This time of the year, the biggest news in baseball revolves around the Free Agents who are available and the teams that are chasing them. Teams continue to give big contracts to players that then fail to live up to their advance billing more often than not.
Examples of such signings are not hard to find. The Red Sox, for example, signed Tampa Bay outfielder Carl Crawford to a long term contract in 2011, giving him $142. Million for 7 years. While at Tampa Bay, from 2002 through 2010, Crawford had averaged .296 a year. In his first year at Boston, 2011, he hit just .255 with 11 homers and 56 runs batted in while playing just 130 games. The Red Sox were fortunate to unload him and his contract, along with Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez, to Dodgers, in a blockbuster trade on August 25, 2012.
In five years with the Texas Rangers, Josh Hamilton averaged .305 a year and hit a total of 142 homers and drove in 506 runs, over 100 a year. On December 25, 2012, the Los Angeles Angels signed him as a Free Agent with a 5 year contract for $125 million. After two years, in which he hit just .255 with a total of 31 homers and 123 RBI, the Angels traded him back to the Rangers where he played just 50 games and hit .253 with 8 homers and 25 RBI in 2015. As part of the trade agreement, the Angels picked up $71. million of his salary over the first three years back in Texas. After his poor showing in 2015, he did not play at all in 2016 or 2017 and the Angels still had to pay his salary.
Jacoby Ellsbury played center field for seven years for the Red Sox and batted .297, stole 241 bases in that time and, in 2013, with the Sox winning the World Series hit .298 and led the league in steals with 52.
At the end of the 2013 season, Ellsbury signed a seven year contract with the Yankees for $148 million. In his first four years at New York, he batted just .264 and, in 2018 and 2019, he missed the entire season due to injury, but the Yankees still had to pay his $21. Million salary. The Yankees recently released him and are involved in a dispute over whether they should have to pay him his final year’s salary in the coming season.
Not all Free Agent signings are such failures. There have been many cases where teams have signed players to large Free Agent contracts and have gotten more than their money’s worth. One such example is the signing by the Arizona Diamondbacks of Randy Johnson in 1998.
After 10 years with the Seattle Mariners, during which he won 130 games and lost 74 and compiled a 3.42 earned run average, Randy Johnson was traded to the Houston Astros on July 31, 1998. Before being traded, Johnson had won 9 and lost 10 with a 4.33 ERA, and, at 34 and in his Free Agent Year, Seattle opted to trade him and get something for him rather than lose him to Free Agency.
In return for Johnson, Seattle got right handed pitcher Freddy Garcia, who won 17 and lost 8 in 1999, Carlos Guillen, a 22 year old infielder, who would hit .264 in six years with Seattle and John Halama, a 26 year old, left handed pitcher, who, in four years at Seattle wo
With Houston, Johnson went 10-1 in 11 starts, with four compete game shutouts, leading the Astros to the National League Western Division Championship. In the playoffs, the Astros lost to San Diego in three games to one. Jonson, despite giving up just three earned runs in fourteen innings, lost Games 1 and 4 of that series.
At season’s end, the Texas Rangers, Anaheim Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers, all of who had had winning seasons the previous year, were in a bidding war for Johnson. Instead, Johnson opted to sign with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks who had finished in last place with a 65 and 97 record in 1998, their first year in the league. On December 12, 1998, he signed a four year, $52. million dollar contract which, at the time, was the second largest ever. The agreement also included a fifth year option which would pay him $12 million, at age 40.
Many pundits speculated that, at 35 years of age, the Diamondbacks may have made a mistake with the four year contract.
On June 14th, Johnson had won 9 and lost 2, had an ERA of 2.96, had struck out 151 batters in 116 innings and the Diamondbacks were in first place by three games and went on to win the Division by 14 games in just their second year in existence. He ended the season with 17 wins and 9 losses and led the league in complete games, 12, strikeouts, 271, and innings pitched, 271 2/3. He was named the National League Cy Young Award winner, his second Cy Young Award. (He had won his first with Seattle in 1995 and, with the 1999 win, joined Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Gaylord Perry, Roy Halladay and Max Scherzer as the only pitchers who have won the Award in both the American and National Leagues.
D’Backs lost to the Mets, three games to one, in the Division Series and Johnson started and lost Game 1. He went 8 1/3 innings and went into the ninth inning tied 4-4 but loaded the bases with one out and was relieved by Bobby Chouinard who gave up a grand slam to Edgardo Alfonzo and Diamondbacks lost the game 8-4.
In 2000, Johnson finished with a 19-7 record and a 2.64 ERA and led the league in complete games, 8, shutouts, 3, and strikeouts, 347. He won his second consecutive CY Young Award, easily outpolling the Atlanta Braves’ Tom Glavine. The Diamondbacks finished in third place with a record of 85-77, not a bad record for a team in just its third year of existence.
Johnson continued to produce for Arizona in 2001. He won 21 and lost just 6 while his teammate Curt Schilling won 22 and lost 6 and they led the Diamondbacks to a 92-70 season, winning the National League West. Johnson led the league in strikeouts again with 372 and won his third consecutive Cy Young Award.
They bested the St. Louis Cardinals in five games in the Division Series, took the Atlanta Braves in five games in the Championship Series and met the Yankees in one of the most exciting World Series of all time.
the Division Series, Schilling won Games one and five, pitching complete games in both outings and giving up just one earned run in 18 innings. Johnson started Game two and gave up three runs in eight innings as the Diamondbacks lost 4-1.
Johnson won Games one and five in the League Championship Series, with a complete game, three hit shutout of the Braves in Game one and gave up two runs on seven hits in seven innings of Game five to win 3-2. Schilling won Game three, pitching a complete game four hitter while giving up just one run in Arizona’s 5-1 win.
Schilling started Game one against the Yankees and gave up one run on three hits in seven innings as the D’Backs won 9-1. Johnson came right back in Game two with a three hit, complete game shutout as the Diamondbacks went up two games to one. The Yankees then won three in a row in New York, two of them in extra innings. Back in Arizona for Game six, down three games to two, Johnson went seven innings, giving up two runs as the D’Backs evened the series with a 15-2 victory.
In the finale, Schilling started and went 7 1/3 innings before leaving behind 2-1. After his relief, Miguel Batista, got the second out in the eighth, Johnson came out of the bullpen and got the third out and, after the Yankees’ Mariano Rivers set the D’Backs down in the eighth, Johnson got the Yankees in order in the top of the ninth. In the last of the ninth, aided by Rivera’s wild throw into centerfield trying to get a double play, Arizona got two for the walk off Series win. Luis Gonzalez singled to center with the bases loaded and the game tied at 2-2 to score Jay Bell with the winning run and the D’Backs had won the World Series in just their fourth year in existence.
Johnson got the win, his third in the Series and he and Schilling were named joint winners of the MVP Award.
the fourth year of his contract, the magic continued. He won 24 and lost just five, leading the league with a 2.32 ERA and also led in complete games, 8, innings pitched 260, strikeouts 334 and also won his fourth consecutive Cy Young Award to join Atlanta’s Greg Maddux as the only two pitchers ever to win four in a row.
He would pitch two more years for the Diamondbacks before being traded to the New York Yankees where he pitched until he was 45 and ended his career with 303 wins and 166 losses. Only Roger Clemens, with seven Cy Young Awards has more than Johnson’s five, the second most by any pitcher.
That performance gets my vote as the best Free Agent signing ever.