Buying Wins: 10 Times Free-Agent Spending Sprees Paid Off

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2017

Buying Wins: 10 Times Free-Agent Spending Sprees Paid Off

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    The Miami Heat changed the NBA by signing Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010.
    The Miami Heat changed the NBA by signing Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    The saying "money can't busy happiness" means well, but its validity depends on how much joy sports fan derive from witnessing winning.

    Plenty of teams have reached the mountaintop with shrewd drafting and player development. And plenty of other eager buyers have flopped in their attempt to purchase a title. Yet, it's a fallacy to believe spending doesn't lead to success.

    The dollar wields great power. An organization willing and able to spend millions of them can overcome other shortcomings, even if it's only a short-term fix. 

    There's a reason the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have won more than the Tampa Bay Rays. It takes intelligence to invest in the right guys, but not all clubs possess the privilege of handling such responsibility. 

    Franchises often overpay for free agents, who are finally capitalizing on their negotiating power after starting their careers under team control. In some instances, however, a crop of signings all yield immediate returns. When combined with in-grown talent and some smart trades, those hired guns can take their new employers to the next level.

    Limiting the search to the 2000s, let's identify some signing bonanzas which offered an immediate return on investment.

Arizona Diamondbacks (1999-2001)

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    Randy Johnson won four NL Cy Young Awards after signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
    Randy Johnson won four NL Cy Young Awards after signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Most expansion franchises endure a long deluge before joining the playoff picture. The Arizona Diamondbacks, on the other hand, won 100 games during their second season and beat the formidable New York Yankees in the World Series two years later.

    They achieve immediate success not with rapid player development but aggressive spending on the free-agent and trade fronts.

    Despite going 65-97 in their inaugural season, they signed 35-year-old ace Randy Johnson to a four-year, $52 million deal. Imagine the criticism that would have incited had Twitter existed, as nobody would have anticipated him winning four-consecutive National League Cy Young Awards.

    Trades for Curt Schilling and Luis Gonzalez gave the young franchise three superstars, and they paid for center fielder Steve Finley as well as Johnson in 1999. Carrying out a win-now strategy, they added more experienced offense in 2001 by signing Reggie Sanders and Mark Grace, who respectively ranked second and third behind Gonzalez in OPS among regular starters.

    Every starting position-player was aged 30 or older, and 29-year-old Brian Anderson represented the rotation's youngster. Per USA Today, the Diamondbacks held the eighth-highest payroll the year they upset baseball's most expensive club in a memorable seven-game series.

Phoenix Suns (2004-06)

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    Steve Nash orchestrated all-time great NBA offenses after signing with the Phoenix Suns.
    Steve Nash orchestrated all-time great NBA offenses after signing with the Phoenix Suns.Noah Graham/Getty Images

    History isn't kind to Mike D'Antoni's "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns. That's what happens when an organization eschews current norms without producing a championship. Yet, those teams deserve praise for amplifying the pace and winning a bunch of games.

    D'Antonio found the perfect man to run his ahead-of-the-time offense when he poached Steve Nash from the Dallas Mavericks in 2004. they went 232-96 during the duo's four seasons together, leading the league in scoring three straight years and earning two trips to the Western Conference Finals.

    Nash wasn't Phoenix's only outside addition. In 2004, the club also landed restricted free agent Quentin Richardson, who averaged 14.1 points and 6.1 rebounds during his only season with the team.

    After trading him to the New York Knicks, they Suns signed Raja Bell. The shooting guard stuck around for four seasons as a much-needed defensive enforcer alongside the offensive-minded Nash.

    Their legacies changed when the NBA controversially suspended Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench after San Antonio Spurs forward Robert Horry checked Nash into the scorer's table. With the semifinals series tied at 2-2, the Suns scored 85 points in a crushing Game 5 loss.

    During that four-year window, they earned four fewer regular-season victories than the Spurs. Even though they never lasted to the Finals, Nash vaulted them to elite heights.

Detroit Red Wings (2005-08)

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    Defenseman Brian Rafalski amassed 55 points during his first season with the Detroit Red Wings, which culminated in a Stanley Cup title.
    Defenseman Brian Rafalski amassed 55 points during his first season with the Detroit Red Wings, which culminated in a Stanley Cup title.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Years of fruitful free-agent signings culminated in a 2008 Stanley Cup championship for the Detroit Red Wings.

    In 2005, they secured several players who contributed to their title run three years later. Following two seasons as their second-string goalie, Chris Osgood delivered in a larger role. After splitting regular-season starting duties with 43-year-old Dominik Hasek—whom they signed before the 2006-07 campaign—he seized the full spotlight by allowing 30 goals over 19 spectacular playoff games.

    From the same free-agent class, wingers Dan Cleary and Mikael Samuelsson registered 42 and 40 points, respectively, during their title-winning season.

    Two years later, Brian Rafalski completed the puzzle. The former New Jersey Devils defenseman produced 42 assists and a career-high 13 goals during the season before tallying 14 postseason points. 

    Most franchises fall into complacency after winning it all, but the Red Wings reloaded by signing Marian Hossa to a one-year deal. With considerable help from his team-high 40 goals, they came one victory shy of earning back-to-back titles. Young hotshots Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin instead loudly announced their arrival, as the Pittsburgh Penguins rallied from down 3-2 to seize the Stanley Cup.

    Detroit also owes its success to drafting Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively, in the late 1990s, but a string of successful signings cemented it as an NHL force during the 21st century's opening decade.

New York Yankees (2009)

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    C.C. Sabathia saved a floundering New York Yankees rotation and dominated throughout the 2009 playoffs.
    C.C. Sabathia saved a floundering New York Yankees rotation and dominated throughout the 2009 playoffs.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    How could this list exist without the Yankees?

    Despite their deep pockets, they won four championships from 1996-2000 with homegrown stars Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. The Core Four were still around in 2008, but a poor rotation pushed them out of the postseason for the first time since 1994.

    They narrowly missed the cut at 89-73, but the Evil Empire wasn't going to sit back and hope for better breaks. Instead, they opened their wallets and made three major signings to catapult back to the top.

    New York replaced Jason Giambi with Mark Teixeira, a far superior defensive first baseman who hit 39 home runs during his debut season. Realizing the starting staff needed front-line talent to accompany the declining Pettitte, they signed C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

    Before becoming another cautionary Yankees' pitching signee, Burnett recorded a solid 4.04 ERA and 195 strikeouts over 207 innings. Sabathia, meanwhile, ended their search for a sturdy ace, registering a 3.37 ERA over 230 frames. The workhorse also carried them through October with a 1.98 postseason ERA.

    The Yankees paid a price for their lavish spending. Burnett recorded an ERA above 5.00 in 2010 and 2011 before reviving his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Teixeira recorded a minus-1.1 WAR, per FanGraphs, in 2016 before retiring. Although Sabathia held his own with a 3.91 ERA last season, he hasn't pitched like a $25-million ace since 2012.

    Yet, fans won't lament any of those additions, who immediately merited their bloated contracts by guiding the Bronx Bombers to their 27th championship.

Miami Heat (2010-11)

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    Chris Bosh and LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade to form a short-lived Miami Heat dynasty.
    Chris Bosh and LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade to form a short-lived Miami Heat dynasty.Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Free-agent sprees are rare in the NBA, where a salary cap stifles spending as all teams search for one superstar rather than multiple upgrades. The Miami Heat, however, pulled off the heist of the century by signing Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James in the summer of 2010.

    Retaining Wade was no certainty. He joined the Chicago Bulls last offseason, but it wouldn't have surprised folks if he went to his hometown six years ago. The star guard recently said, per ESPN.com's Nick Friedell, that he and James considered going to the Windy City together, but Miami had more cap space to also bring Bosh into the fold:

    This was a place that I wanted to play. This was a place that Bron also loved. We loved the city of Chicago. It's a great market as well, so yeah. Obviously, the sunny sun of Miami is great too. We had two great choices. It pretty much boiled down to what we felt that we could -- we had to build a whole team in Miami. Obviously here they had players already. But once we got me, Bron and Chris, we had to now take pay cuts, we had to build a team. It was obviously tougher to do it in Miami but because we wanted to play together, us three, we decided to do it there.

    It's rare enough to persuade a perennial All-Star in his prime like Bosh to jump ship for less money. Before blossoming as an underappreciated third wheel, he averaged 24.0 points and 10.8 rebounds during his final season with the Toronto Raptors.

    But James may have proved the best free-agent signing ever, from any sport, if he stayed in South Beach longer.

    The Heat had little money left, but Mike Miller, Eddie House and Zydrunas Ilgauskas all hopped on the bandwagon to get a ring. After losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, they added Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis over the following two years. Those vital veterans helped them secure two titles.

Manchester City (2011-12)

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    Sergio Augero has scored 154 goals since transferring to Manchester City.
    Sergio Augero has scored 154 goals since transferring to Manchester City.IAN KINGTON/Getty Images

    Entering 2011, Manchester City hadn't captured an English football title in 44 years. Eager to gain Premier League relevancy, new ownership spent with abandon.

    The Sky Blues had not earned a top-three Premier League finish before Abu Dhabi United Group purchased the club in 2008. As noted by Daily Mail's Craig Hope in 2014, they spent over $200,000 more than runner-up Chelsea in transfers during a five-year window that included two championships.

    City snapped the title drought in 2011-12 following a signing spree led by Sergio Aguero, whom they purchased from La Liga's Atletico Madrid for £38 million. The striker scored 23 goals, the last of which clinched the Premier League title in extra time of their final game.

    That dramatic winner will define his legacy, but the 28-year-old has also pulled into third place on their all-time goals leaderboard (154) behind Eric Brook (178) and Tommy Johnson (166). Although 20-year-old Stefan Savic never met the hype, fellow 2011 transfer Samir Nasri doled out nine assists for the champions.

    Because of their lavish spending, they have alternated between first- and second-place finishes over the past four years. Currently tied for third with Tottenham in the 2016-17 table, they're in the hunt for another top placing.

Boston Red Sox (2013)

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    The 2013 Boston Red Sox bolstered their lineup with unheralded upgrades led by Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino.
    The 2013 Boston Red Sox bolstered their lineup with unheralded upgrades led by Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino.Winslow Townson/Getty Images

    To keep up with their deep-pocketed rivals, the Boston Red Sox have signed several marquee stars over the years. Some (Carl Crawford and Pablo Sandoval) have backfired, and David Price's seven-year deal didn't start on a high note.

    Chasing the biggest name doesn't always work. Boston should know this after jumping from last place to MLB champions following a string of successful mid-tier signings.

    In their biggest agreement before the 2013 season, they inked outfielder Shane Victorino to a three-year, $39 million pact. Despite failing to stay healthy during the second and third years, he validated the move in his inaugural season by batting .294/.351/.451 with a 5.9 FanGraphs WAR.

    Signed for $9.5 million, Stephen Drew delivered above-average offense and spectacular defense at shortstop. Mike Napoli notched an .842 OPS, and Koji Uehara morphed into a lethal late-inning reliever with a 1.09 ERA and 0.57 WHIP.

    Throw in solid production from veterans Ryan Dempster and Jonny Gomes, and Boston improved from 69 to 97 victories before defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. After unloading Crawford, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez—a star who swayed the Los Angeles Dodgers to assume the two other enormous salaries—the Red Sox replenished with depth around David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester.

    New team president Dave Dombrowski has not taken the same path, instead acquiring expensive, high-profile talent.

Denver Broncos (2014)

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    Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward helped turned the Denver Broncos into a defensive dynamo.
    Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward helped turned the Denver Broncos into a defensive dynamo.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The Denver Broncos made one of the most significant free-agent moves ever when they hired Peyton Manning in 2012. With the legendary quarterback under center instead of Tim Tebow, they rattled off two 13-win seasons.

    Yet, they fell short of netting Manning his second ring. As he threw 55 touchdowns in a record-torching 2013 campaign, the defense rated No. 19 in yards allowed and No. 22 in points relinquished. Team president John Elway responded by throwing money at the lagging unit.

    It worked. DeMarcus Ware ignited a quiet pass rush with 10 sacks. Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward shored up the secondary with six combined interceptions. All three additions represented the No. 3-ranked defense with Pro Bowl bids.

    In order to afford those upgrades, they signed Emmanuel Sanders instead of retaining Eric Decker. The former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver set career highs in receptions (101), receiving yards (1,404) and touchdowns (nine) in 2014.

    Denver technically regressed, logging back-to-back 12-4 seasons. Yet, the 2015 campaign ended with an elite defense dragging a diminished Manning across the finish line with a convincing Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers.

Barcelona (2014)

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    Luis Suarez has led Barcelona to multiple titles in two years since transferring from Liverpool.
    Luis Suarez has led Barcelona to multiple titles in two years since transferring from Liverpool.Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

    Replacing Sandro Rosell—who resigned amid an investigation of Neymar's club transfer—as Barcelona's president in 2014, Josep Maria Bartomeu wasted no time purchasing a top squad.

    They spent over €157 million on seven players, most notably star forward Luis Suarez. His €81.7 million resides behind Neymar as the sixth-most expensive soccer transfer ever, via Fox Sports' Alex Dowd.

    On Wednesday, the 29-year-old striker scored his 100th career goal for the club, who have won the last two La Liga titles. Ivan Rakitic and Jeremy Mathieu have also remained noteworthy contributors.

    Following these transfers, they won the UEFA Super Cup, La Liga and Copa del Rey championships in consecutive years, adding a FIFA Club World Cup crown in 2015. They are currently third, but within striking distance of Real Madrid and Sevilla in the La Liga standings.

    Barcelona already had Lionel Messi and Neymar on the payroll, but adding Suarez and depth turned them into a formidable club who have maintained their dominance.

New York Giants (2016)

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    The New York Giants defense jumped to the top of the NFL after signing free agents including cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
    The New York Giants defense jumped to the top of the NFL after signing free agents including cornerback Janoris Jenkins.Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    The New York Giants' defensive overhaul didn't yield postseason success, but they paid a premium to transform a major liability into their strength.

    In 2015, the G-Men went 6-10 with the third-most points allowed (442). Football Outsiders accordingly rated them as the third-worst unit. Perhaps the most jarring third was their number of consecutive losing seasons.

    Despite having holes on both ends of the field, general manager Jerry Reese fixated on the defense. Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon weren't marquee names, but he paid them like top-tier stars. They may have saved his job by playing up to their gaudy contracts.

    With Harrison clogging the middle, the Giants yielded 3.6 yards per carry, down from the previous season's 4.4. Vernon submitted 8.5 sacks, and Jenkins earned a Pro Bowl nod for his smothering secondary coverage.

    They climbed to second in points allowed behind the New England Patriots and second to the Broncos in Football Outsiders' defensive efficiency. These short-term fixes led Big Blue back into the postseason, but they must now worry about a declining Eli Manning and subpar offensive line after getting shredded by the Green Bay Packers.