The Best Free-Agent Signing in MLB History at Each Position

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2021

The Best Free-Agent Signing in MLB History at Each Position

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    With the current MLB free-agent market frozen amid the ongoing lockout, now is the perfect time for a look back at some of the greatest free-agent-signings in the history of the sport.

    Rather than simply list the best of all time, we've taken a slightly different approach and gone position-by-position to select the top free-agent addition at each spot.

    A few things to clarify before we get started.

    Only outside free-agency signings were considered—no players re-signing with their previous team, no contract extensions, no trade or waiver additions.

    As far as what went into selecting the top player at each position, team success played a major role. The ultimate goal of free agency is to add the missing pieces to a title contender, so guys who were that missing piece and helped their team find postseason success have a leg up on a player who had strong individual numbers but is lacking in October accolades.

    Of course, individual production was still a significant factor as well, and there are multiple players on this list who didn't win a World Series during the life of their contract.

    We've also included a handful of honorable mentions at each position, but feel free to suggest anyone else you feel is worthy of consideration.

    Off we go!

Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez, Florida Marlins

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    Ivan Rodriguez
    Ivan RodriguezALAN DIAZ/Associated Press

    Date: Jan. 28, 2003

    Terms: One year, $10 million

    In 12 seasons with the Texas Rangers to begin his career, Ivan Rodriguez established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball history, earning 10 All-Star selections while winning 10 Gold Glove Awards, six Silver Sluggers and 1999 AL MVP honors during that stretch.

    However, after a herniated disc limited him to 108 games during the 2002 season, teams were hesitant to sign the 31-year-old backstop to a long-term deal when he reached free agency that offseason.

    The Florida Marlins ultimately rolled the dice in late January, and that one-year deal can be pointed to as the missing piece that pushed them over the top for an unlikely World Series run.

    Rodriguez hit .297/.369/.474 with 36 doubles, 16 home runs and 85 RBI in 144 games while also doing a masterful job handling a young starting rotation that featured Dontrelle Willis (21), Josh Beckett (23), Brad Penny (25) and Carl Pavano (27).

    He won NLCS MVP honors and hit .313/.390/.522 with 17 RBI in 17 games during the playoffs to lead the Marlins to a title, and then cashed in with a five-year, $53 million contract from the Detroit Tigers that winter.

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

First Baseman: Pete Rose, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 5, 1978

    Terms: Four years, $3.24 million

    Pete Rose was 38 years old with 3,164 career hits under his belt when he reached free agency following the 1978 season.

    Despite his age, he had no shortage of suitors.

    "St. Louis wanted me to replace Lou Brock, and I didn't want to do that," Rose told Todd Zolecki of "Kansas City wanted me to change leagues, and I didn't want to do that. ... And Pittsburgh, I didn't think they had a good enough team. But I thought the team sitting on the powder keg was the Phillies."

    He inked a four-year deal that made him the highest-paid player in baseball, and in the second season of that contract he helped lead the Phillies to a World Series title.

    "We had a lot of basic talent, but we really didn't have a leader," former Phillies team president Bill Giles said, via Zolecki. "We didn't have somebody who had the confidence to chew out the other players."

    Rose hit .300 with a .375 on-base percentage over the course of that four-year deal, making the NL All-Star team each year and winning a Silver Slugger in 1981.

    Honorable Mentions: Jose Abreu (CWS), Jason Giambi (NYY), John Olerud (SEA), Rafael Palmeiro (TEX), Rafael Palmeiro (BAL)

Second Baseman: Ben Zobrist, Chicago Cubs

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 8, 2015

    Terms: Four years, $56 million

    If the Jon Lester signing was the move that shifted the Chicago Cubs from rebuilding to contending, the Ben Zobrist signing is the one that pushed them over the top in their pursuit of the World Series title that had evaded them for more than a century.

    One of baseball's most versatile players, fresh off a World Series win with the Kansas City Royals, Zobrist brought a veteran presence to a young clubhouse and a high-contact, on-base-oriented approach to a lineup with some strikeout issues.

    He hit .272/.386/.446 with 52 extra-base hits and 3.4 WAR in his first year with the team, earning the start at second base for the National League in the All-Star Game, but it was the postseason where he truly etched his place in Cubs lore.

    The 35-year-old went 10-for-28 in the World Series, including an RBI double in the top of the 10th in Game 7 of the World Series that put the Cubs ahead for good, en route to World Series MVP honors.

    Those contributions alone made the contract a massive success, and he added a 3.5-WAR season in 2018 for good measure.

    Honorable Mentions: Roberto Alomar (BAL), Roberto Alomar (CLE), Jay Bell (ARI), Bret Boone (SEA), Bobby Grich (CAL), Daniel Murphy (WAS), Marcus Semien (TOR)

Third Baseman: Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Date: Jan. 5, 2011

    Terms: Six years, $96 million

    After an inconsistent five-year run with the Seattle Mariners, third baseman Adrian Beltre signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Red Sox and sent his stock soaring by hitting .321/.365/.553 with 49 doubles, 28 home runs, 102 RBI and 7.8 WAR.

    That stellar performance earned him a six-year deal with the Texas Rangers, and over the life of that contract, he solidified his place as one of the greatest third basemen in MLB history and a sure-fire future Hall of Famer.

    While he played eight seasons with the Rangers, over that initial six-year pact he hit .308/.358/.516 for a 132 OPS+ while averaging 32 doubles, 28 home runs, 94 RBI and 6.0 WAR. During that time, he earned three All-Star selections, won three Gold Gloves and finished in the top 10 in AL MVP balloting four different times.

    The Rangers made back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011, which stand as the only two trips to the Fall Classic in franchise history.

    Enshrinement in Cooperstown awaits in 2024.

    Honorable Mentions: Adrian Beltre (BOS), Wade Boggs (NYY), Bill Mueller (BOS), Terry Pendleton (ATL)

Shortstop: Alex Rodriguez, Texas Rangers

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Date: Jan. 26, 2001

    Terms: 10 years, $252 million

    Love him or hate him, Alex Rodriguez was a transcendent talent at his peak.

    Just look at his production during the three years of his mega deal:

    • 2001: 160 OPS+, .318/.399/.622, 52 HR, 135 RBI, 8.3 WAR
    • 2002: 158 OPS+, .300/.392/.623, 57 HR, 142 RBI, 8.8 WAR
    • 2003: 147 OPS+, .298/.396/.600, 47 HR, 118 RBI, 8.4 WAR

    Unfortunately, the Texas Rangers went a combined 216-270 during those three years, and he was traded in 2004 to the New York Yankees in exchange for Alfonso Soriano and a prospect who wasn't Robinson Cano but reportedly could have been.

    A-Rod would ultimately opt out of the contract after seven years, signing a new 10-year, $275 million deal with the Yankees. Along with his 2003 AL MVP with the Rangers, he won the award twice more in 2005 and 2007, but he didn't win his first World Series ring until he had moved on to his second 10-year deal.

    Still, this stands as the best free-agency signing at the shortstop position by a wide margin. Is that poised to change with this year's loaded free-agent class?

    Honorable Mentions: David Eckstein (STL), Miguel Tejada (BAL)

Outfielder: Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 8, 1992

    Terms: Six years, $43 million

    Barry Bonds was the headliner of a truly epic 1992-93 MLB free-agent class that also included Greg Maddux, David Cone, Mark McGwire, Kirby Puckett, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, Joe Carter, Dave Winfield, Doug Drabek and Jimmy Key.

    Already a two-time NL MVP entering his age-28 season, Bonds had just taken home the hardware during the 1992 season when he hit .311/.456/.624 with 34 home runs, 103 RBI, 109 runs scored and 39 steals with more walks (127) than strikeouts (69) in a 9.0-WAR season.

    The Giants made him baseball's highest-paid player with a six-year, $43 million deal, and that deal is often credited with saving baseball in San Francisco.

    The 28-year-old immediately won another MVP award in his first season with the team, hitting .336/.458/.677 for a 206 OPS+ while leading the NL in home runs (46) and RBI (123) and swiping 29 bases in a 9.9 WAR.

    He was worth 49.6 WAR over the life of his initial six-year contract in San Francisco, but the Giants made the playoffs just once during that stretch.

Outfielder: Manny Ramirez, Boston Red Sox

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 19, 2000

    Terms: Eight years, $160 million

    The Boston Red Sox's top target during the 2000-01 offseason was actually right-hander Mike Mussina, who signed with the New York Yankees on Dec. 7.

    A few weeks later, at the annual Winter Meetings, the Sox shifted gears and signed slugger Manny Ramirez to a massive eight-year deal.

    "It was important for us to get a player like that, and for us to have really good, identifiable players from a competitive basis," then-general manager Dan Duquette told reporters. "We thought that Manny would be a long-time fixture and fit in with the tradition of great Red Sox sluggers in left field."

    Suffice to say, he lived up to expectations.

    He hit .313/.412/.594 and averaged 36 home runs and 114 RBI over the first seven years of the contract, anchoring the lineup alongside David Ortiz for a pair of World Series winners in 2004 and 2007. In 43 postseason games during his time in Boston, he had a .980 OPS with 11 home runs and 38 RBI.

    The Red Sox traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers midway through the final year of his contract, bringing back Jason Bay in a three-way trade that also involved the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Outfielder: Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners

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    DAN LEVINE/Getty Images

    Date: Nov. 30, 2000

    Terms: Three years, $14.1 million

    Ichiro Suzuki already had nine professional seasons with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan under his belt when he made his way stateside and joined the Seattle Mariners on a three-year contract prior to the 2001 season.

    He was the first position player to make the jump from the Japanese League to MLB, and with that came a level of uncertainty, even with a .353 career average to his credit.

    It only took one season for him to silence any potential doubters, as he won the AL batting title (.350) and led the majors in hits (242) and steals (56) to win AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP for a Mariners team that won 116 games.

    He batted .328 with 662 hits during his initial team-friendly three-year contract, then re-upped with the Mariners on four-year, $44 million and five-year, $90 million extensions.

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

Right-Handed Starting Pitcher: Greg Maddux, Atlanta Braves

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    TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 9, 1992

    Terms: Five years, $28 million

    After winning the first Cy Young Award of his career with the Chicago Cubs in 1992, Greg Maddux was a hot commodity on the free-agent market that offseason.

    He reportedly had a five-year, $34 million offer on the table from the New York Yankees but instead joined the Atlanta Braves, where his first five years with the team represent one of the greatest stretches in MLB history:

    • 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

    He won the NL Cy Young in '93, '94 and '95, and he led the Braves to a World Series title in '95 en route to establishing himself as one of the greatest pitchers to ever set foot on an MLB mound.

    Honorable Mentions: Kevin Brown (FLA), Chris Carpenter (STL), Roger Clemens (TOR), David Cone (KC), Zack Greinke (LAD), Orlando Hernandez (NYY), Jack Morris (MIN), Mike Mussina (NYY), Nolan Ryan (HOU), Max Scherzer (WAS)

Left-Handed Starting Pitcher: Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    MIKE FIALA/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 10, 1998

    Terms: Four years, $53.4 million plus a $15 million club option in 2003

    Had it not been for a knee injury that limited Randy Johnson to 18 starts and a 4.26 ERA in 114 innings in the fifth year of this contract, this might be the greatest signing in MLB history.

    Heck, even with that injury, it's still very much in the conversation. Just look at what he did during the first four years of the deal:

    • 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

    That sheer dominance came at the height of the Steroid Era and resulted in four straight NL Cy Young wins.

    It also helped the D-backs capture a World Series title in 2001, when the "Big Unit" went 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 41.1 innings over five starts and one relief appearance. That includes 1.1 no-hit innings to close out Game 7 of the World Series after tossing seven innings of two-run ball the night before.

    Honorable Mentions: Mark Langston (CAL), Al Leiter (FLA), Jon Lester (CHC), CC Sabathia (NYY)

Relief Pitcher: Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Date: Dec. 18, 2012

    Terms: Two years, $9.25 million

    Right-hander Koji Uehara was already 34 years old when he made his MLB debut in 2009, and he had a 2.89 ERA with 14 saves in 157 appearances over four seasons when he joined the Boston Red Sox prior to the 2013 campaign.

    The Red Sox were in desperate need of stability in the closer's role after Alfredo Aceves (25/33 SV, 5.36 ERA) and Andrew Bailey (6/9 SV, 7.04 ERA) had both floundered in that role the previous season, but it wasn't Uehara who was initially expected to be the answer.

    Veteran Joel Hanrahan had been acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a six-player deal that sent a young Mark Melancon the other way, and he was fresh off a 36-save season and his second straight All-Star Game appearance. However, when he struggled to a 9.82 ERA with two blown saves in his first nine appearances, the ninth-inning role quickly returned to a state of flux.

    Uehara finally took over the job in late June, and he went on to post a pristine 1.09 ERA and 0.57 WHIP in 73 appearances with 21 saves in 24 chances. That success continued in October, as he nailed down all seven of his save chances and won ALCS MVP honors en route to a Red Sox title.

    He had 26 saves and a 2.52 ERA in 64 chances the following season to earn his first All-Star selection.

    Honorable Mentions: Rollie Fingers (SD), Goose Gossage (NYY), Joe Nathan (TEX), Billy Wagner (ATL)


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.