Looking Back at the Greatest Free-Agent Classes in MLB History

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2020

Looking Back at the Greatest Free-Agent Classes in MLB History

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    There was a time, not along ago, when MLB teams actually signed free agents.

    It may sound like a peculiar concept in the midst of one of the slowest offseasons in history, but just last winter teams clamored to throw money at Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg.

    There is some hope that next offseason will help revive the dying market, with a stacked free-agent class that could include Francisco Lindor, Clayton Kershaw, Freddie Freeman, Noah Syndergaard, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Michael Conforto, Javier Baez, Salvador Perez, Starling Marte, Jorge Soler, Dylan Bundy and Nolan Arenado.

    That could go down as one of the greatest free-agent groups ever depending on how many of those players actually reach the open market.

    For now, we turn our focus to free-agency history for our rankings of the 10 greatest free-agent classes since the start of free agency during the 1976-77 offseason.

    To provide an overview of the 10 classes that were selected, we listed the 10 best free agents from each class based on their perceived value, star power and impact potential heading into free agency. In other words, DJ LeMahieu is not in the top 10 of the 2018-19 free-agent class—even though we now know he outproduced almost everyone who signed that winter—since he wasn't viewed as one of the market's marquee players.

    From there, the final step was to rank the 10 classes based on superstar talent at the top and depth of talent.

    Make sense? Off we go.

10. 1976-77 Offseason

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    Reggie Jackson
    Reggie JacksonAssociated Press

    Top 10 Free Agents in the Class

    1. RF Reggie Jackson
    2. 2B Bobby Grich
    3. SP Wayne Garland
    4. 3B Sal Bando
    5. SS Bert Campaneris
    6. C Gene Tenace
    7. 2B Dave Cash
    8. RP Rollie Fingers
    9. SP Don Gullett
    10. DH Don Baylor

    Others of Note: LF Joe Rudi, LF Gary Matthews, RP Bill Campbell, SP Steve Stone

    The first offseason of MLB free agency was a doozie.

    Slugger Reggie Jackson signed a five-year, $3 million contract with the New York Yankees and promptly led them to a World Series title in each of his first two seasons in pinstripes.

    Meanwhile, there was a mass exodus of talent from the loaded Oakland Athletics teams that had won three straight World Series from 1972 to 1974. Catcher Gene Tenace, shortstop Bert Campaneris, third baseman Sal Bando and closer Rollie Fingers all found new homes via the open market.

    Wayne Garland went 20-7 with a 2.67 ERA in 232.1 innings in his age-25 season prior to hitting the open market, and he turned that into a 10-year, $2.3 million contract with Cleveland. He never came close to matching his 1976 success, and a torn rotator cuff ended his career five years later.

9. 2018-19 Offseason

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    Bryce Harper
    Bryce HarperLynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Top 10 Free Agents in the Class

    1. RF Bryce Harper
    2. SS Manny Machado
    3. SP Patrick Corbin
    4. LF Michael Brantley
    5. SP Yusei Kikuchi
    6. SP Charlie Morton
    7. CF AJ Pollock
    8. SP Nathan Eovaldi
    9. 3B Josh Donaldson
    10. C Yasmani Grandal

    Others of Note: DH Nelson Cruz, SP Dallas Keuchel, RP Craig Kimbrel, SP Lance Lynn, 2B DJ LeMahieu, RF Andrew McCutchen, 2B Jed Lowrie, RP Jeurys Familia, RP Adam Ottavino, RP Zack Britton

    There was a ton of buzz surrounding this class in the years leading up to it, but it didn't reach legendary status since the stocks of Andrew McCutchen, Josh Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel faded prior to their hitting the open market.

    The one-two punch of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still made for a compelling offseason, however, and there was plenty of talent behind them even if it wasn't the bumper crop that many had been expecting.

    Harper and Machado signed for a combined $630 million, and left-hander Patrick Corbin also landed a nine-figure deal with a six-year, $140 million contract from the Washington Nationals.

    Donaldson, Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal signed one-year deals, while DJ LeMahieu inked a two-year, $24 million contract with the Yankees that will go down as one of the best bargains in history.

    Yusei Kikuchi has failed to match the success he had in Japan, and Nathan Eovaldi has not lived up to his contract with the Boston Red Sox, but both players still have time to turn things around.

8. 2000-01 Offseason

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    Alex Rodriguez
    Alex RodriguezGary Barber/Allsport

    Top 10 Free Agents in the Class

    1. SS Alex Rodriguez
    2. RF Manny Ramirez
    3. SP Mike Mussina
    4. RF Juan Gonzalez
    5. SP Mike Hampton
    6. 1B Mark Grace
    7. SP Denny Neagle
    8. RF Paul O'Neill
    9. SP Darren Dreifort
    10. RF Reggie Sanders

    Others of Note: SS Mike Bordick, SP Pat Hentgen, SP Rick Reed, C Charles Johnson, SS Jose Valentin

    It's staggering to think that just two years prior, a five-year, $65 million contract was enough to make Albert Belle the highest-paid player in baseball.

    In 2000-01, Alex Rodriguez shattered that mark with a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers, and Manny Ramirez also joined the $100 million club with an eight-year, $160 million pact with the Red Sox.

    Not to be out done, the Yankees signed longtime divisional foe Mike Mussina away from the Baltimore Orioles with a six-year, $87 million contract.

    The Colorado Rockies went big in their efforts to improve a struggling rotation, signing Mike Hampton (8/$121M) and Denny Neagle (5/$51.5M) to long deals that ended in disaster.

    After a down year for the Detroit Tigers, two-time American League MVP Juan Gonzalez settled for a one-year, $10 million contract with Cleveland. He hit .325/.370/.590 with 34 doubles, 35 home runs and 140 RBI to finish fifth in AL MVP voting.

    Following a 13-year run with the Chicago Cubs, first baseman Mark Grace joined the Arizona Diamondbacks and promptly won the World Series.

7. 2014-15 Offseason

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    Jon Lester
    Jon LesterPaul Beaty/Associated Press

    Top 10 Free Agents in the Class

    1. SP Max Scherzer
    2. SP Jon Lester
    3. SS Hanley Ramirez
    4. C Russell Martin
    5. SP James Shields
    6. 3B Pablo Sandoval
    7. RF Yasmany Tomas
    8. SP Brandon McCarthy
    9. DH Victor Martinez
    10. SP Ervin Santana

    Others of Note: DH Nelson Cruz, 3B Chase Headley, SP Francisco Liriano, LF Melky Cabrera, RP David Robertson, RP Andrew Miller, SP Jake Peavy, C David Ross

    Max Scherzer was the prize of the 2014-15 market, and his contract with the Nationals will go down as one of the most successful free-agent deals in history.

    The Cubs' addition of Jon Lester at the winter meetings, however, sent shockwaves through MLB, effectively signaling a return to relevance for the North Siders after a lengthy rebuild.

    The Red Sox appeared to bolster their lineup considerably with the additions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, but they would undoubtedly take a mulligan on this offseason if they could.

    James Shields didn't work out for the San Diego Padres, but his signing led to the infamous swap with the Chicago White Sox for a young shortstop prospect named Fernando Tatis Jr.

    A healthy Brandon McCarthy threw a career-high 200 innings in 2014, finishing the season extremely strong following a trade to the Yankees. That netted him a four-year, $48 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the injury bug reared its ugly head again.

    Expectations were through the roof for Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas, especially after Jose Abreu had taken the league by storm. However, he produced minus-2.5 WAR during his six-year, $68.5 million contract with the Diamondbacks, spending much of the time in the minors.

6. 2011-12 Offseason

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    Albert Pujols
    Albert PujolsAlex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Top 10 Free Agents in the Class

    1. 1B Albert Pujols
    2. 1B Prince Fielder
    3. SP Yu Darvish
    4. SS Jose Reyes
    5. SP Mark Buehrle
    6. 3B Aramis Ramirez
    7. SP C.J. Wilson
    8. RF Carlos Beltran
    9. SS Jimmy Rollins
    10. SP Hiroki Kuroda

    Others of Note: SP Edwin Jackson, RF Michael Cuddyer, RP Jonathan Papelbon, LF Josh Willingham, SP Javier Vazquez, RP Heath Bell, 1B Carlos Pena

    Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder combined for 75 home runs and 219 RBI in 2011. Then they reeled in 19 years and $454 million worth of contracts from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Tigers.

    Neither of those deals worked out as hoped, but the signings represented a significant shift in power across the MLB landscape.

    The Angels also added left-hander C.J. Wilson in an effort to bolster their pitching staff, while the St. Louis Cardinals signed Carlos Beltran to help fill the Pujols-size void in the middle of their lineup.

    A $51.7 million posting bid won the Rangers negotiating rights with Japanese star Yu Darvish, and he signed a six-year, $56 million contract in one of the marquee moves of the offseason.

    Set to open a new stadium, the Miami Marlins spent big with the additions of shortstop Jose Reyes (6/$106M), starter Mark Buehrle (4/$58M) and closer Heath Bell (3/$27M). Less than a year later, all three players had been traded.

    Jimmy Rollins tested the waters but wound up back with the Philadelphia Phillies, while Aramis Ramirez moved from the Cubs to the division-rival Milwaukee Brewers via a three-year, $36 million deal.

5. 2019-20 Offseason

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    Gerrit Cole
    Gerrit ColeMark Lennihan/Associated Press

    Top 10 Free Agents in the Class

    1. SP Gerrit Cole
    2. 3B Anthony Rendon
    3. SP Stephen Strasburg
    4. SP Zack Wheeler
    5. 3B Josh Donaldson
    6. SP Hyun Jin Ryu
    7. C Yasmani Grandal
    8. RF Nick Castellanos
    9. LF Marcell Ozuna
    10. SP Madison Bumgarner

    Others of Note: SP Dallas Keuchel, SS Didi Gregorius, 3B Mike Moustakas, RP Will Smith SP Kyle Gibson, SP Cole Hamels

    As the 2020-21 free-agent market moves at a glacial pace, I can't help but feel I took last offseason for granted.

    Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg signed massive contracts, Zack Wheeler joined them in reeling in nine figures, Josh Donaldson signed a record deal for a position player over 33 years old, and a trio of southpaw starters in Hyun Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel were handsomely rewarded as well.

    On the bargain market, Marcell Ozuna and Didi Gregorius made good on one-year deals to improve their stocks.

    The Cincinnati Reds were also a surprise spender, adding Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, Shogo Akiyama and Wade Miley.

    With superstar talent at the top and a deep class overall, the 2019-20 offseason outshined the long-hyped 2018-19 class.

4. 2004-05 Offseason

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    Carlos Beltran
    Carlos BeltranMARY ALTAFFER/Associated Press

    Top 10 Free Agents in the Class

    1. CF Carlos Beltran
    2. 3B Adrian Beltre
    3. SP Pedro Martinez
    4. RF Magglio Ordonez
    5. RF J.D. Drew
    6. 2B Jeff Kent
    7. 1B Carlos Delgado
    8. SP Derek Lowe
    9. 3B Troy Glaus
    10. SP Carl Pavano

    Others of Note: SP Russ Ortiz, SS Nomar Garciaparra, SS Edgar Renteria, LF Moises Alou, SP Matt Clement, SP Al Leiter, 1B Richie Sexson, 2B Placido Polanco, 3B Corey Koskie, SP Roger Clemens

    This free-agent class is filled with forgotten stars behind Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, who signed with the New York Mets, and future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre, who turned his stellar contract year with the Dodgers into a five-year, $64 million deal with the Seattle Mariners.

    Magglio Ordonez was a perennial 30-homer, 100-RBI force with the White Sox, and he remained productive well into his 30s after joining the Tigers on a five-year, $75 million deal.

    The Yankees spent $40 million over four years to sign Carl Pavano, but he pitched a grand total of 145.2 innings in pinstripes.

    Who remembers Carlos Delgado with the Marlins, Edgar Renteria with the Red Sox and Troy Glaus with the Diamondbacks?

    This class might not have the same superstar power at the top as some of the others on this list, but it was one of the deepest free-agent pools in history.

3. 2003-04 Offseason

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    Ivan Rodriguez
    Ivan RodriguezAssociated Press

    Top 10 Free Agents in the Class

    1. RF Vladimir Guerrero
    2. SS Miguel Tejada
    3. C Ivan Rodriguez
    4. SP Bartolo Colon
    5. SP Roger Clemens
    6. C Javy Lopez
    7. RF Gary Sheffield
    8. SP Andy Pettitte
    9. CF Mike Cameron
    10. SP Greg Maddux

    Others of Note: RP Keith Foulke, LF Shannon Stewart, SP Kelvim Escobar, SP Sidney Ponson, SP Miguel Batista, LF Raul Ibanez, CF Kenny Lofton, RP Eddie Guardado, RP LaTroy Hawkins

    Vladimir Guerrero signed a six-year, $85 million contract with the Angels and provided an immediate return on investment, winning the AL MVP Award in 2004 by hitting .337/.391/.598 with 39 doubles, 39 home runs, 126 RBI and an AL-leading 124 runs.

    The Angels also signed the top pitcher on the market, Bartolo Colon, and after a rocky first season with the team, he won the AL Cy Young Award in 2005.

    Miguel Tejada led the majors in RBI (150) in the first year of a six-year, $72 million pact with the Orioles, and he racked up 20.1 WAR in four seasons with the team before he was traded. The O's also signed catcher Javy Lopez to a three-year, $23 million deal after his 43-homer season in 2003.

    Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez turned a one-year contract with the Marlins the previous year into a five-year, $53 million deal with the Tigers, while fellow veterans Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte left the Bronx and joined the Houston Astros.

    There might not be a more successful offseason in terms of big-money deals that worked out for the teams willing to spend.

2. 1998-99 Offseason

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    GAIL BURTON/Associated Press

    Top 10 Free Agents in the Class

    1. SP Kevin Brown
    2. SP Randy Johnson
    3. LF Albert Belle
    4. 2B Roberto Alomar
    5. 1B Mo Vaughn
    6. CF Bernie Williams
    7. 3B Robin Ventura
    8. 1B Rafael Palmeiro
    9. SP David Cone
    10. 3B Ken Caminiti

    Others of Note: 1B Will Clark, CF Steve Finley, RF Brian Jordan, SP Todd Stottlemyre, 3B Scott Brosius, DH Jose Canseco, 2B Jose Offerman, LF Rickey Henderson

    The 1998-99 offseason featured the first $100 million contract in MLB, with Kevin Brown inking a seven-year, $105 million deal with the Dodgers at the winter meetings.

    That same offseason, Randy Johnson signed a five-year, $64.4 million deal with the Diamondbacks. Over the first four seasons of that contract, he won the NL Cy Young Award every year, led the D-backs to a World Series title and posted a 2.48 ERA and 1.04 WHIP while averaging 354 strikeouts and 258 innings per season.

    Meanwhile, Albert Belle triggered a unique clause in his contract with the White Sox that required he be one of the three highest-paid players in baseball or released into free agency. Chicago declined to give him a raise, and Baltimore made him baseball's highest-paid player with a five-year, $65 million deal.

    Slugger Mo Vaughn also received a huge payday with a six-year, $80 million contract from the Angels that ended up becoming a disaster.

    All that made the four-year, $32 million deal Roberto Alomar signed with Cleveland a comparative bargain, and Robin Ventura signed an identical deal with the Mets that also paid off.

1. 1992-93 Offseason

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    Barry Bonds
    Barry BondsERIC RISBERG/Associated Press

    Top 10 Free Agents in the Class

    1. LF Barry Bonds
    2. SP Greg Maddux
    3. SP David Cone
    4. CF Kirby Puckett
    5. 1B Mark McGwire
    6. DH Paul Molitor
    7. 3B Wade Boggs
    8. RF Joe Carter
    9. SP Jimmy Key
    10. SP Doug Drabek

    Others of Note: RF Ruben Sierra, SP Chris Bosio, SP Greg Swindell, C Terry Steinbach, SS Ozzie Smith, RP Tom Henke, 2B Lou Whitaker, SS Alan Trammell, CF Robin Yount, DH Dave Winfield, DH Chili Davis, SP Dave Stewart

    This gets my vote for the best free-agent class in MLB history.

    In the primes of their legendary careers, Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux were fresh off MVP and Cy Young Award honors in the National League when they entered free agency for the first time.

    After a strong push by the Yankees, Maddux settled on a five-year, $28 million contract with Atlanta, while Bonds inked a six-year, $43 million deal with the San Francisco Giants.

    Fellow ace David Cone landed a three-year, $18 million pact from the Kansas City Royals that included an unheard of $9 million signing bonus, as owner Ewing Kauffman set out to rectify the mistake of trading Cone to the Mets in 1987.

    Future Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Paul Molitor left the only teams they had played for, and they later won World Series titles with their new clubs.

    Kirby Puckett, Mark McGwire, Ozzie Smith and Joe Carter were also part of this stacked class and re-signed with their teams.

    It's only a matter of time before the loaded 2021-22 free-agent crop joins this list, even if a few of the marquee players sign extensions before they hit the open market.

    For now, these are the 10 best free-agent classes in MLB history.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference. Contract information via a variety of sources, including Baseball Prospectus, Spotrac and news archives.