Every MLB Team's Best Free-Agent Signing of the Past 5 Years

Ely Sussman@@MrElyminatorCorrespondent INovember 27, 2013

Every MLB Team's Best Free-Agent Signing of the Past 5 Years

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    MLB free agency is a risky business in which veteran players—most of them beyond their physical primes—fight for the biggest payday possible.

    Yet during the past five years, every team has completed at least one successful signing by finding a legitimate bargain through this process. Yes, free agents occasionally do enough to justify their bloated salaries through sheer production or by satisfying a glaring roster deficiency.

    We considered all transactions that were completed from the beginning of the 2008-2009 offseason through end of 2013 regular season.

    As FanGraphs' Dave Cameron admits, "there’s never going to be one way to estimate the market price of a win."

    Although his site's calculations—which compare free-agent contract figures to the Wins Above Replacement that those players are expected to provide—aren't fool-proof, they give us some context as we try to determine whether a player is being overpaid, exploited or receiving appropriate compensation. That's why they've been included beneath the actual deals on each slide.

    The following free-agent moves prove that minor league deals, record-breaking agreements and everything in between can work out well from the club's perspective.

    *Stats provided by Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs unless otherwise specified.

Arizona Diamondbacks: J.J. Putz

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    Contract Terms (Date)two years, $10 million with $6.5 million club option (Dec. 7, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $14.4 million

    The Arizona Diamondbacks should consider themselves fortunate to have seen a solid return after making a multi-year investment in J.J. Putz prior to his age-34 campaign.

    The veteran right-hander came close to reverting to his peak in 2011 and 2012.

    Among all 98 pitchers who logged at least 100 relief innings during those seasons, Putz ranked fifth with a 5.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 2011, specifically, he converted 45 of 49 save opportunities as the D-Backs cruised to an NL West title.

Atlanta Braves: David Ross

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    Contract Terms (Date)two years, $3 million (Dec. 5, 2008)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: 14.4 million

    The Atlanta Braves have gotten into the habit of filling starting roles with homegrown talent or players acquired via trade. Over the past five years, the few exceptions to that haven't provided great bang for the buck.

    But although David Ross was clearly a second-string player, he absolutely thrived in limited opportunities.

    Atlanta inked the journeyman backstop at a very reasonable rate because he was several years removed from his breakout 2006 season.

    From ages 32-33, he posted a .281/.386/.494 batting line (135 OPS+) while gunning down 41 percent of attempting base-stealers.

    In 2010, the second of those seasons, the Braves bolted to an excellent start, and despite a shaky second half, they secured a playoff berth for the first time in a half-decade. That wouldn't have been possible without Ross' tremendous .302/.387/.642 post-All-Star break brilliance.

Baltimore Orioles: Nate McLouth

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    Contract Terms (Date)minor league deal (Jun. 5, 2012)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $5.4 million

    Nate McLouth was sporting a pathetic .140/.210/.175 batting line in his second stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates when the club gave up on its former All-Star.

    A few days after the release, the shockingly relevant Baltimore Orioles came along and stashed him with their Triple-A affiliate.

    McLouth played twice as well following the change of scenery. Literally—his OPS exploded from .385 to .777. And it's because of him that Baltimore overcame Nick Markakis' fractured thumb in September to secure a postseason berth.

    For a prorated portion of the league's minimum salary, the O's snagged a solid everyday outfielder. Moreover, because of McLouth's positive experience with the organization in 2012, he consented to a modest $2 million deal that offseason, which also turned out to be a tremendous bargain (.258/.329/.399, 12 HR, 30 SB in 2013).

Boston Red Sox: Koji Uehara

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    Contract Terms (Date)$4.25 million with $4.25 million vesting option (Dec. 18, 2012)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $16.5 million

    The Boston Red Sox added Koji Uehara as bullpen depth coming off a dominant yet injury-shortened campaign with the Texas Rangers.

    In 2013, however, he would be one of their few veteran relievers who didn't miss any time on the disabled list.

    Joel Hanrahan entered the season as Boston's ninth-inning man, but he immediately struggled and hurt his hamstring. Andrew Bailey seized the job and excelled throughout April...until succumbing to biceps tendinitis. Both would ultimately land on the disabled list again with injuries that would require season-ending elbow and shoulder surgery, respectively.

    And along the way, there was even a brief stretch during which Junichi Tazawa earned a stint as closer instead of Uehara, as noted by Jim Duquette of MLB Network Radio.

    Manager John Farrell wisened up in late June, and the enthusiastic 38-year-old rewarded him with an unforgettable stretch of near-invincibility.

    Uehara set franchise records for best adjusted earned run average (376) and batting average against (.130) among relievers with at least 70 innings pitched in a season. Over his final 22 appearances of the summer, the Japanese right-hander issued zero walks (compared to 31 strikeouts in those 24 innings). The good times kept rolling during Boston's World Series run, as Uehara allowed only one run while being used in 13 of the team's 16 postseason games.

    Winning a championship was obviously the best part of this signing, but retaining Uehara for another year at the same price is also worth celebrating. Reaching free agency following that extraordinary effort would've allowed him to double his salary.

Chicago Cubs: David DeJesus

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    Contract Terms (Date)two years, $10 million with $6.5 million club option (Nov. 30, 2011)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $15.5 million

    The new-look Chicago Cubs front office has stressed the importance of getting on base. That message hasn't really resonated with homegrown regulars like Starlin Castro and Darwn Barney, but David DeJesus definitely fit the system.

    Playing mostly against right-handed pitching, DeJesus batted .258/.343/.403 during his two seasons in the Windy City. He was a versatile defender who saw time at all three outfield positions.

    DeJesus even had enough remaining value midway through 2013 for the rebuilding Cubs to trade him for salary relief.

    General manager Jed Hoyer acknowledges that he was a "great guy in the clubhouse," per Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago.

Chicago White Sox: A.J. Pierzynski

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    Contract Terms (Date)two years, $8 million (Dec. 3, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $20.2 million

    The Chicago White Sox elected to re-sign A.J. Pierzynski coming off a frustrating 2010 season.

    He appeared to be in decline at age 33 after posting a career-worst .300 on-base percentage and only homering nine times (fewest since 2002). His new two-year, $8 million pact seemed about fair for a durable player who was worth about 1.0 WAR per year.

    Pierzynski only marginally improved in 2011, performing slightly better in each of the triple-slash categories, but the next year, his bat truly came alive.

    Sacrificing contact rate for power production, the then-35-year-old mashed 27 home runs and tied a career high with 77 runs batted in. He grounded into fewer double plays than usual and bested his lifetime rate with a 26.2 caught stealing percentage.

    Under first-year manager Robin Ventura, Pierzynski led the overlooked White Sox into contention, and they battled for a playoff berth until the final weekend of the regular season.

Cincinnati Reds: Aroldis Chapman

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    Contract Terms (Date)six years, $30.25 million (Jan. 11, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $27 million

    With Bronson Arroyo now a free agent and Homer Bailey looking like a potential trade candidate, according to MLB.com's Mark Sheldon, we might finally see Aroldis Chapman slide into the Cincinnati Reds starting rotation. That would confirm his signing as an obvious success for the Reds front office.

    Another season of relief work, however, would also validate it.

    Chapman owns a 2.40 earned run average in the big leagues and an outrageous 14.68 K/9. Opponents have batted an anemic .154 against him, and right-handedness doesn't provide much of an advantage.

    There's no understating how valuable the Cuban defector was in 2013 as accomplished teammates like Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall succumbed to injury, weakening the bridge to him in the ninth inning.

Cleveland Indians: Scott Kazmir

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    Contract Terms (Date)minor league deal (Dec. 21, 2012)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $12.7 million

    Ultra-talented Scott Kazmir vanished from the limelight for nearly two full summers, spending most of 2011 at Triple-A and 2012 with an independent team. The former first-round draft pick couldn't understand why his command had deteriorated.

    Fortunately for him, the Cleveland Indians were desperate for starting pitching reinforcements.

    "The Indians need rotation depth," MLB.com's Jordan Bastian wrote in December 2012, "and are willing to roll the dice when it comes to certain reclamation projects. One such case appears to be left-hander Scott Kazmir."

    They gave Kazmir an invitation to spring training, and once recovered from a nagging abdominal strain, the two-time All-Star became an integral member of the club.

    The 29-year-old fell four innings short of qualifying for the ERA title. Otherwise, he would have ranked eighth in the American League in strikeout rate. Kazmir dominated with the platoon advantage, issuing only six walks to the 175 left-handed batters that he faced.

    He peaked in September with three double-digit strikeout games, without which the Indians wouldn't have survived into October.

Colorado Rockies: Miguel Olivo

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $2 million with $2.5 million club option (Jan. 4, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $10.7 million

    Miguel Olivo had substantial defensive value to the 2010 Colorado Rockies, throwing out 42.3 percent of would-be base stealers while starting nearly two-thirds of their games behind the plate.

    He caught 27 of 33 Ubaldo Jimenez's starts during his franchise record-shattering season. Perhaps it's more than coincidence that Jimenez hasn't returned to that level of dominance since.

    The high altitude also helped Olivo achieve a career-best .269 batting average.

Detroit Tigers: Joaquin Benoit

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    Contract Terms (Date)three years, $16.5 million (Nov. 19, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $14.2 million

    Unfortunately, the Detroit Tigers didn't get Joaquin Benoit at the same discount that the Tampa Bay Rays did (more on that later).

    But 199 innings of late-inning elite relief work—2.89 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 9.95 K/9—is very decent production for what they paid him. FanGraphs doesn't consider how awful Detroit's setup and closing alternatives have been.

Houston Astros: Brett Myers

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $3.1 million with $8 million mutual option (Jan. 8, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $20.3 million

    The Houston Astros weren't yet fully committed to rebuilding when the new decade began, but even today, you can imagine them taking the kind of gamble that they did on Brett Myers.

    They paid $3.1 million with the hope that he'd revert to being a mid-rotation innings-eater. Instead, Myers proved himself to be one of baseball's most reliable starters.

    He had a 32-start streak of lasting six-plus innings, interrupted only by his final outing of the regular season. The right-hander ranked fifth in the National League with 223.2 total innings, and the Astros were so impressed, they extended his contract during the season.

Kansas City Royals: Melky Cabrera

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $1.25 million plus incentives (Dec. 10, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $16.8 million

    Melky Cabrera had been rejected by the Atlanta Braves following the 2010 season. He slumped early in the summer and never showed much offensive consistency, finishing with a .255/.317/.354 batting line and losing his everyday role.

    Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals outfield was in need of a thorough makeover, as Scott Podsednik entered free agency and David DeJesus had been dealt to the Oakland Athletics.

    We'll never know how much performance-enhancing drugs influenced Cabrera's performance, but without tripping any wires in the testing process, he had an extraordinary campaign.

    The athletic switch-hitter was one of only six MLB players who batted above .300 and amassed over 700 plate appearances in 2011. He compensated for subpar range in center field with 13 outfield assists, seven of which contributed to double plays.

    That team was among the youngest in Royals history, yet it finished ahead of the Minnesota Twins.

Los Angeles Angels: C.J. Wilson

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    Contract Terms (Date)five years, $77.5 million (Dec. 8, 2011)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $26.3 million

    Let's not sugarcoat the facts: The Los Angeles Angels perennially lose in the game of free agency.

    Their acquisitions of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were flashy yet ill-advised. Veterans that they sign for the short term seemingly always underachieve as well.

    But the risk that L.A. took in locking up C.J. Wilson is panning out much better than most of us recognize.

    He has endured 207.1 innings per season for a depressingly thin Angels rotation. Wilson's velocity has improbably risen compared to where it sat when he was a member of the Texas Rangers, which suggests that his upcoming age 33-35 seasons won't necessarily be any less respectable than his previous two.

    The Angels haven't been finding bargains on the open market, but at least they're getting their money's worth from this left-hander.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Mark Ellis

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    Contract Terms (Date)two years, $8.75 million plus incentives with $5.75 million club option (Nov. 15, 2011)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $21.2 million

    The Los Angeles Dodgers' latest free-agent acquisitions—specifically Zack Greinke, Yasiel Puig and Hyun-jin Ryu—showed tremendous potential during their first seasons with the organization. But it's too soon to determine whether they'll provide positive value over the course of their long-term deals (which will last six, seven and six years, respectively).

    However, Mark Ellis' recently completed stint with the Dodgers was quietly a great success.

    Both Defensive Runs Saved (22) and Ultimate Zone Rating (16.4) adore his fielding at second base. He could've stepped to the plate with a toothpick every time and still justified the terms of his contract.

    Although Ellis didn't produce a high batting average or a lot of extra-base hits, his .264/.328/.357 batting line from 2012-2013 was awfully similar to what typical second basemen provide.

Miami Marlins: Javier Vazquez

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $7 million (Dec. 2, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $14.4 million

    The then-Florida Marlins bought low on Javier Vazquez following a nightmarish season with the New York Yankees.

    In 2010, he had allowed 32 home runs in only 157.1 innings for the New York Yankees. For the first time in his MLB career, Vazquez was relegated to relief work for an extended period.

    The risk didn't pay off initially. Vazquez carried an elevated 7.09 earned run average through 13 starts. Along the way, there were doubts about him remaining in the rotation, and dealing with a death in his family only made the experience more difficult.

    But thanks to a surreal September, he finished the summer with some of the best overall numbers on the Marlins pitching staff (3.69 ERA, 1.18 WHIP in 192.2 IP).

Milwaukee Brewers: Trevor Hoffman

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $6 million plus incentives (Jan. 8, 2009)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $7.3 million

    Even future Hall of Famers have their peaks and valleys.

    Trevor Hoffman posted an uncharacteristically ordinary 3.77 earned run average in 2008 and saved only 30 games, his second-lowest total of the Wild Card Era.

    Late-inning relief pitching had been the Achilles' heel of that year's playoff-bound Milwaukee Brewers. They were elated to acquire someone with his resume to solidify the back end of the bullpen in their pursuit of another October berth.

    Unfortunately, the starting rotation deteriorated without CC Sabathia, dooming the 2009 Brew Crew to a sub-.500 finish, but Hoffman was a bright spot. He converted more than 90 percent of all save opportunities and represented the club at the Midsummer Classic.

Minnesota Twins: Jim Thome

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $1.5 million plus incentives (Jan. 26, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $12.4 million

    Of course Jim Thome was inexpensive entering the 2010 season. He had finished the previous summer as a pinch-hitter with the Los Angeles Dodgers (and an ineffective one at that).

    So the Minnesota Twins saw it as a low-risk/high-reward opportunity. They would start him at designated hitter against some right-handed pitching and hope for a few tape-measure bombs.

    Thome's presence became more valuable than anybody could have envisioned when star first baseman Justin Morneau suffered a season-ending concussion on July 7.

    From that point forward, Thome may have been the best hitter baseball. He slashed .303/.438/.669 with 15 home runs in only 50 games. The Twins won 14 of the final 18 games he started to secure a second straight AL Central title.

    At age 39, Thome finished second only to Morneau with a 178 wRC+ (min. 300 PA).

New York Mets: Marlon Byrd

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    Contract Terms (Date)minor league deal with $700,000 max value (Feb. 1, 2013)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $17.6 million

    Marlon Byrd was smacked with a 50-game drug suspension during his age-34 season, and no MLB team had enough faith in his remaining ability to employ him afterward.

    So, as Newsday's Marc Carig learned, the veteran outfielder finished 2012 in the Mexican League.

    Whatever substance Byrd had in his system wasn't providing much assistance on the field; he batted .210/.243/.245 before serving his time with only one home run in 153 plate appearances. 

    Later that winter, the New York Mets were encouraged by his revamped swing...at least enough to offer a minor league deal.

    However you dissect the numbers, Byrd became one of the Senior Circuit's most productive outfielders. Even before an August trade sent him to the contending Pittsburgh Pirates, he achieved new career highs with 21 round-trippers and an .848 OPS.

New York Yankees: Russell Martin

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $4 million plus incentives (Dec. 15, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $12.4 million

    Russell Martin was arguably the best catcher in the majors from 2007-2008. The expectation was that added experience would only make him more valuable for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    But that projection proved to be tragically false.

    Martin deteriorated into a .249/.350/.330 hitter during the next two seasons. After being limited to only 97 games in 2010, the Dodgers decided not to tender him a contract.

    With Jorge Posada transitioning into a designated hitter, the New York Yankees sorely needed help behind the plate.

    Although Martin never fully reverted to superstar form, the move to Yankee Stadium infused respectable power back into his bat (39 HR from 2011-2012). The injury issues didn't persist, and his defensive prowess was largely responsible for helping New York into the postseason during his two years in pinstripes.

Oakland Athletics: Bartolo Colon

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    Contract Terms (Date)$2 million plus incentives (Jan. 24, 2012)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $10.7 million

    Always pinching pennies, the Oakland Athletics made Bartolo Colon the only notable free-agent reinforcement to their pitching staff prior to the 2012 season.

    He was chubby, nearly 39 years old and coming off a campaign that saw him fade after the All-Star break.

    Despite all those concerning factors, the Dominican right-hander basically replicated his previous year's production for an unproven A's rotation that desperately needed it. His command actually improved—only 23 BB in 152.1 IP—and Colon averaged better than six-and-one-third innings per outing.

    A PED suspension ended his summer abruptly, but Oakland nonetheless qualified for the postseason. Moreover, Colon's positive impact in clubhouse, per MLB.com's Jane Lee, convinced the A's to re-sign him, and he responded with more outstanding (clean) work.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cliff Lee

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    Contract Terms (Date)five years, $120 million plus $27.5 million vesting option (Dec. 15, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $76.9 million

    At the time, this free-agent deal guaranteed Cliff Lee the highest annual salary of any pitcher in the majors.

    In hindsight, it's not much of a stretch to say that he deserved it.

    Goof around with the 2011-2013 leaderboards on FanGraphs and you'll be hard-pressed to find a significant statistical category that doesn't feature Lee toward the top. Among MLB pitchers with at least 500 innings in that span, he's third in ERA, second in FIP and the runaway leader in K/BB.

    Ruben Amaro Jr. has negotiated many head-scratching long-term contracts during his tenure as Philadelphia Phillies general manager (and that has continued this offseason). But this isn't one of them.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Francisco Liriano

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $1 million plus incentives with $5-8 million club option (Feb. 8, 2013)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $15.5 million

    Francisco Liriano was originally in line to receive two years and $12.75 million from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even that eight-figure commitment would've had a great chance to appear on this list considering how much he excelled in 2013.

    After a Christmas-related arm injury forced Pittsburgh to reduce his guarantees, per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, there's no doubt that Liriano was a rare bargain.

    He struggled to hold down a rotation spot with his 2012 teams, but the Pirates didn't have much choice in the matter. Aside from A.J. Burnett, all of their starting options lacked experience, consistent command, durability or some combination of the three.

    The club was slightly above .500 when Liriano made his season debut on May 11, but that wouldn't have lasted much longer without him.

    The 6'2" southpaw allowed two runs or fewer in 19 of his 26 starts, and seven of those were completely scoreless. As Grantland's Jonah Keri details, he was about as tough on left-handed batters as anybody ever has been.

    Unsurprisingly, Liriano received NL Comeback Player of the Year honors.

San Diego Padres: Jon Garland

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $4.7 million with $6.75 million mutual option (Jan. 26, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $2.4 million

    FanGraphs doesn't like the fact that Jon Garland stranded 75.9 percent of all baserunners in 2010 and maintained a .265 batting average on balls in play. It thinks that his 3.47 earned run average wasn't indicative of how poorly he actually pitched.

    And that's absolutely right—Garland's performance proved to be unsustainable.

    Nonetheless, the results were there during his lone summer with the San Diego Padres. In this particular case, FanGraphs doesn't adequately sum up the significance of his contributions.

    Garland's ability to take the mound every five days ensured that the lack of depth in San Diego's rotation wouldn't be exposed. Even in his worst outings, the veteran right-hander always found a way to complete at least four innings so as to not overwork the bullpen.

    The Padres finished with 90 victories, which is their best total in any of the past 15 seasons.

San Francisco Giants: Aubrey Huff

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $3 million (Jan. 10, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $23.7 million

    The 2009 San Francisco Giants had let Tim Lincecum's second straight National League Cy Young Award-winning season go to waste. The front office was motivated to find external help for the NL's 13th-ranked offense.

    Although Aubrey Huff was coming off a summer of sub-replacement-level production, the Giants liked his odds of returning to respectability at age 33.

    Boy, did he ever.

    Huff contributed a career-best .385 on-base percentage while taking 668 plate appearances, his highest total since 2003. He also led the team with 26 home runs and finished seventh in NL MVP voting. Most importantly, of course, the Giants ended a seven-year postseason drought and clinched their first World Series title of the San Francisco era.

    Re-signing the slugger the following winter and expecting comparable production ultimately backfired, but he was originally a tremendous free-agent pickup.

Seattle Mariners: Hisashi Iwakuma

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $1.5 million (Jan. 5, 2012)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $2.4 million

    The signing of Japan's Hisashi Iwakuma during the 2011-2012 offseason was barely acknowledged around the baseball world.

    It's seems as if then-Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge forgot about him too. Despite being perfectly healthy, Iwakuma was used only once out of the bullpen during the first three weeks of his rookie season. MLB.com's Greg Johns questioned whether he would ever earn Wedge's trust.

    The Mariners had fallen out of contention by midseason, but the then-31-year-old right-hander kept fans interested with his shocking dominance as a starter during the season's second half.

    He posted a 2.65 earned run average in his 95 innings as a member of the rotation. That compelled Seattle to finalize a two-year, $14 million contract extension with him immediately after the season.

    Iwakuma caught fire early in 2013, contributing eight quality starts in his first nine tries and seldom issuing walks. September was even more impressive, as he closed out the year with 23 consecutive scoreless innings, as noted by Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times.

    He was an American League All-Star, an AL Cy Young Award finalist and, perhaps most remarkably, the best pitcher on a staff that also included Felix Hernandez.

St. Louis Cardinals: Lance Berkman

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $8 million (Dec. 4, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $20.6 million

    The signing of Lance Berkman by the St. Louis Cardinals raised plenty of eyebrows.

    He had finished 2010 as an unproductive designated hitter on the New York Yankees and the Cards wanted him to be an everyday outfielder? Berkman didn't see any time at the position from 2008-2010, so expectations weren't high heading into his age-35 season.

    The defensive metrics agree that his outfield defense was atrocious, but Big Puma easily compensated for it by batting .301/.412/.547 with a career-best 164 OPS+. He also drove in 11 runs that postseason as St. Louis clinched a championship. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times writes that improved conditioning partially contributed to this rebound.

    Extending Berkman's contract another year turned out poorly for the Cardinals, but there's no denying the success of his original deal.

Tampa Bay Rays: Joaquin Benoit

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    Contract Terms (Date): minor league deal with $1.25 million max value (Feb. 15, 2010) 

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $6.2 million

    Joaquin Benoit was barely one year removed from rotator cuff surgery when the Tampa Bay Rays extended their non-guaranteed offer.

    At the time, MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes noted that Benoit would be a bargain for the club by returning to his 2007 form (2.85 ERA, 9.55 K/9 in 82.0 IP).

    The veteran right-hander gave them so much more.

    Benoit led all qualifying American League relievers in earned run average (1.34) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.82) while setting up for Rafael Soriano. He also stranded 23 of 25 (92 percent) of inherited baserunners. This stellar performance was the difference in the 2010 AL East race, as the Rays eked past the New York Yankees for the division title by a single game.

    Unfortunately for the rest of the league, Benoit was much more ambitious in free agency the following offseason. He eventually received three years and $16.5 million from the Detroit Tigers.

    Honorable Mention: James Loney

Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish

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    Contract Terms (Date)six years, $56 million (Jan. 18, 2012)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $46.8 million

    Besides the contract shown above, the Texas Rangers spent $51.7 million on a posting fee for the right to negotiate with Yu Darvish in the first place.

    Nonetheless, the international attention that Darvish has brought the team—and, of course, his production on the mound—will make the nine-figure investment worthwhile.

    Perhaps it has already.

    The Japanese right-hander has been the stabilizing force in Texas' rotation these past two summers. After finishing third in the 2012 American League Rookie of the Year race (3.90 ERA, 1.28 WHIP in 191.1 IP), he took a massive leap into Cy Young Award contention (2.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP in 209.2 IP). And at age 27, there's no reason to expect any deterioration in his filthy repertoire.

Toronto Blue Jays: Edwin Encarnacion

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $2.5 million with $3.5 million club option (Dec. 16, 2010)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $23.4 million

    Edwin Encarnacion arrived north of the border in 2009 with a sour reputation.

    He was the once-coveted prospect who hadn't progressed as planned. His numbers had dipped since batting .276/.359/.473 as a 23-year-old, and he continued to perform sloppily at third base.

    Encarnacion entered free agency in November 2010 after making minimal progress with the Toronto Blue Jays, but they were still committed. The club moved him across the diamond, allowing him to focus on his promising swing.

    During that option year, his potential finally showed up.

    Encarnacion bolstered the heart of Toronto's lineup with a .280./384/.557 batting line and 42 home runs. Genuine superstar numbers.

    As an indirect result of that re-signing, the Blue Jays now have an elite slugger locked into a team-friendly three-year, $29 million extension.

Washington Nationals: Edwin Jackson

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    Contract Terms (Date)one year, $11 million plus incentives (Feb. 3, 2012)

    FanGraphs Value Approximation: $10.1 million

    Edwin Jackson's performance was often overshadowed on the 2012 Washington Nationals.

    All the other starting pitchers on that team had lower earned run averages, winning records and later birth dates. And Jackson was least effective in September and October when the Nats needed him most.

    However, the right-hander had an enormous responsibility, filling out the rotation with an organization that lacked minor league depth. Providing league-average numbers over 189.2 innings was substantially better than Washington could've gotten from John Lannan or Chien-Ming Wang.

    Jackson certainly didn't carry the NL East champions, but his durability kept them in cruise control.

    Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.