moncada all had an OPS or higher of .875, far past Harper’s .840 mark. None of these players were or became superstars, yet they all outperformed Harper in this statistic.

They weren’t alone, however. Harper’s .253 batting average in the first half was 54th in the NL, and his 16 first-half home runs tied for 33rd. That’s not to undersell Harper’s other strengths. His 62 RBIs tied for eighth in the NL, while his 24 doubles tied for fourth. He was unquestionably still a great player in the first half of 2019, just not arguably the greatest in his league.

Harper’s second-half numbers are a different story. He slashed 270/.376/.564 with 19 home runs and 52 RBIs over the next 67 games. Harper’s OPS also differed from a first-half .840 OPS to a second-half .941 OPS, nearly a whole point difference. He’d end 2019 eighth in RBIs, 12th in home runs, 13th in doubles, and 19th in OPS in the NL. The marked uptick in production and increased comfortability helped re-establish Harper as a hitter to be feared.

That said, Harper’s strikeouts grew from a 2018 abnormality to a troubling trend in 2019. The outfielder struck out a career-high 178 times in 2019, with a career-high 26.1% strikeout rate accompanying it. Harper tied for the fourth-most strikeouts in all of baseball and had the 19th-highest K% among 135 qualified players. Whether it was his short-lived spring training or not, Harper did not have a 2019 season for the ages. It was a success, but it also left room for improvement.

One possible cause for his struggles might not be Harper but the team around him. While he struggled to start 2019, the Phillies ironically didn’t. At the start of June, the club was first in the NL East and had held the position since June 26. Not everything was perfect in Philadelphia, but enough went right for the first months of the season. That didn’t remain true over the next few months of the season. The Phillies went 43-52 over their last 92 games. The extended playing time of Maikel Franco, Scott Kingery, Jean Segura, and César Hernández exposed the team and left it vulnerable offensively. By season’s end, the offense finished 17th in OPS, 20th in runs scored, and 22nd in batting average. The only offensive categories the Phillies finished above the league average were runs scored, doubles, walks, and steals.

Pitchers like Jake ArrietaVince Velasquez, and Nick Pivetta combined for 60 starts and a 4.64 ERA. The rest of the staff combined for a 4.53 ERA, 17th in baseball. Without an above-average offense or pitching staff, the question is, “How much more could Harper have done to help the Phillies?”

The 2019 Phillies ended their season 81-81, fourth in the NL East and 16 games back of the first-place Washington Nationals, Harper’s former team. They fell short of their early dreams and failed to match Harper in the second half of the season. That’s not been the case since, however. Since 2021, the Phillies have won 259 games, and made the playoffs twice, either reaching or winning the NL Championship Series in both seasons. Harper continued to be a massive force behind their success, winning the 2021 NL MVP and two Silver Sluggers. He’s eliminated his strikeouts, increased his consistency, and become the face of the Phillies.

Harper’s contract is one the Phillies would pay every time, even if they had to wait awhile for his signature.


Lance Lynn


Entering the 2017 offseason, starter Lance Lynn had a decision to make. Does he sign the qualifying offer the St. Louis Cardinals extended to him? Or does he reject the offer and venture into free agency for the first time in his career? The latter’s temptation was obvious. Discounting 2016’s lost season due to Tommy John surgery, Lynn rightfully regarded himself as one of baseball’s better pitchers. He had started 161 games since his 2011 debut and posted a 3.39 ERA in the years since, 24th-best among all starting pitchers. Lynn was far from an ace, but the 31-year-old defined himself as a pitcher any team should want.

Lynn ultimately rejected the Redbirds’ qualifying offer and went into the unknown.  Yet, as December gave way to January, the offers Lynn and his agent wanted failed to materialize. Lynn had nowhere to report to by the time pitchers and catchers reported. He wouldn’t until landing with the Minnesota Twins on March 10, 2018, but only getting a one-year contract. Whereas Machado and Harper had multiple days before their spring training debut, Lynn had just one day. The Twins announced his contract on March 12 and had him pitch against the Baltimore Orioles the next day.

Where other starters had five, six, or seven starts in spring training, Lynn made just two starts. His second and final appearance, a March 23 start against the Houston Astros, came just 10 days before his first regular-season start with the Twins. Lynn didn’t just have an abbreviated spring training. He hardly had a spring training.

Whether this was the root cause is debatable, but Lynn’s Twins tenure was a nightmare bundled into a hellscape. In his first start against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Lynn allowed three hits and five runs while striking out six. He would only last four innings before departing with a 5-0 deficit. His next start against the Astros showed signs of life, allowing just three hits and one run across five scoreless innings to reduce his season ERA from 11.25 to 5.00.

Over the next three starts, however, Lynn went radioactive. From April 20 to April 30, he gave up 21 hits, 17 earned runs, and 13 walks across three starts. He posted an ERA of 10.43 with a 7.46 FIP. Of the 21 runs Lynn surrendered, only seven scored thanks to a home run. Lynn didn’t pitch well save for two or three bad pitches. Every one of those 21 runs touched home plate because of Lynn’s failure.

By June 2, Lynn had a 5.46 season ERA, 84th among 94 qualified pitchers. His ERA decreased to 4.81 after quality starts against the Los Angeles Angels, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago White Sox by the end of June. It’d balloon to 5.10 after Lynn allowed 16 runs in his next five starts.


Lynn’s 2018 ERA by Date

With a 48-54 record and the trade deadline days away, the Twins cut their losses. They traded Lynn to the New York Yankees for Tyler Austin and Luis Rijo on July 30. Lynn’s change of scenery came with a changed role as the Yankees shifted the veteran to the bullpen, hoping to convert him into a long reliever. That hope lasted one game. Two days after acquiring Lynn, the Yankees announced he would replace a struggling Sonny Gray in the rotation.

While the initial rewards included a seven-inning shutout against the Chicago White Sox, little changed for Lynn, going 3-2 with a 4.14 ERA while opposing hitters hit .267 against him over 11 games. Lynn’s 2018 reads as follows holistically: A 4.77 ERA, 89 ERA+, and a 1.526 WHIP, all career-highs at the time.

Lynn entered free agency in the offseason and didn’t wait nearly as long to sign a deal, agreeing with the Texas Rangers on a three-year contract on Dec. 18, 2018. A full offseason and spring training agreed with Lynn and helped him return to his old self. In two seasons with the Rangers, Lynn posted a 3.67 and a 3.32 ERA, helping him finish fifth and sixth in AL Cy Young voting in 2019 and 2020. While the Rangers never eclipsed third in the AL West in either year, giving Lynn a chance to rebound became one of their bright spots and one of the better starts in the American League. Minnesota’s regret was Texas’ reward.


Alex Cobb


Alex Cobb, like Lynn, was a first-time free agent during the offseason following the 2017 season. After six seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, the 30-year-old needed a new home. However, he entered the market at a curious time. Cobb was one year removed from Tommy John surgery, an operation that cost the right-hander his 2015 and most of his 2016 season. Cobb’s career numbers, however, sided with him. From 2011 to 2017, his 3.50 ERA ranked 35th in baseball. Most teams would sign up for a stable, middle-of-the-rotation pitcher like Cobb, even if he came with an increased risk.

The Chicago Cubs, Twins, Milwaukee Brewers, Rangers, Baltimore Orioles, and Yankees expressed interest in Cobb throughout the offseason. Yet he remained unsigned by the start of spring training. He would stay unsigned until March 20, 2018, finally agreeing to a four-year contract with the Orioles.

Cobb’s delayed signing cost him his spring training. By the time he agreed to terms with the Orioles, the team only had five games left on their spring schedule. Putting Cobb out there so late was a no-go for the O’s. Another sacrifice Cobb had to make was the date of his debut. He needed time to pitch himself into game shape, but the Orioles didn’t have time. Not when their season opener against the Twins was nine days away. Instead, the O’s relied on simulated games to get Cobb up to speed and delayed his first start to April 14 against the Boston Red Sox. But the question remained if these simulated games were fair imitators of the MLB competition awaiting Cobb.

Based on Cobb’s first start, the answer to that question was no. The then 12-2 Red Sox clobbered Cobb, scoring seven earned runs while notching 10 hits, two home runs, and a walk. Cobb wouldn’t survive four innings before departing. While he’d only allow five earned runs in his next start against the Detroit Tigers, the fourth inning eluded Cobb yet again. He wouldn’t eclipse the barrier until his third start of the season against the Rays but at the cost of another five earned runs. By April 25, almost a month after he signed, Cobb’s 13.11 ERA was the highest among all MLB starters with 10 innings or more pitched.

Cobb’s numbers stabilized with time save for the occasional flare-up, whether it was six earned runs against the White Sox, nine earned against the Toronto Blue Jays, five earned against the Seattle Mariners, or six earned to the Yankees. Every time Cobb found himself, another start inflated his ERA and dislodged his footing.

Despite a 2.40 ERA from August to September, Cobb finished 2018 with a career-worst 4.90 ERA. His strong finish didn’t save him from a 5-15 record, 4.79 FIP, 1.411 WHIP, and 83 earned runs, all other career worsts. Of all Baseball Savant’s advanced statistics, Cobb ranked poor to average in everything except his walk rate and ground-ball rate. Cobb ran out of time to improve those metrics and others, ending his season on Sept. 23 after aggravating a blister.

For Cobb and the club, 2018 was a massive letdown. The Orioles entered the season aiming for one last push before the window closed on their contention window. They’d won 519 games from 2012 to 2017, the sixth-most in baseball. Cobb was supposed to be the crowbar on the window sill that kept it open just enough. Instead, they ended with a 47-115 record, 2018’s worst and baseball’s second-worst record in a season since 2000.

Things wouldn’t improve in Baltimore for the duration of Cobb’s stay. The team had 126 wins out of 384 possible games, the least in baseball during Cobb’s three years with the team. He didn’t inherit a good or mediocre situation and then struggled to elevate it. Cobb joined the Orioles as they began one of the worst three-year stretches in the sport’s history.

After escaping Baltimore, Cobb started to resemble his old self. Since 2021, his 3.79 ERA is 46th in baseball, while his 7.9 fWAR is 36th among all qualified starting pitchers. He’s made 74 starts, struck out 380 batters, won 22 games, and made the 2023 All-Star team in his age-35 season. He’s not an elite pitcher, nor did anyone expect him to be following his exit from Baltimore, but Cobb’s salvaged his career and reclaimed a rotation spot so long as his health and play will allow it.




None of this is an exact science. Machado and Harper aren’t Bellinger or Champman. Lynn and Cobb aren’t Snell and Montgomery. These are different players in different circumstances. The play of one player is not and cannot determine the outcome of the others.

These players are not linear or the only examples of late-offseason signings. Trevor Story joined the Red Sox on March 20, 2022, and played just six spring training games ahead of the regular season. Carlos Correa signed with the Twins on March 20, 2022, and played seven spring training games ahead of the regular season. These players had one thing in common with Harper and Machado: A slow start to the season.

They, of course, all responded in different ways. Story remained locked in a slump before prematurely ending his season with career lows in average, OBP, OPS, and OPS+. Correa opened with a .243/.309/.324 slash and a .633 OPS through the first month of the season. He then closed his next 117 games with a .866 OPS and 4.3 fWAR, 30th in baseball over that stretch. Machado flipped the switch in June and July, only to crumble ironically in August and September. Harper found himself in the second half and rode it to a successful 2019.

Greatness isn’t thrown out the window just because a player signs late into the offseason. Machado, Harper, and Correa’s performance indicates there could be a slight delay in reaching it, however. Likewise, that greatness might not be near the ceiling a team signs a player for. At least not initially. Machado, Harper, and Story’s OPS were lower in their first seasons with their new teams than their prior career averages. Correa’s 2019 barely disagrees with the trend. His OPS that season was just .001 points better than his career OPS in the seven years beforehand.

Numerous factors go into that decline, but these players share one commonality: A February or March signing and a somewhat abbreviated spring training. If this holds for Bellinger and Chapman, it could be an ill omen for the two historically streaky players.

Bellinger opened 2023 with a .976 OPS in April-March, then responded with a .585 OPS across his next 25 games. While Bellinger closed the season incredibly strong with a .941 OPS over his next 81 games, inconsistency mars the last few seasons of his career. What made his 2023 season so special is the contrast between it and his past seasons. Teams rightfully had reservations about who Bellinger is long-term. It’s why the Cubs only went three years with the contract and are OK with giving Bellinger opt-outs after each season. They need and want to see Bellinger do it again before they can believe this is who he is now.

Luckily for Bellinger and the Cubs, time is on their side. Bellinger will have the rest of the month to situate himself. This is also not a new situation for the 28-year-old. He knows Chicago, its park, and its players. Unlike the previous examples, he doesn’t have to relocate his entire life and justify his contract. He only has to do the latter.

As for Chapman, his inconsistency is more extreme than Bellinger’s. In April-May of 2023, Chapman slashed an astonishing .384/.465/.687. His 2.0 fWAR and 1.152 OPS led the majors, while his .384 average was second behind Luis Arraez. Chapman looked every bit like a player in a contract year. Over his next 53 games, however, Chapman slashed .201/.275/.332 with a .607 OPS. He went hitless in 20 of those games. It was a stupefying decline for a player who looked like an MVP contender just two months before. Muddling things even more is his play the three months afterward. Chapman exploded with a .908 OPS in July only to return to earth with a .574 OPS and a .185/.259/.315 slash line through August and September.

The four-time Gold Glover is a confounding player prone to some of the best and worst baseball in the sport. He’ll report to San Francisco’s camp sometime this upcoming week and see if he can avoid the pitfalls of years past. Joining a playoff contender like the Giants might help Chapman do just that.

That is one of the more valuable lessons available. If a talented player enters a new situation with a shortened spring training and a subpar roster around him, how can he succeed? Harper succeeded despite his circumstances, Machado more or less played as a result of them, and both only lived up to their contract once the team around them improved. No player can lift the Titanic by themselves, especially if they’re joining a new team with an abbreviated ramp-up on their plate.

Cobb’s 2018 performance only reinforces that. It also shows a negative correlation between a pitcher’s performance and their date of signing. Lance and Cobb combined for a 4.83 ERA after signing late into the offseason. The only pitchers in 2018 with an ERA higher than that were Jon Gray, Dylan Bundy, and Lucas Giolito.

Jake Odorizzi shows similar results to Lynn and Cobb. He signed with the Houston Astros on March 8, 2021, and went on to a 4.21 ERA. One other pitcher who didn’t sign until later in the offseason is Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel is an extreme example, signing well past spring training on June 7, 2019. It’s unlikely Snell or Montgomery will wait that long to sign, but Keuchel shows similar struggles to Lynn, Cobb, and Odorizzi without spring training. His 3.75 ERA in 2019 is in line with his 2018 season. His 2019 4.72 FIP, however, was the then-second-highest mark of his career.


ERAs of February and March Signings

This doesn’t bode well for Snell. Sandwiched between his 2018 and 2023 Cy Youngs is a 3.85 ERA, 54th in baseball during that time. Snell is also no stranger to varied play. Before closing 2023 with a 1.23 ERA over his last 21 starts, he opened the season with a 4.50 ERA over his first 11 starts. He went from the 52nd ERA in baseball over its first two months to the best ERA in baseball over its last four months. It is an incredible turnaround. But who is Blake Snell? Is he a two-time Cy Young winner? Or is Snell a pitcher with two 4.20-plus ERA seasons since 2018? Without further evidence, he is an inconsistently great pitcher whose flaws, in part, have kept him unsigned this deep into the offseason.

Montgomery is a different story. Since starting 30-plus games routinely, the southpaw has seen his ERA decrease season-by-season, from 3.83 in 2021 to 3.48 in 2022 and 3.20 in 2023. He’s only become a better pitcher with time. His 2023 did see some early slippage with a 4.48 ERA through the first two months with St. Louis. That number fell back in line with Montgomery’s career average over the next few months. Montgomery then surpassed those averages once traded to the Rangers. In his 11 starts with the club, Montgomery tallied a 2.79 ERA. Only eight other pitchers had a better ERA over those 11 starts.

With Montgomery presumably asking for less money than Snell, he makes sense for any rotation. Yet Lynn and Cobb could’ve been described similarly as stable, second-tier types of talents before their 2018 regressions. There’s no guarantee that Montgomery can avoid a similar downfall. None of this is to dispute either player’s credentials. Both are incredibly talented pitchers who would upgrade any team they join. Signing them to a long-term deal guarantees normal offseasons in the future that could work to their and the team’s benefit.

History tells us that the longer these pitchers wait, the less likely they are to pitch like the players they were. The regular season is 30 days away. Time is running out for these pitchers to get a normal workload in spring training. The longer they stay unsigned, the shorter their spring training, and possibly the harsher the consequences.

Adapted by Kurt Wasemiller (@KUWasemiller on Twitter / @kurt_player02 on Instagram

Josh Shaw

Josh Shaw graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2022 with a Journalism degree. He's written for The New Hampshire, Pro Sports Fanatics, and PitcherList.

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