Baseball's 10 Best 2009 Free Agent Signings

Dmitriy Ioselevich@dioselevSenior Analyst IIIAugust 23, 2010

Baseball's 10 Best 2009 Free Agent Signings

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    Baseball free agency is often what separates the the pretenders from the contenders.

    In the offseason prior to the 2009 regular season, the New York Yankees spent over $200 million to bring in Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. The moves paid off as the Yankees waltzed their to way another World Series title. 

    With little more than a month remaining in the 2010 regular season, it's time to take a look at which 2009 free agent acquisitions paid off the most.

Alex Gonzalez

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    The defensive whiz spent his 2009 season between Boston and Cincinnati. Never known as a strong offensive player, Gonzalez only managed to hit .238 that year and slugged a paltry .355.

    The Toronto Blue Jays needed a shortstop to replace Marco Scutaro so, not expecting to be competitive anyway, they took a flier on Gonzalez. They agreed to a one-year deal with Gonzalez worth $2.75 million, with a 2011 option for $2.5 million.

    Gonzalez was worth every penny and then some. In 85 games with the Blue Jays, Gonzalez launched 17 homers and 25 doubles with an OPS of .793.

    Toronto took advantage of Gonzalez's career year and traded him to the Atlanta Braves two weeks before the trading deadline for Yunel Escobar, a promising young shortstop who was struggling in 2010.

    Gonzalez has continued to hit well and is on pace to set a career high in home runs (23) while helping lead the Braves to a potential NL East title. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays get to continue rebuilding with Escobar, a shortstop who put up an OPS of .813 in 2009 and is still only 27 years old (and is making only $435,000 this year).

    That's what we call a win-win.

Adrian Beltre

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    Nobody knew what to expect out of Beltre after he signed with the Red Sox for $9 million after five lackluster years in Seattle. Would he be the slugger who once hit 48 home runs with an OPS of 1.017? Or would he be the bust that he was in Seattle, hitting only 8 home runs and sporting a career low .683 OPS in 2009?

    Fortunately for Boston, they got the slugger.

    While the bodies around him were dropping left and right, Beltre put up one of the best seasons of his career. Through 120 games he has hit 23 home runs and driven in 85 runs with an OPS of .923. He has emerged as one of the only dependable bats in the Red Sox lineup and is an easy vote for team MVP. A definite bargain at $9 million.

    Beltre holds a $5 million player option for 2011, an option he will almost certainly decline to exercise. He will go back on the open market looking for the last large contract of his career. With Scott Boras as his agent, chances are he's going to get it.

Carl Pavano

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    Pavano is the only player on this list who was resigned by his 2009 team. But considering the Twins didn't expect him to be an anchor in the rotation when they acquired him from the Cleveland Indians, I think we can make an exception.

    Pavano signed a one-year deal for $7 million with the Twins, hoping to revive his career after a disastrous stint in New York. Whatever they're feeding him in Minnesota, it seems to be working.

    Through 25 games Pavano's record stands at 15-8 with a 3.52 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. Together with comeback player of the year candidate Francisco Liriano, Pavano has helped the Twins get atop the AL Central standings.

    The last time Pavano's ERA was this low was 2004, his final season with the Florida Marlins. It is the third lowest ERA of his career and the lowest WHIP. 

    A career year for $7 million? Can't say no to that.

Aubrey Huff

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    Huff is the prototypical baseball journeyman. He has played with five teams over the course of his 10 year major league career, but he may have finally found the right fit with the San Francisco Giants.

    Huff signed with the Giants for $3 million after earning $20 million in three up-and-down seasons in Baltimore. The Giants needed someone to help boost an anemic offense and Huff, with 224 career home runs and a career .476 slugging percentage, fit the bill.

    The first basemen currently leads the Giants in every major offensive category: batting average (.295), home runs (21), runs batted in (70), runs (77), and OPS (.911).

    Huff will be a free agent after this season and will likely be fielding offers from teams looking for a middle-of-the-order bat. With only Huff and phenom Buster Posey intimidating opposing pitchers, the Giants would be hard pressed to let him go. 

Jim Thome

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    For someone with Thome's resume (581 career home runs and a .962 OPS), it's hard to imagine he could ever be considered a bargain.

    But at $1.5 million, that's exactly what he is. 

    Before 2010 Thome played four solid seasons with the Chicago White Sox, and had a brief stint with the LA Dodgers. But at 39 years old and unable to play anywhere on the field, Thome had limited offers.

    The Twins snapped him up and Thome has had a nice season as Minnesota's primary designated hitter.

    In 84 games Thome has slammed 17 home runs and driven in 44 runs. His OPS is also at .986, as high as its been since 2006 when he hit 42 homers for Chicago. At about $88,000 per home run, Thome is a definite bargain.

    Between Pavano and Thome the Twins were very smart with their dollars last offseason, a big reason why they're first in the AL Central and poised for another playoff berth. 

Vladimir Guerrero

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    Who said he was washed up?

    Guerrero, one of baseball's most prolific sluggers ever, just keeps on raking.

    After an injury-plagued 2009 season with the Angels, Guerrero signed with division rival Texas for only $5.5 million ($6.5 million with bonuses). He was an instant success, teaming up with Josh Hamilton and Michael Young in making the Rangers the runaway favorites for the AL West for the first time in almost a decade.

    With over a month left in the 2010 season, Guerrero has already hit 21 home runs and driven in 88 while slugging .488.

    At only 35 years old Guerrero probably has a few productive years left in him. He'll have to be a designated hitter, but with those numbers you can't really complain.

    The Rangers hold a $9 million mutual option on Guerrero for 2011.

Billy Wagner

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    Wagner is making $6.75 million this season ($7 million with bonuses). That's not exactly chump change for a closer. But with Wagner's numbers, the Braves are definitely glad they made the investment.

    In 55 games Wagner has a microscopic 1.68 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. He's struck out 77 batters in 53.2 innings for one of the best SO/9 IP ratios in the game. 

    He's saved 30 games and blown seven, so he hasn't been perfect. Nonetheless, Atlanta has to be glad that they have one of the best closers in the history of the game waiting in the bullpen. Wagner deserves a great deal of the credit for getting the Braves to first in the AL East standings.

    Atlanta holds a $6.5 option for 2011, an option Wagner has already automatically triggered by finishing 50 games in 2010. 

Kelly Johnson

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    The once promising second basemen never managed to solidify his spot with the Braves, putting together four average but unspectacular seasons in Atlanta. The Braves non-tendered Johnson after the 2009 season, allowing him to become a free agent.

    The Diamondbacks decided to grab Johnson after losing Felipe Lopez to free agency and signed him to a one-year $2.35 million deal.

    Johnson has since established himself as one of Arizona's best hitters and is on pace to set career highs in every statistical category (including strikeouts). He's shown power (19 home runs), speed (11 stolen bases), and a propensity to get the ball in play (.492 on-base percentage).

    The Diamondbacks are dead last in the NL West and have been a major disappointment all year. Johnson has been one of their few bright spots. 

Marlon Byrd

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    It's almost ironic writing anything positive about the Chicago Cubs, considering how pathetic their 2010 season has been. But in signing Byrd, the Cubs made a brilliant move.

    Byrd was a solid player in 2009 for the Texas Rangers, hitting 20 home runs and slugging .479. The Rangers, though, decided to let him go as a free agent and Byrd has continued to tear the cover off the ball.

    Through 121 games in 2010 Byrd has smacked 11 home runs and batted .307, helping to stabilize an inconsistent Cubs lineup. He also leads Chicago in runs scored (68) and OPS (.819). 

    Byrd is signed to a very team friendly deal through 2012. He will make $3 million in 2010, $5.5 million in 2011, and $6.5 million in 2012.

Colby Lewis

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    This may be the best free agent signing the Rangers have made in years. 

    After spending two years in Japan, the 31-year old righty returned to the States by signing a two-year $5 million deal with Texas. With the way he's pitched, it's a wonder he ever left the country in the first place.

    In 24 starts Lewis has a 9-10 record with a 3.37 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. He's struck out 154 batters in 155 innings and even thrown a complete game.

    The last time Lewis was stateside was in 2007 when he appeared in 26 games for the Oakland Athletics. His ERA then, however, was 6.45. The Rangers decided to take a second chance on him (Lewis made his MLB debut with Texas), and they have been handsomely rewarded.

    Lewis will pair with ace Cliff Lee in forming a dynamic duo that Texas will rely heavily on during the playoffs.

    Lewis will make $1.75 million in 2010 and $3 million in 2011. The Rangers hold a $3.25 million club option for 2012.