MLB Free Agency: Ranking the 15 Best Bidding Wars in MLB History

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IJanuary 2, 2012

MLB Free Agency: Ranking the 15 Best Bidding Wars in MLB History

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    Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last month, spurning at least two very viable contenders in the process. He got a total of $250 million in guaranteed money for 10 years of field service. The pursuit of Pujols took twist after dramatic turn throughout the Winter Meetings in Dallas that week.

    Prince Fielder should be more fun, though. Whereas Pujols created a heated contest, Fielder could conjure a full-on bidding war. No one is better at creating such an environment than Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, and as Boras and Fielder wait out the market, the contenders and rebuilders in 2012 come into clearer focus. 

    The Washington Nationals might have become a much more viable Fielder suitor when they acquired Gio Gonzalez, thereby making their starting rotation contention-ready. The Toronto Blue Jays inch ever closer to their competitors in the AL East. The Miami Marlins get progressively more desperate to make one last splash and really change their outlook. 

    Twitter has made such battles more and more fun to watch with each passing winter. Free-agent auctions, enigmatic, foreign postings and trade negotiations flavored by different packages from different sources lend delightful drama to the long months without baseball. It's even more fun when division rivals lock horns over a key asset. Here are the 15 most delicious and gripping bidding wars in MLB history.

15. Greg Maddux, 1992

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    Miscommunication mingled with miserliness were the factors that prevented the Chicago Cubs from re-signing reigning NL Cy Young award winner Greg Maddux after the 1992 season. They made only a token offer once he hit the open market.

    That was when the fun started. The widespread assumption heading into the Winter Meetings that December was that the New York Yankees would outspend everyone and snag Maddux as the crown jewel of a quick turnaround in the Bronx.

    If it were up to the Yankees, that's precisely the way it would have played out. They certainly made the heftiest offer monetarily to get Maddux.

    The hurler, however, valued the chance to play for a contender above money and chose to sign with the Atlanta Braves instead. This was one of the first major instances of dramatic competition for a free agent between teams at the Winter Meetings. Interestingly, though Barry Bonds eventually signed an even richer contract than Maddux; no such atmosphere of obsessive pursuit blossomed around him. The San Francisco Giants more or less bid themselves up to $45 million on Bonds.

14. Rich Reichardt, 1964

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    Once upon a time, there was no MLB draft. Acquiring amateur talent was either about finding a hidden gem and keeping the secret, or about bidding top dollar for the nation's elite high school and collegiate ball players.

    So tantalizing was Rick Reichardt, though, that he broke the system. The bidding war he incited with his play at the University of Wisconsin involved virtually every team in the league, and when Reichardt signed for $200,000, he broke the camel's back. In 1964, he got his money from the Los Angeles Angels. In 1965, MLB held its first amateur draft.

13. Manny Ramirez, 2000

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    During the winter of 2000-01, MLB owners served up some very wealthy contracts. That might be an understatement, but another chance to better explain that situation is soon to come.

    In the meantime, consider Ramirez. At the close of his tenure with the Cleveland Indians, Ramirez had a .313/.407/.592 batting line and had won two consecutive OPS titles in the American League. He leveraged that into a wild free-for-all for his rights, one the Red Sox won when they overwhelmed the Indians and New York Yankees. The total came to $160 million over eight years. The pull quote came at Ramirez's introductory press conference.

    "I'm just tired to see New York always win," Ramirez said.

12. Johan Santana, 2008

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    The Minnesota Twins offered their ace pitcher, Johan Santana, a four-year contract worth $80 million in 2007. Santana turned it down. That sealed his fate.

    That summer, and again beginning in November, the Twins toyed with proposals from the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and New York Mets. It was a three-way duel for a truly special talent between the three teams of greatest means in all of MLB. 

    The Twins chose the wrong package. They got Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey and Phil Humber from the Mets, passing up what the Red Sox were offering: Jon Lester, Coco Crisp, Justin Masterson and Jed Lowrie. The Mets never got over the hump, and now Santana is fighting to recover from an injury that held him out for all of 2011.

    Therein lies the delightful Schadenfreude of bidding wars: The victories are sometimes, if not often, Pyrrhic ones.

11. Catfish Hunter, 1974-75

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    Catfish Hunter was a free agent before such a thing even truly existed. Special circumstances made Hunter a free man after the 1974 season, at which point he was 28 years old, had led the American League in wins and ERA the previous year and owned three championship rings from the last three seasons.

    The San Diego Padres and Kansas City Royals were the immediate favorites for Hunter. They were expansion franchises, but each had been around six seasons by then and would have loved to finally take a big step forward with a major acquisition. They made the highest offers to Hunter.

    Hunter, however, had other ideas. The New York Yankees wooed him with an offer for less dough but with more security and more endorsement opportunities. On top of that, the Yankee mystique, the chance to keep winning and New York prestige appealed to Hunter.

    He chose the pinstripes, beginning a Yankee revival that would net two World Series rings within four years of Hunter's arrival. This wasn't the first bidding war the Yankees won, but even today, it ranks among the most important.

10. Aroldis Chapman, 2009-10

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    If any single skill can turn an enigmatic, unproven player into a hot commodity overnight, it's velocity. When Aroldis Chapman defected from Cuba and became an international free agent, teams clamored for his 100-plus miles-per-hour fastball from the left side.

    The Cincinnati Reds snuck up on some people in that race. The Florida Marlins, New York Yankees and others were favorites. Chapman, though, presented a fair amount of risk in addition to his upside. With shaky command and little experience or polish for a pitcher his age, Chapman projected best as a reliever, and the Reds bid highest for that package: four years, $30 million.

9. CC Sabathia, 2008-09

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    After winning four World Series in five years from 1996-2000, the Yankees hit a long dry spell—at least for them. It was eight years already without a new batch of rings, and five since they even won a pennant, when the 2008 season ended without so much as a playoff berth.

    Had Joe Girardi been more than a year on the job at that point, he might well have been fired. Instead, the Yankees went out and bought Girardi a shiny new team, one more than capable of bringing back the Yankee mystique as Hunter would have remembered it.

    Sabathia was the linchpin of their aggressive strategy. He heard plenty from his hometown Giants, the Angels and a few other clubs, but after weeks of surprisingly personal, face-to-face meetings with a number of teams, Sabathia wrung enough cash out of New York to get the deal done at seven years and $161 million.

8. A.J. Burnett, 2008

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    When you have a press conference in which you simultaneously announce the arrival of two players, you're having a busy winter. When the two signed for a combined cost north of $240 million, you're either the 2008-09 New York Yankees or the 2011-12 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

    Burnett was an interesting case, because he sparked an almost wholly interdivisional scramble. The Toronto Blue Jays, for whom he had toiled for in 2008, made only a token effort, and several other teams around the league did the same, but the bulk of the wrangling and racing to snag Burnett came down to the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. It was a fierce one, and though it might not feel like it these days, the Yankees won.

7. Mark Teixeira, 2008

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    Six days after introducing Sabathia and Burnett, the Yankees cashed in one last set of chips and shoved them into the "2009" space on the MLB craps table. They signed Mark Teixeira two days before Christmas in 2008 to a massive $180 million deal and held his big press conference in January. 

    Cursing under their breath as they watched that event were the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and a few others. Scott Boras hyped Teixeira as the consummate professional, a terrifically well-rounded player and a franchise leader. He drummed up interest in so many corners that the Yankees had to pay a price they will clearly regret on the back half of this deal just to lock down their man.

6. Alex Rodriguez, 2003-04

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    Alex Rodriguez hit 156 home runs in just three seasons as a Texas Ranger. He won the 2003 AL MVP award. It certainly wasn't his fault that gross financial mismanagement made him an untenable asset for the Rangers after that season.

    It was clear once Rodriguez hit the market that he would make any team in baseball better, but it was also clear that only two teams—the Yankees and Red Sox—would be able to take on even a sufficiently substantial portion of Rodriguez's huge contract in order to get a deal done.

    The two teams spent weeks battling to be the one who got the deal done. It was an odd bidding war, though, in that both teams recognized the Rangers' utter lack of leverage and exploited it. It became a low-baller's bidding war, really, an effort to see which titan could grab one of the game's truly elite talents without giving up much. The Yankees won, of course, and although they gave up a great player (at the time) in Alfonso Soriano to get him, the price seemed an easy one to pay.

5. Cliff Lee, 2010

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    Of course, the Yankees can't win every bidding war, and that has become starkly evident the past few years. If this group never wins another pennant, they may well look back at December 2010 as a pivotal time.

    The Texas Rangers (led by Lee) had just bounced the Yankees from the AL playoffs, and a rivalry was already frothing nicely by the time Texas lost the World Series to the San Francisco Giants. The two sides publicly sniped each other for weeks, with quotes by executives making news and each side leaking negative rumors about the other's chances to land Lee.

    The Yankees offered Lee the most money, but Texas seemed a better intangible fit. It was closer to home for Lee, and he had enjoyed his time there...


    That's about the way it happened. During the Winter Meetings in December, Jon Heyman (then of Sports Illustrated) began floating the idea that a mystery team was trying to undercut the Yanks AND the Rangers and nab Lee. No one lent that idea much credence, though, until suddenly, it all came true: Lee signed with the Phillies for five years and $120 million, citing the great time he had had the previous time around.

4. Yoenis Cespedes, 2011-12

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    Although Cespedes will get to choose his suitor, not the other way around, the past month it has felt like MLB teams were lining up along the border of some previously unincorporated territory, waiting for it to be opened to commerce so as to stake their rightful claim immediately when it does open.

    The Blue Jays, Yankees, Marlins, White Sox, Red Sox and Cubs are the most serious reported suitors, but it seems like a dozen or more teams have done serious leg work on the young outfielder and Cuban defector. The Marlins seem to be to Cespedes as the Sooners were to Oklahoma, in a way, already over the fence and making real contact before Cespedes is even officially declared a free agent. That's all speculation, though. For now, it's about waiting, watching—and teams constantly formulating their best number in what could be a more lucrative bidding war than Chapman's.

3. Alex Rodriguez, 2000

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    As Manny Ramirez helped illustrate, MLB owners were unabashed spenders in the winter of 2000-01. Alex Rodriguez made one of those owners a very happy, if later a remorseful, man. 

    Rodriguez got $252 million from Tom Hicks and the Texas Rangers (over 10 years). The money didn't come only from ardent competition between the highest-revenue squads, though, it certainly didn't hurt. Rather, it was the tireless self-promotion campaign by Rodriguez and Scott Boras that made Texas decide to give Rodriguez such a huge deal. To sign it, he spurned a number of teams with whom he could have chased a championship or two.

2. Daisuke Matsuzaka, 2006

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    Free-agent scrums can be fun, and the bartering element of trade discussions make them great talk radio fodder. For sheer drama, though, it's impossible to match the posting system for elite Japanese talent who have not yet earned the right to come stateside as free agents.

    Daisuke Matsuzaka blew away all the records in 2006, when the Boston Red Sox ponied up $51,111,111 just for the rights to negotiate with him. The New York Mets bid second highest, some $12 million behind, but that's the real fun of the system. It's purely a blind auction, meaning any team may submit a bid, and no team may know in advance of making their own submission what any other club is thinking in terms of the value of those rights.

1. Yu Darvish

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    Darvish only scarcely cost more in posting fees than did Matsuzaka, but the hype and hoopla surrounding his impending arrival felt like double that of Matsuzaka's.

    Darvish is wildly popular in Japan, more popular than any previous Japanese import. He's young, has dreamy stuff and obscene numbers in Japanese League baseball, and offered a huge marketing boost to whomever won his rights. Twitter also fed the frenzy and made it as feverish a bidding process as one can imagine.

    Despite all the gains the Blue Jays stood to make had they been the ones to lure Darvish, the Texas Rangers eked them out. They landed Darvish for nearly $52 million.