MLB Offseason 2012: Every Franchise's Most Important Free-Agent Signing Ever

Ash MarshallSenior Analyst INovember 21, 2011

MLB Offseason 2012: Every Franchise's Most Important Free-Agent Signing Ever

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    With free agency dominating Major League Baseball's offseason headlines, now is as good a time as ever to examine the most important free-agent signing in each franchise's history.

    Players testing the open market began in the mid 1970s when rules allowing a team to control a player indefinitely were overturned.

    Since then, players at the end of their contracts have been looking to cash in on their previous successes or renegotiate better terms. The era of free agency had a radical effect on the game, and its pull can still be seen today as the more wealthy teams throw their collective weight around in a bid to lure the best players to their clubs.

    The average salary of players went from $45,000 in 1975 to $289,000 in 1983. Since then it has grown at an alarming rate.

    As a side note, "most important" is not always synonymous with "best". Player A could have a statistically better season than Player B, but if the latter produced 80 percent of what Player A did but at 30 percent of the cost, there's an argument to be had.

    I've tried to consider a range of factors. Performance is high on the list, but value-for-money is a close second. Also, I've tried to pick players who had a lasting impact with a franchise.

    It's not always possible to find that perfect free agent who stuck around with a new club for a decade, and sometimes I've just gone with the guy who signed a one-year deal and put up MVP-like numbers. On other occasions, I've given my vote to a player picked of the scrapheap and transformed into an above-average ballplayer. It's not a science.

    Not everyone will agree with this list and that's OK. It's subjective and open to debate and discussion. Feel free to let me know you you would picked.

    If you don't like my opinions, don't worry. I have others.


    Follow me on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB and @FantasyHardball

Arizona Diamondbacks: Randy Johnson

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks don't have the type of history that a lot of the other clubs have, but they still boast a number of excellent free agents who made big contributions; Steve Finley, Craig Counsell and Miguel Batista were all solid pick ups, but one man stands above the rest.

    Drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1985, Randy Johnson signed with the D-backs in the winter of 1998 after 10 years in Seattle and a couple excellent months in Houston.

    Johnson had already won one Cy Young Award and finished runner-up twice by the time he came to Arizona, but his best was yet to come. The Big Unit won the Cy Young Award in each of his first four seasons with the Diamondbacks. Over that spell, Johnson posted an 81-27 record and a 2.48 ERA. He threw 31 complete games and 11 shutouts in those four years while striking out an incredible 1,417 batters, an average of 354 a year.

    He led the league in Ks every year and ranked first in ERA in all but one of those seasons. Johnson, then 39 years old, managed just 18 games the following year, but he rebounded in 2004 with a 16-win season and league-best 35 starts.

    Johnson helped transform the 97-loss D-backs into a 100-win NL West champion team. Most importantly, he helped the club to its first and only World Series championship two years later. In the 2001 Fall Classic, Johnson went 3-0 with a 1.04 ERA.

Atlanta Braves: Greg Maddux

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    Greg Maddux came to the Atlanta Braves as a free agent prior to the 1993 season. He also re-signed as a free agent again in 2003, although just for one more year the second time around.

    In 1992 with the Chicago Cubs, Maddux proved to be the best pitcher in the league. He won 20 games for the first time in his career and he led the league in both starts (35) and innings pitched (268) for the second straight year. The workhorse won his first Cy Young Award and instantly became one of the hottest free-agent commodities.

    The Braves gave Maddux a five-year, $28 million deal, capitalizing on the fact that neither the Cubs nor Maddux's agents could seem to negotiate a new contract.

    Maddux won the Cy Young award in his first three years in Atlanta, and he went a combined 89-33 with a 2.13 ERA over those five seasons. The best of these campaigns came in 1995 when he was 19-2 with a 1.63 mark and his second consecutive year with 10 complete games.

    Maddux's career numbers with the Braves speak for themselves: 194 wins over a 11 seasons, a 2.63 ERA, 10 playoff appearances and a World Series ring.

    Maddux easily beats out Lonnie Smith and John Smoltz.

Baltimore Orioles: Rafael Palmeiro

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    Rafael Palmeiro broke onto the baseball scene with the Texas Rangers in the early 1990s, but after four years in the Lone Star state, he signed with the Baltimore Orioles for five years and $30.35 million.

    The slugging first baseman was coming off a big final year with the Rangers, but he lived up to all of the expectations that were placed on him.

    He averaged 36 homers and 111 RBI between 1994 and 1998 and he finished inside the top 20 in the MVP voting each season with the Orioles. He was the team's best hitter over that period and—along with Mike Mussina—the driving force behind getting the club back into the postseason after a 13-year absence.

    Baltimore was unable to hold onto Palmeiro after the '98 season and he re-signed with the Rangers as a free agent. Ironically, the All-Star/Gold Glove/Silver Slugger trifecta in the final year of his five-year contract may have priced the Orioles out of keeping him in Maryland.

Boston Red Sox: David Ortiz

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    The Boston Red Sox saw David Ortiz as a solid buy-low candidate when he hit the open market in 2003. He had appeared in just 125 games in '02 and only 89 the season before that.

    Knee and wrist injuries had his stock trending downward, but he had still shown flashes of the beast within. He hammered 38 homers in his final two half seasons in Minnesota, and his .272 average looked more representative of his abilities than the .234 he managed before.

    Ortiz made the most of his opportunities in his first year in Boston, and he quickly became one of the most feared power hitters in the league.

    Even better for the Red Sox was that Ortiz only earned $1.25 million in his first year and and average of around $5.5 million over the next three years.

    He finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2004 after posting a 41-homer, 139-RBI season, and he came runner-up to Alex Rodriguez (making $26 million) in '05 despite hitting 47 bombs and plating a league-high 148 runs. In 2006, Ortiz led the league with 54 home runs, 137 RBI and 119 walks, finishing third behind Justin Morneau and Derek Jeter ($20.6 million).

    Ortiz got his big payday when he inked a new four-year deal that took him through to 2010, but by then he had earned the big contract. For the money the Red Sox were paying him between 2003 and 2006, Ortiz was simply one of the best value-for-money sluggers in the game.

    Pedro Martinez and Tim Wakefield also had big seasons after signing on as free agents, but none were more important to the team than Ortiz, an instant All-Star who filled the void left by Brian Daubach and helped bring a World Championship back to Boston.

Chicago Cubs: Andre Dawson

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    Andre Dawson signed with the Chicago Cubs in 1987, 12 years after being drafted by the Montreal Expos and making his name, and ruining his knees, in Canada.

    Dawson received little attention in the offseason, but he finally inked a contract with the Cubs for half a million plus incentives.

    Dawson hit 174 homers and plated 587 runs in his six years in Chicago, none bigger than his first season at Wrigley when he led the league in homers (49) and RBI (137) en route to an MVP. He became the first MVP on a last-placed team. The Hawk never posted those kinds of power numbers again, but he did slug 20 homers or more every year and make the All-Star team in all but his final season.

    The Cubs only made it to one postseason while Dawson was with the club (a 1989 loss in the NLCS) but it was no fault of Dawson who was an integral part of the team and one of the better cleanup hitters in the game at that time. Unfortunately for the outfielder, he hit just .105 with two hits and no runs scored in five Championship Series games against the Giants, his last shot at a ring.

Chicago White Sox: Carlton Fisk

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    Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk had two distinctive parts to his career. Selected fourth overall in the 1967 draft, Fisk made a name for himself with the Boston Red Sox between 1971 and 1980. Few moments in Boston sports history can rival his iconic home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, a series the Red Sox would ultimately go on to lose the following day to the Cincinnati Reds.

    But after 11 years in New England, the 33-year-old Fisk decided to test the waters of free agency and he signed a five-year $2.9 million contract with the Chicago White Sox.

    Fisk played out seven more years in the Windy City after his initial contract with the White Sox had expired, solidifying his Cooperstown credentials with some fantastic seasons into his twilight years.

    He was an All-Star in his first year in Chicago, and he was an All-Star in his last full season there as a 43-year-old a decade later in 1991. He also won three silver slugger awards and even finished third in the MVP ballot in 1985.

    During the initial first five years of his contract, Fisk averaged 21 homers, 69 RBI and a .258 average.

Cincinnati Reds: Jeff Shaw/Eric Milton

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    You can look at 'importance' from two perspectives: a great player and a great cost or, in the absence of a great player, a bad player at an astronomical cost who financially ruined the club for a period of time.

    With that in mind, consider Jeff Shaw and Eric Milton.

    Shaw signed with the Reds as a free agent in 1996, a three-year deal worth a total of less than $2 million. A middle reliever for most of his career with Montreal, Shaw turned into a solid closer in Cincy. He saved a league-high 42 games in 1997 and then 48 more the following year. He compiled a 2.31 ERA during his three seasons and even made the All-Star team in '98.

    He wasn't amazing and his time with the Reds was relatively short, but he was the best free agent they have ever signed. But Milton, by contrast, may have been even more important.

    General manager Dan O’Brian gave Milton a contract worth a little over $25 million prior to the 2005 season, all based on a 14-win season and 4.75 ERA the year before in Philly, a season, incidentally, where he gave up a whopping 43 homers in 34 starts.

    With money tied up in the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Sean Casey, Danny Graves and Adam Dunn, Milton's contract was questionable at best. And that was before he blew up.

    Milton was 16-27 with a 5.83 ERA over his three season with Cincinnati. He lost 15 games in his first year with the team, giving up a league-worst 134 runs and 40 homers and posting a 6.47 ERA. In 2006, he was 8-8 with a 5.19 ERA, and in '07 he made just six starts, going 0-4 with a 5.17 mark.

    The Reds finished fifth twice and third once in the NL Central in his three years with the club. There's no guarantee the Reds would have made the playoffs even without Milton, but the money they had committed to him put a serious dent in their ability to pursue anybody else.

Cleveland Indians: Tom Candiotti

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    Tom Candiotti signed with the Cleveland Indians as a free agent in the winter of 1985 after spending five years with the Milwaukee Brewers organization, the club that took him in the Rule 5 draft a year after the Kansas City Royals initially signed him as a free agent.

    Candiotti played in Cleveland for five-and-a-half years before he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1991.

    The right-handed pitcher had logged just 88 Major League innings when the Indians signed him, but that was about to change.

    Inserted straight into the rotation, Candiotti threw 252.1 innings in his first year in Cleveland, posting a 16-win season and leading the league with 17 complete games.

    As an Indian, Candiotti went 72-65 with 42 complete games and seven shutouts. To make the free-agent signing even more impressive, Cleveland was able to sign him to a low wage for the first three years of the deal, during which time he earned roughly half of what an average player was getting.

Colorado Rockies: Larry Walker

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    Larry Walker signed with the Colorado Rockies in April, 1995, after five Major League seasons in Montreal.

    Walker got a $250,000 signing bonus when he put pen to paper to seal the deal, a small fee to accompany a multi-year contract that the Expos were in no position to match. The strike the previous season had hurt Montreal, so much so they even declined to offer Walker arbitration in a bid to slash payroll, baseball-reference claims.

    The Rockies took advantage of this, paying Walker less than a $1 million more than what the Expos had the previous year. It wasn't until 2000 that Walker signed a new deal that would net him eight figures each year.

    Walker settled in immediately in the Rockies, hitting 36 homers in his first season (13 more than his previous career high) and helping the club to a playoff berth in just its third year of existence. He followed that with a league-best 49 homers and 130 RBI in '07 en route to his first MVP award, made even more impressive when you consider he was coming off an injury-plagued season. Often overlooked is the fact he also batted .366 with 33 steals that year.

    Walker then won a batting crown in 1998, '99 and 2001, proving to be one of the best all-round hitters in the game. In 10 total seasons, Walker averaged .334 with 15 homers and 85 RBI. His counting stats would have been ever higher if he hadn't missed half of the 2000 season.

Detroit Tigers: Tony Phillips

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    The Detroit Tigers made a great move by signing Tony Phillips as a free agent prior to the 1990 season. The utility man—a former first-rounder—never lived up to his potential in Oakland, but the Tigers saw just how valuable he could be with regular at-bats.

    He averaged 12 homers throughout his five years with the club, including 19 in the strike-shortened season of 1994 and 17 in 1991. Those numbers don’t jump out until you consider the fact he had only hit more than five once in a season in his eight years with the A’s.

    As his power numbers grew, so did the rest of his counting stats. He began to walk more, an indication of being pitched around more than the likelihood of a 34-year-old veteran of 12 years suddenly learning to lay off a pitch, and that helped lead to more runs scored. In 1992 he led the league with 114 runs scored. The following year he crossed home 113 times, the year he led the league with 132 free passes.

    Phillips was an above-average player on an average team. He left the team at the start of 1995 in a trade that sent Phillips to the Angles in return for center fielder Chad Curtis.

Miami Marlins: Kevin Brown

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    As with Colorado, the then Florida Marlins came into the league as an expansion team in 1993. With just 19 years of history to choose from, there isn't a huge selection of free agents to choose from, but Kevin Brown turned back the clock to propel the Fish to their first World Series championship.

    Brown came out of nowhere to win a league-high 21 games with the Texas Rangers in 1992, but he had been a run-of-the-mill starter over the next three years before testing the open market.

    The Marlins paid Brown $3.4 million in '96 and $4.5 million the following year. Brown responded by putting up Cy Young Award-caliber numbers. He won 17 games and led the league with a 1.89 ERA in 32 starts in his first year, and he was 16-8 with a 2.69 ERA in Florida's championship season.

    Forget the fact that Cleveland hit Brown hard in the Fall Classic. Had it not been for Brown, Florida's best player in both the regular season and NLDS against the Giants, the Marlins would not have even been in the World Series.

    Brown had three or four amazing years in his early 30s. Luckily for Marlins fans, two of them came in his short career in the Sunshine State.

    Maybe even better, Brown's value was so high that the Marlins were able to get Derrek Lee from the San Diego Padres in a trade the following year. Lee was a key contributor on both sides of the ball, and he helped Florida win the World Series again in 2003, his final year with the club.

Houston Astros: Nolan Ryan

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    Long before Nolan Ryan was the best free-agent signing in the history of the Teas Rangers, Ryan became the finest pick up in the history of the Lone Star State's other baseball team.

    Ryan signed with the Houston Astros at the end of the 1979 season after five big league seasons with the New York Mets and eight more with the California Angels.

    A move back to the National League under the leadership of Bill Virdon, plus pitching into his late 30s, saw fewer innings than before, but Ryan still put up impressive numbers.

    He led the league in ERA in 1981 as a 34-year-old and again in 1987 when he turned 40, a season which saw him lead the league in strikeouts for the first time in eight years.

    Ryan posted a .530 winning percentage (106-94) over his career in Houston, and no other pitcher on the team during that time even came close to putting up similar numbers. He led all Astros pitchers in wins in those nine years. Starter Mike Scott and closer Bob Knepper were arguably the next two more valuable pitchers on the club.

Kansas City Royals: David Cone

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    I had originally overlooked David Cone when I was putting this list together simply because he had originally been drafted by the Royals, but he is certainly one of the greatest free-agent pick ups of all time.

    Signed by Kansas City after being traded from the New York Mets to the Toronto Blue Jays, Cone earned a $3 million bonus when he joined the Royals in 1993.

    He went 11-4 with a 3.33 ERA in his first year with the team, logging a career-high 254 innings and striking out 191 batters. However, it was his second year which really made this acquisition special. The 31-year-old Cone was 16-5 with a 2.94 mark in 23 starts, beating out Yankees pitcher Jimmy Key to the AL Cy Young Award and finishing ninth overall in the MVP voting.

    Cone was the highest-paid player on the roster in each of his two years with the Royals, but there's no denying he earned his money.

    Steve Farr has also got to be pretty close to the top of the Royals' free-agent list, however sparsely populated that list may be.

    Signed as an amateur free agent by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Royals took a chance on Farr after the Cleveland Indians let him go at the end the 1985 preseason.

    The one time he was great was in his walk year in 1990 when he won a career-high 13 games (previous best was eight) and posted a 1.98 ERA over 57 appearances. The season made enough people stand up and notice that the Yankees inked him to a lucrative three-year, $6.3 million contract the very next year.

    Never try to put Farr in the same sentence as All-Star stopper Dan Quisenberry, but at least remember Farr as the man who stepped into the void that Quisenberry left when he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in '88.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Bobby Grich

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    Former first-rounder Bobby Grich was granted free agency in 1976 and he quickly became one of the most sought-after players in that first FA draft class.

    According to reports, the New York Yankees offered Grich the most money, but he instead signed a five-year, $1.35 million deal with California.

    He earned five times the league average with the Angels, taking home a paycheck almost seven times what he collected in his final year in Baltimore. The money was well worth it.

    Grich solidified his reputation as an excellent hitting second baseman who also shone with the glove. He has a career year in 1979 when he slugged 30 homers and plated 101 runs, and he averaged .269 with 15 homers and 60 runs scored over his 10 years with the team.

    He led the club to its first ever playoff spot in 1979, and he was instrumental in guiding the team to postseason berths in '82 and '86, his final season. The Angels went from the ALCS in 1986 to sixth place in the AL West the following year without Grich.

    Many argue that he deserved to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

    Mark Langston, Vlad Guerrero and Chone Figgins could all be in the conversation about top Angels free-agent signings, but none had the impact—either statistically or historically—that Grich did.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Kevin Brown

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    Kevin Brown signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent ahead of the 1999 season. The Dodgers paid Brown big bucks, more than $70 million over over five years, and he won double-digit games in four of his years with the club.

    Coming off three solid years in Florida and San Diego, Brown finished sixth in the Cy Young voting in each of his first two season in Dodger blue. He won 18 games in his first year with the team and he led the National League with a 2.58 ERA in his second.

    The right-hander, the fourth overall pick of the 1986 draft, made just 37 starts in 2001 and 2002, but he returned to throw 211 innings and record a 2.39 ERA in '03.

    In total, Brown was 58-32 with the Dodgers with a 2.83 ERA. He was the team's best pitcher over those five years and in 1999 and 2003 he was arguably the best player on the entire team.

Milwaukee Brewers: Kevin Seitzer

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    Kevin Seitzer never really lived up to the hype that followed him after his blistering rookie year with the Kansas City Royals back in 1987, but for value for money, he was certainly one of the better free-agent signings the Brewers have ever made.

    Seitzer was actually signed as a free agent twice by Milwaukee, first in 1992 and again in July of the following year after a slow start with the A's.

    In his first year with the team he earned just $109,000, a mammoth drop from the $1.6 million he pocketed in his final year with the Royals after missing 77 games, including the whole of May. Seitzer responded by playing 148 games, plating 71 runs (the most of any Milwaukee infielder and the fourth most on the club) and scoring 74 more.

    Seitzer hit .300 over his five seasons with the Brewers, including his All-Star year as a 33-year-old in 1995 when he bounced back from an injury-plagued '94 campaign. Only once in his time with the club did he earn more than $1 million in basic wages. Twice he was the joint lowest-paid player on the roster. It's no exaggeration to say there were times in his career (like in 1992) when he produced just as well as guys like Hall of Famer Robin Yount who was making 30 times his salary.

    After subsequent seasons of .304, .281, .275, and .265, the Royals released Seitzer during spring training in 1992. He signed with Milwaukee, who installed him as their regular third baseman. In 1993 Seitzer became a free agent, signed with Oakland and after a slow start was released at the All Star break that season. He then re-signed with Milwaukee, solidified himself as an every day player and again made the All-Star team in 1995.

    He enjoyed what many feel was his best season in 1996 with the Brewers and Cleveland Indians. Seitzer batted .326 with 13 home runs and 78 RBI in '96 while posting a career-high .416 on-base percentage.

Minnesota Twins: Geoff Zahn

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    Left-handed pitcher Geoff Zahn signed with the Minnesota Twins in 1977 after spending time with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs.

    Zahn was just 6-13 in 45 appearances, including 21 starts, over his first three years in the Majors when the Twins signed him as a free agent and immediately made him a full-time starter.

    While his win-loss record wasn't exceptional in his four seasons, his 53 victories led the team and he tossed more innings (852) than any other hurler in the system. His best years with the club came in 1978 and 1979. He won 14 games and posted a 3.03 ERA with 12 complete games in '78, and he was 13-7 the following season.

    According to baseball-reference, Zahn earned between $45,000 in his first year to $200,000 in his fourth and final season. Around the mid 1970s, the average salary was $45,000 and Zahn fit tight in line with that, earning more as his career moved into the 1980s where salaries began to boom.

New York Mets: Rick Reed

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    The New York Mets took a risk when they signed Rick Reed in 1997. He did not pitch at all in the Majors the previous year and he appeared in just 11 games in the three seasons prior to that. Low risk, high reward.

    On a contract worth just $212,000 in his first year with the Mets, Reed tossed 208.1 innings over 33 games, including 31 starts. He went 13-9 and posted a 2.89 ERA.

    The following year he won 16 games and made the All-Star team; in 1999 and 2000 he compiled a 22-10 record; in 2001 he won eight games and made his second All-Star team before a midseason trade to Minnesota.

    Considering how much the Mets paid him (a little over $14 million for five years), Reed edges Carlos Beltran as the Mets most important free-agent signing.

    Don't get me wrong, Beltran had some great years with the club. Despite the number of critics he had, he was a valuable asset to the team, particularly in 2006 and 2007. The biggest problem I had was the size of his contract, massively inflated because of the huge 2004 postseason he had in Houston against Atlanta and St. Louis. But $115 million? Beltran was good, but his production did not mirror his contract, which ranked either first or second in the NL in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

New York Yankees: Mike Mussina

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    The New York Yankees have no shortage of big free-agent signings: Dave Winfield, Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia... But I think there is an argument to be made for Mike Mussina, a man who appeared in the postseason in seven of his eight seasons in the Bronx but never won a World Series ring.

    In a team filled with superstars, Mussina was the best player on the roster for a couple years and arguably the best pitcher on the club for the time he was there. There are clearly reasons to consider Alex Rodriguez, mainly surrounding his huge MVP seasons in 2005 and 2007, but when you consider that Rodriguez is earning twice what Moose earned, Mussina has to be considered for the value-for-money alone. A-Rod ranked first in the league in salary in six of his eight years in New York and second the other two seasons.

    He was a workhorse (he averaged 194 innings and 31 starts a year), he threw strikes and he fielded his position expertly. Run support obviously inflated his statistics (123 wins in eight seasons) but there is no doubt that Mussina was a star. He was reliable, he was consistent and, despite a lack of a championship, he was often fantastic in the postseason. He also authored two near-perfect games and is constantly in the Hall of Fame discussion.

    A-Rod will be in pinstripes through 2017 by which time he will be 41 years old, and Sabathia has just three years under his belt. Both have a chance to become bigger legends in the game, but their overall contribution is yet to be determined.

Oakland A's: Dave Henderson

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    Dave Henderson is the best free-agent signing the A's ever picked up.

    Henderson was always seen as a solid outfielder with decent pop during his time with Seattle, but he lasted less than a year in Boston despite his ALDS playoff heroics, and he wasn't given ever given a chance in San Francisco.

    Coming off an injury-plagued season it which he played just 90 games and hit eight homers, Henderson, was picked up in 1988 by the A's for a one-year deal at less than $500,000.

    The change of scenery worked wonders for the 29-year-old. He slugged a career-high 24 home runs and also set personal bests in batting average (.304), RBI (94), doubles (38) and runs scored (100). He re-signed a new two year deal after that season during which he averaged 140 games, 18 homers and 72 RBI.

    Despite failing to repeat the lofty highs of his first year with Oakland, the club tripled his salary and inked him to three more years. Now 31, Henderson repaid the club with an All-Star season in 1991 before appearing in just 20 contests the following year.

    In '93, Henderson blasted 20 more homers, but hit just .220 in 107 contests. Age had finally caught up to the former first-round draft pick, but not before he had helped the team to three successive World Series.

    Rickey Henderson was obviously the catalyst for that 1989 championship team, but don't forget that he had never won a ring in Oakland when he was the best player on the team his first time around.

    Dave Stewart also deserves a mention. Signed in 1986 after being released midseason by the Philadelphia Phillies, Stewart put up Cy Young Award-caliber numbers in each of his first four years with the team. His numbers took a hit almost immediately after signing a lucrative extension in 1991, and the A's wisely let the Toronto Blue Jays take a chance on him as a 36-year-old in 1993 despite signs indicating his previous year's 5.18 ERA was an anomaly.

    It was a great pickup by the A's, especially converting him back to a starter after the Texas Rangers had mis-used him out of the bullpen a season earlier. Smart work all around from the Oakland front office staff.

Philadelphia Phillies: Jayson Werth

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    Before Washington broke the bank to sign Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract, he was actually a steal for the Philadelphia Phillies back in 2007.

    Philly paid just $850,000 for Werth in 2007 and the two parties agreed on another one-year $1.7 million deal in '08. In 2009 Werth then re-signed for two years and $10 million, avoiding arbitration again.

    Werth averaged 24 homers and 75 RBIs over his four seasons in Philly, including the first year when he shared duties in right field with Shane Victorino and the second year when he lost at-bats to Geoff Jenkins and, occasionally, So Taguchi.

    2007 marked the first season the Phillies had been to the playoffs in 14 years. They were also there each and every year Werth was with the club, including the back-to-back World Series appearances in '08 and '09. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were the catalysts, but don't trivialize the role Werth played.

    If you extend Werth's numbers out to a 162-game season, he was on pace to hit 29 homers and 90 RBI with 80 runs scored. Considering his cost, he was one of the most valuable and effective outfielders in the league at that time. Was he worth the big contract from the Nationals? Only time will tell, but he will have to do better than last year if people are expected to see him as a good long-term investment.

    Curt Schilling also needs to be in the discussion. He signed with a free agent in 1993 and put up big seasons in 1997, '98 and '99. He would have likely been first on this list if he had played more in the middle of his time there.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Rick Reuschel

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    Rick Reuschel was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the third round of the 1970 draft and, after two years with the New York Yankees, hit the open market in 1983 and again in late '84.

    The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Reuschel, then 36, to a three-year deal worth $1.65 million. It was big money considering the average salary in 1983 was $289,000 a year.

    Reuschel was 5-5 with a 5.17 ERA in 19 games in 1984 and he had tossed just 20.2 innings the year before that after missing the entire 1982 season. The last time he had even made more than 25 appearances in a single season was in 1980 when he was still a full-time starter in Chicago.

    Pittsburgh took a small risk and it paid off. Reuschel logged 194 innings in his first year with the Pirates, winning 14 games and delivering a career-best 2.27 ERA.

    He posted a winning record in his almost three-year stint with the Pirates, and the combined 3.04 ERA was the most effective he had been at any of the clubs where he spent more than a few months.

    Reuschel wasn't a game changer, but there were times where he was the best player on an awful team. Considering the value for money from that first year alone, he was a great signing. Pittsburgh was never a club to splash out on big-money free agents, but they did well to spot the upside in the 6'3" right-hander that nobody else wanted.

San Diego Padres: Gene Tenace

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    Gene Tenace signed a six-year, $1.8 million deal with the San Diego Padres back in 1977 when the concept of free agency was in its infancy and players were really putting the idea of an open market to the test for the first time.

    What it meant for people like Tenace was huge. The 30-year-old had earned $189,000 in his previous five years in the Majors with the Oakland A's. In his first year in the National League, he banked $310,000 and a $660,000 signing bonus. It was life-changing money. Remember, Tenace had asked for $52,000 in 1974, only to have his request fall on deaf ears.

    In four years with the Padres, Tenace smacked 68 homers and plated 239 runs. His production, especially his power numbers, dropped off slightly, but he was still a solid on-base machine. He drew 100 or more walks in his first three years with the team, including in his first season with the Padres when he earned a league-best 125 free passes.

    The catcher/first baseman posted three All-Star caliber years and one average season. Along with Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, Gene Tenace was the best player on this club.

San Francisco Giants: Barry Bonds

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    Barry Bonds is not just the greatest free-agent signing in the history of the San Francisco Giants, he is the greatest free-agent signing in the history of baseball. Maybe even professional sports.

    Bonds was originally selected by the Giants in the second round of the 1982 draft, but he did not sign. Three years later, and one round earlier, Bonds went sixth overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    Bonds stayed in Pittsburgh until 1992 when he became a free agent and signed with the Giants during the winter meeting for six years and a then-record $43.75 million. According to a New York Times report, the deal only became possible when the club agreed not to make outgoing owner Bob Lurie liable for the contract if the hopeful new owners of the club did not get permission to buy the team.

    A two-time MVP in Pittsburgh, Bonds picked up where he had left off immediately.

    He won the MVP again in the first year with his new club, a league-leading 46-home run and 123-RBI season, and he was named to the All-Star team in each of his first six years with the club. The love affair with San Francisco had only just begun.

    Bonds would go on to win four more MVP awards, consecutively between 2001 and 2004, leading the league in walks seven more times. He set a Major League record with 73 homers in 2001, and he was constantly ranked first in on-base percentage and slugging metrics during his career on the Bay.

    A 14-time All-Star in total, Bonds remains at the top of baseball's all-time home run chart (762) and is considered among the game's elite.

    This slideshow isn't the place to get into the steroid debate. Place an asterisk by his name if you like, but the things he accomplished are beyond compare.

Seattle Mariners: Adrian Beltre

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    The Seattle Mariners overpaid for Adrian Beltre's services, but he still provided a big bat and Gold Glove defense at third base.

    The team may not have got close to the 48 homers he hit in his walk year with the LA Dodgers (he averaged 21 homers and never hit more than 26), but Beltre was a constant threat to drive in 100 runs in any season.

    Over his five years in Seattle, he hit .266 with 396 RBI and 283 extra-base hits. He missed an average of 11 games in each of his first four years and then 51 in his final season as he turned 30.

    There are few free agent Mariners signings who made a legitimate impact, but Beltre was one of those. Fans can look back on him fondly, or they can argue he wasn't worth instantly becoming the second-highest paid player on the team. Either way, the franchise showed that it was willing to spend money on the biggest third baseman, possibly the biggest name, on the market to try and rebuild the playoff teams from the start of the decade.

St. Louis Cardinals: Chris Carpenter

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    Right-hander Chris Carpenter came to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2003 and rapidly became one of the game's best pitchers.

    Carpenter made just 13 Major League starts in an injury-plagued 2002 campaign with the Toronto Blue Jays that saw him hit the DL on three or four occasions because of shoulder problems. He succumbed to surgery in September and was removed from the team's 40-man roster soon after.

    The Cards offered him a small $300,000 deal in 2003, but he sat out the entire season with a torn labrum and did not pitch until the following year. The return was worth the wait.

    He went 15-5 in 28 starts in '04 and he won 21 games in his Cy Young Award season 12 months later. 2006 saw him post a 15-8 record, and things were back on track for Carpenter.

    Then injury struck once more, this time after signing a five-year $65 million prior to the 2007 campaign. Elbow problems cost him almost all of 2007 and the after effects of Tommy John surgery ruined 2008.

    As before, he returned invigorated. He was 17-4 with a league-leading 2.24 ERA in 2009 where he was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year and the runner-up in the Cy young award. In 2010 he won 16 more games last year he started a league-best 34 outings and won 11 games.

    It's ironic that injuries cost Carpenter two whole seasons when he was in his prime when you consider that it was only because of injuries that the Cardinals were able to sign him in the first place.

    He was paid well (almost $ 70 million) over his nine years, and while setbacks kept him down at times, there is little doubt he remains one of the best of his era when fully healthy.

Tampa Bay Rays: Carlos Pena

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    In 2006, Carlos Pena was a Minor Leaguer in the New York Yankees system and an ineffective backup for the Boston Red Sox. Disregarded by the cream of the AL East crop, he signed on with the Rays and put together a career year for less than $1 million.

    The 29-year-old had appeared in just 18 Major League games in '06, but that didn't stop the Rays inviting the free agent to spring training the following year. They were originally going to pass on him, too, but when Greg Norton hurt his leg in late March, the Rays inked him to a big league deal.

    Out of nowhere, Pena slugged 46 homers and drove in 121 runs—both career highs—and entrenched himself as a likeable clubhouse favorite, leader and spokesman. The comeback Player of the Year had 100 RBI in each of his next two years as well, helping the club to its first ever playoff berth in '08 and leading the league in home runs (39) in '09.

    Pena cost the Rays about $25 million over his four years at the Trop, but it was money well spent. Once again, the Rays saw something in him that nobody else did and they used this advantage to level the playing field with the Yanks and Red Sox. This pick-up illustrates just what a good job the GM and ownership team did to turn the Rays around.

    It's just one of the stories recalled in Jonah Keri's excellent book, The Extra 2%.

Texas Rangers: Nolan Ryan

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    This is virtually a tie.

    Ignoring the fact that he was 42 years old and a veteran of 22 seasons when the Texas Rangers signed him in 1989, Nolan Ryan remains one of the best free agents the Rangers have ever signed. The other, at the opposite end of the spectrum is Alex Rodriguez.

    Nolan's Hall of Fame pedigree was well known many, many years before he joined Texas, but Bobby Valentine and the Rangers showed they were not bothered by by the miles on his clock when he hit the free-agent market after the '88 season.

    Ryan proved he could still bring it. He finished fifth in the Cy Young Award voting, won 16 games (his highest tally in seven years) and topped 300 strikeouts for the first time in 12 years in his first year with the team. Ryan also won double-digit games in both 1990 and '91 and, over the course of those first three years in Texas, he posted a 3.20 ERA and 1.04 WHIP.

    Ryan was less effective over his last two years in Texas, but who can blame him when, at 46-years-old, he was facing players young enough to be his son.

    As for Rodriguez, his salary may have rocketed from $4.3 million in Seattle to $22 million in Texas, but he put up monster numbers. He won his first MVP Award in his walk year after being beaten out by Oakland's Miguel Tejada 12 months earlier. A-Rod averaged 52 homers and 132 RBIs during his short three years with the Rangers, during which time he missed just one game. He led the league in homers in all three seasons, and he was the best player on the club each year over that spell.

    These two players are really 1 and 1a. My nod goes to Ryan, primarily because of the return on the investment after taking a gamble on his age. But I have no problem if anyone picked Rodriguez. His salary was a potentially crippling gamble in itself, even if his track record over the previous three years spoke for itself.

    Ryan is the only player on this list twice, fitting for one of the very best pitchers the game has ever known.

Toronto Blue Jays: Roger Clemens

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    Unlike in the previous slide where a top award did not necessarily earn my vote, things were much simpler this time around.

    Simply put, Roger Clemens' two seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays were as good as it gets.

    After 13 years in Boston, Clemens signed with the Blue Jays in 1997. He won a league-best 21 games in his first season, ranking first in the league in ERA (2.05), strikeouts (292), complete games (nine) and shutouts (three). He was rightfully awarded the Cy Young for his efforts, and I personally think he deserved better than his 10th place finish in the AL MVP race.

    The following year, Clemens was equally as impressive, going 20-6 with a 2.65 ERA and 271 strikeouts. Again, he took home the Cy Young Award in the American League, the fifth of his career.

    Clemens earned a little over $17 million in total with the Blue Jays before they traded him to the New York Yankees for David Wells, Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd.

    The only other person I seriously considered in this spot was Doyle Alexander, a pitcher peddling his craft in Canada between 1983 and 1986.

    On an average salary of less then $800,000 a year, Alexander was at his best in his two full seasons with the Blue Jays. He was 17-6 with a league-leading .739 winning percentage and 3.13 ERA in 1984 and 17-10 the following year when he was listed as a possible Cy Young candidate.

Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos: Jeff Fassero

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    Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos

    Remember Jeff Fassero? Considering he's been a part of almost one-third of all Major League franchises in the past two decades, you will probably have come across his name at one time or another.

    He signed with the Montreal Expos in early 1991 and he stayed with the club for six seasons until being dealt to the Seattle Mariners, but that doesn't tell the whole story.

    Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 22nd round of the 1984 draft, Fassero appeared destined to be a career Double- or Triple-A player, playing 194 games in the Cards' farm system over six years.

    The Chicago White Sox then selected him in the 1989 Minor League draft, releasing him less than four months later before he had the chance to even play one Major League game. The Cleveland Indians, too, took their chance on him, only to part ways after 64.1 Eastern League at-bats with Canton-Akron.

    Enter, Montreal. The Expos took a chance on Fassero and he stuck. He appeared in 121 big league games exclusively as a reliever in 1991 and '92 before being moved to the rotation. He went 12-5 as a spot starter in 1993, and he earned a full-time job the next spring.

    Fassero went a combined 58-48 with a 3.20 ERA and 10 saves with the Expos. He earned a little over $500,000 in his first three seasons combined and didn't take home seven figures until 1995 when he went to salary arbitration.

    For his value for money and contributions to the team, he is the Expos best free-agent signing ever. It probably took a little luck and a lot of faith, but the perseverance Fassero demonstrated paid off for everyone involved.