Ranking Max Scherzer and MLB's 10 Most Successful Free-Agent Signings Ever

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2021

Ranking Max Scherzer and MLB's 10 Most Successful Free-Agent Signings Ever

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    In the final season of a seven-year, $210 million contract, Max Scherzer has already earned a place among the greatest free-agent signings in MLB history.

    But where does he rank?

    That's the question we set out to answer, combing through free-agent signings dating back to the start of free agency as we know it in 1976.

    A few quick notes on which contracts were considered for spots in the rankings before we get started:

    • No contract extensions: Contract extensions and players who re-signed with their teams in free agency were not considered for inclusion. Those are not true free-agency deals in the sense of players changing teams.
    • No one-year deals: Signing someone to a one-year contract is a no-risk move for a front office. That makes it difficult to compare them to players who sign multiyear deals, so no one-year pacts were eligible.

    The individual's production over the life of their contract was an important factor in determining where they landed in the rankings, but so was postseason success. The goal when spending big money on a free agent is to have them lead the team to a World Series, and the success or failure in achieving that goal has to be taken into account as well.

    Make sense?

    Off we go.

Honorable Mentions

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    Vladimir Guerrero
    Vladimir GuerreroFocus On Sport/Getty Images

    Before we get started, here are a few free-agent signings that didn't make the cut but are still worth remembering:

    SP: Kevin Brown (FLA), David Cone (KC), Zack Greinke (LAD), Orlando Hernandez (NYY), Mark Langston (CAL), Al Leiter (FLA), Mike Mussina (NYY), Nolan Ryan (HOU), CC Sabathia (NYY)

    RP: Rollie Fingers (SD), Rich Gossage (NYY)

    C: Carlton Fisk (CWS), Russell Martin (PIT), Darrell Porter (STL), Ivan Rodriguez (DET)

    1B: Jose Abreu (CWS), Jason Giambi (NYY), John Olerud (SEA), Rafael Palmeiro (BAL), Rafael Palmeiro (TEX), Pete Rose (PHI)

    2B: Roberto Alomar (BAL), Roberto Alomar (CLE), Jay Bell (ARI), Bobby Grich (CAL), Daniel Murphy (WAS), Ben Zobrist (CHC)

    3B: Wade Boggs (NYY), Bill Mueller (BOS), Terry Pendleton (ATL)

    SS: David Eckstein (STL), Alex Rodriguez (TEX), Miguel Tejada (BAL)

    OF: Carlos Beltran (NYM), Johnny Damon (BOS), Jermaine Dye (CWS), Vladimir Guerrero (ANA), Dave Henderson (OAK), Torii Hunter (LAA), Larry Walker (COL), Dave Winfield (NYY)

    DH: Nelson Cruz (SEA), Chili Davis (MIN), Victor Martinez (DET), Paul Molitor (TOR)

10. Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 15, 2014

    Contract: Six years, $155 million

    This is the move that set the wheels in motion for the Chicago Cubs' 2016 World Series title.

    Jon Lester was on the cover of Sports Illustrated shortly after picking the Cubs over several other suitors during the 2014 winter meetings, and the article teaser perfectly framed the importance of the signing: "The Lester Factor: On Oct. 30, Vegas had the Cubs at 50 to 1 to win the 2015 World Series. After signing the big lefty, Chicago is sitting at 12 to 1."

    After a forgettable first season with the North Siders, Lester delivered on expectations the following year by posting a 2.44 ERA in 202.2 innings to finish second in National League Cy Young Award voting. He was even better in October, making five starts and pitching three innings of relief in Game 7 of the Fall Classic, logging a 2.02 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 35.2 innings to lead the Cubs to the long-awaited championship.

    His production dropped off over the final two years of the contract, but he still finished 77-44 with a 3.64 ERA and 115 ERA+ in 1,002.2 innings. He was an All-Star in 2016 and 2018, and he had a 2.44 ERA in 70 postseason innings with the Cubs.

    Beyond the on-field numbers, the Lester signing marked the moment the Cubs flipped the page from rebuilding to contending.

9. Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Date: Jan. 5, 2011

    Contract: Six years, $96 million

    After a lackluster five-year run with the Seattle Mariners, the 31-year-old Adrian Beltre hit the free-agent market for the second time following the 2009 season.

    He signed a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox.

    He hit .321/.365/.553 with 49 doubles, 28 home runs and 102 RBI in a 7.8-WAR season, successfully boosting his stock and parlaying that performance into a six-year contract with the Texas Rangers.

    His average season over the life of that deal speaks for itself:

    • 148 G, 132 OPS+, .308/.358/.516, 176 H, 32 2B, 28 HR, 94 RBI, 6.0 WAR

    A three-time All-Star in that stretch, Beltre also finished in the top 10 in American League MVP voting four times and won three Gold Glove Awards while tallying an impressive 44 defensive runs saved at third base.

    Already 13 years into his MLB career when he joined the Rangers, Beltre with Texas cemented his status as a future Hall of Famer and one of the greatest third basemen in history.

8. Reggie Jackson, New York Yankees

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    Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press

    Date: Nov. 29, 1976

    Contract: Five years, $2.9 million

    Reggie Jackson was one of the first superstars to find a new home by way of free agency, signing a five-year deal with the New York Yankees in 1976 following nine years with the Oakland Athletics and a year with the Baltimore Orioles.

    With six All-Star selections, three World Series rings and 1973 AL MVP honors on his resume, Jackson was already on a Hall of Fame trajectory when he came to the Bronx for his age-31 season.

    The bright lights of New York suited him well.

    He was an All-Star in each of his five seasons, posting a 148 OPS+ with 144 home runs during the regular season. However, he carved out his enduring place in franchise lore in the postseason.

    He went 9-for-20 with five home runs during the 1977 World Series, which featured his memorable three-homer performance in the clinching Game 6, and the "Mr. October" nickname was born.

    All told, he slugged 12 home runs in 34 postseason games with the Yankees and won a pair of World Series titles.

7. Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners

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    DAN LEVINE/Getty Images

    Date: Nov. 30, 2000

    Contract: Three years, $14.1 million

    Ichiro Suzuki was nine years into his professional career with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan when he joined the Seattle Mariners.

    Despite a .353 career average and 1,278 hits, there were questions about Suzuki's game since he was the first position player to make the leap from the Japanese League.

    He answered those questions quickly and decisively.

    The 27-year-old rookie led the AL in batting average (.350) and the majors in hits (242) and steals (56) to win AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP honors for the 116-win Mariners.

    He slashed .328/.374/.440 with 662 hits during his initial contract.

    Then he signed four-year, $44 million and five-year, $90 million deals as he spent the first 12 years of his MLB career with Seattle.

6. Roger Clemens, Toronto Blue Jays

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    SPX/Diamond Images/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 13, 1996

    Contract: Four years, $40 million

    One of the game's elite pitchers early in his career, Roger Clemens entered free agency with something to prove after going 40-39 with a 3.77 ERA in his final four years with the Boston Red Sox.

    He joined the Toronto Blue Jays on a four-year deal and was brilliant in 1997 and 1998, winning back-to-back AL Cy Young Awards.

    • 1997: 34 GS, 21-7, 2.05 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 292 K, 264.0 IP, 11.9 WAR
    • 1998: 33 GS, 20-6, 2.65 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 271 K, 234.2 IP, 8.1 WAR

    Despite those stellar numbers, the Blue Jays failed to reach the postseason, and Clemens demanded a trade two years into his deal. Before the 1999 season, he was traded to the New York Yankees for David Wells, Graeme Lloyd and prospect Homer Bush.

    He won back-to-back World Series titles in 1999 and 2000 to close out his four-year contract, posting a 3.22 ERA in 44.2 innings during those two postseason runs.

5. Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants

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    ERIC RISBERG/Associated Press

    Date: Dec. 8, 1992

    Contract: Six years, $43 million

    This signing is often credited with helping to save baseball in the City by the Bay.

    With the San Francisco Giants set to be sold to Florida businessman Vince Naimoli following a 90-loss season in 1992, it looked like the team would move to St. Petersburg.

    However, acting Commissioner Bud Selig blocked the sale, and when longtime Giants fan Peter Magowan purchased the team instead, one of his first big moves was to sign Barry Bonds to a then-record deal in free agency.

    Still just 28 years old and having won two of the last three NL MVPs, Bonds nearly won the Triple Crown in his first year with San Francisco, leading the NL in home runs (46) and RBI (123) while finishing fourth in batting average (.336) to earn another MVP trophy.

    The Giants made the postseason just once in Bonds' first six years, or this deal might rank higher.

    Still, it's hard to argue with the value he provided via a .307/.445/.617 line, 182 OPS+, 235 home runs, 194 stolen bases and 49.6 WAR.

    Bonds spent nine more seasons with San Francisco.

4. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    Date: Jan 21, 2015

    Contract: Seven years, $210 million

    If Max Scherzer can help the Los Angeles Dodgers repeat as World Series champions, he has a chance to climb even higher on this list. For now, he has already cemented his place as one of the five greatest free-agent signings in baseball history.

    With an AL Cy Young Award in 2013 and a second straight All-Star appearance in 2014, Scherzer was just coming into his own when he signed his megadeal with the Washington Nationals during the same offseason Jon Lester joined the Chicago Cubs.

    The right-hander has been nothing short of magnificent throughout his contract, making 194 starts and going 96-47 with a 2.77 ERA, 152 ERA+ and 1,651 strikeouts in 1,258 innings. He became just the sixth player in MLB history to win a Cy Young Award in both leagues in 2016, and he repeated as the NL winner in 2017.

    His 40.2 WAR since the start of the 2015 season leads all pitchers and trails only Mike Trout's 48.3 and Mookie Betts' 47.3 among all players during that span.

    He started Games 1 and 7 of the 2019 World Series, pitching five innings of two-run ball in both outings, and he logged a 2.40 ERA in 30 innings during the postseason that year to help lead the Nationals to their first title.

3. Manny Ramirez, Boston Red Sox

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    Boston Globe/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 19, 2000

    Contract: Eight years, $160 million

    Barry Bonds may have had better individual numbers, but Manny Ramirez earned a higher spot on this list thanks to the contributions he made to building a winning culture for the Boston Red Sox.

    The BoSox had reached the postseason just three times in the 10 years prior to signing Ramirez.

    In his seven full seasons with the team, they were in the playoffs four times, won a long-awaited World Series title in 2004 and then hoisted the trophy again in 2007.

    A run-producing maestro in the middle of the order, Ramirez hit .312/.411/.588 with 274 home runs and 868 RBI during his time with Boston, teaming with David Ortiz to form one of the most feared duos in MLB history.

    He was an eight-time All-Star and six-time Silver Slugger and piled up 33.2 WAR with the Red Sox. He also consistently excelled under the bright lights of October, hitting .321/.422/.558 with 11 home runs and 38 RBI in 43 postseason games.

    He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the final year of his deal, bringing back Jason Bay.

2. Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    MIKE FIALA/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 10, 1998

    Contract: Five years, $68.4 million

    The first four seasons Randy Johnson pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks rank as one of the most dominant peaks in MLB history.

    • 1999: 17-9, 2.48 ERA (184 ERA+), 364 K, 9.2 WAR
    • 2000: 19-7, 2.64 ERA (181 ERA+), 347 K, 8.1 WAR
    • 2001: 21-6, 2.49 ERA (188 ERA+), 372 K, 10.1 WAR
    • 2002: 24-5, 2.32 ERA (195 ERA+), 334 K, 10.7 WAR

    Knee surgery limited him to 18 starts and a 4.26 ERA in 114 innings in the fifth year of his contract, but it still stands as one of the greatest signings of all time.

    He won four straight NL Cy Young Awards and alongside Curt Schilling led the D-backs to a World Series title in 2001 in just their fourth year of existence.

    The contract was a four-year, $53.4 million deal with a $12 million club option for a fifth year that increased to $15 million after his 2002 Cy Young.

    The Big Unit returned to Arizona on a two-year, $33 million extension, but he was traded to the New York Yankees in January 2005 for Javier Vazquez and prospects Dioner Navarro and Brad Halsey.

1. Greg Maddux, Atlanta Braves

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    Ron Vesely/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 9, 1992

    Contract: Five years, $28 million

    There might never be a better free-agent signing.

    After winning the NL Cy Young Award with the Chicago Cubs in his age-27 season in 1992, Greg Maddux was a hot commodity on the open market. He reportedly turned down a five-year, $34 million offer from the New York Yankees, instead joining the Atlanta Braves, who had reached the last two World Series.

    A case can be made that he's the best pitcher to ever hit free agency given his age at the time, track record and trajectory, and his first five seasons with Atlanta were a thing of beauty.

    • 1993: 20-10, 2.36 ERA (170 ERA+), 1.05 WHIP, 5.8 WAR
    • 1994: 16-6, 1.56 ERA (271 ERA+), 0.90 WHIP, 8.5 WAR
    • 1995: 19-2, 1.63 ERA (260 ERA+), 0.81 WHIP, 9.7 WAR
    • 1996: 15-11, 2.72 ERA (162 ERA+), 1.03 WHIP, 7.2 WAR
    • 1997: 19-4, 2.20 ERA (189 ERA+), 0.95 WHIP, 7.8 WAR

    Maddux won NL Cy Young honors in each of his first three seasons with the Braves, and he helped lead them to a World Series title in 1995.

    Doing all that at the height of the steroid era, without overpowering stuff, is the reason he's one of the best to ever toe the rubber.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Contract information via various sources, including Baseball Prospectus.