Bonds, Fisk also rate among best signings since 1976
By Manny Randhawa
During the Hot Stove season it's always fun, and in some cases even instructive, to look back at the best free-agent signings in MLB history. Will some of this winter's moves, including Edwin Encarnacion to the Indians, Dexter Fowler to the Cardinals and Mark Melancon to the Giants, end up on a list like this someday?
Here's the "All-Free Agent Team," a selection of players at each position that represent the best acquisitions since the advent of free agency in 1976.
These players were selected based on Wins Above Replacement per 162 games (or per 32 starts in the case of starting pitchers) while playing for the team they signed with as free agents. In some case, where that number was close, we looked at postseason contributions, length of service with the club and cost per WAR to break the "tie." Only players who signed a deal for three years or more were considered, as the goal was to identify players that a club made a major commitment to.
Left-handed starting pitcher: Randy Johnson to the D-backs in 1999 (8.1 WAR/32 starts over six seasons):
The Big Unit made a name for himself in Seattle, but it was in Arizona that the flame-throwing southpaw was at his best. Johnson signed a four-year, $52.4 million contract with the D-backs following the 1998 season.
It was the start of one of the greatest runs by any starting pitcher. Johnson won four consecutive National League Cy Young Awards from 1999-2002. He also helped the D-backs win their only World Series title in 2001, a victory over the Yankees for which he and rotation-mate Curt Schilling were named co-Most Valuable Players. Johnson posted a 1.52 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 41 1/3 innings that postseason.
Right-handed starting pitcher: Greg Maddux to the Braves in 1993 (5.8 WAR/32 starts over 11 seasons):
By the end of the '92 season, Maddux was one of the premier starters in the Majors, having won his first NL Cy Young Award in his final season with the Cubs. He'd win three more over the next three seasons with his new club, the Braves.
The 26-year-old signed a five-year, $28 million deal with Atlanta in December 1992. In 11 seasons with the Braves, Maddux had a 2.63 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. He pitched in three World Series (1995, '96 and '99), and posted a career 2.09 ERA in 38 2/3 innings in the Fall Classic.
Although Roger Clemens had a higher WAR/32 starts for the Astros from 2004-06 (6.5), Maddux's postseason success over a longer period with the Braves gets him the nod.
Relief pitcher: Rich "Goose" Gossage to the Yankees in 1978 (3.1 WAR/162 in six seasons)
Coming off three straight All-Star selections, a 26-year-old Gossage donned the pinstripes in 1978, having signed a six-year, $3.6 million deal.
New York won the World Series in Gossage's first season as the club's closer. The right-hander led the American League with 27 saves and posted a 2.01 ERA in 134 1/3 innings. He earned the first of four All-Star selections in six seasons with the Yankees.
Gossage pitched in two World Series for New York -- in '78 and '81, both against the Dodgers -- and combined for 11 scoreless innings of relief. Overall, Gossage posted a 2.10 ERA in 308 appearances for the Yankees from 1978-83.
Catcher: Carlton Fisk to White Sox in 1981 (3.3 WAR/162 in 13 seasons)
Following 11 seasons with the Red Sox that included seven All-Star selections and an iconic home run to win Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, Fisk left Boston in '81 and joined the White Sox on a five-year, $2.9 million contract.
Fisk would play 12-plus seasons for the South Siders, earning four more All-Star selections. He produced better than a 3 WAR in a season six times, including a 4.8-WAR season in 1990 at age 42, and he hit 214 home runs for the White Sox.
First base: Rafael Palmeiro to Orioles in 1994 (5.2 WAR/162 games in five seasons)
Palmeiro was coming off a career-best performance in 1993, hitting .295/.371/.554 with 37 home runs and 105 RBIs for the Rangers, when he signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract with the Orioles.
The 30-year-old first baseman hit 182 home runs over his five seasons with Baltimore (he returned for two seasons at the end of his career in 2004 and '05), and he produced a WAR of 4.0 or better in every season but one (3.2 in '97).
Second base: Roberto Alomar to the Indians in 1999 (7.0 WAR/162 in three seasons)
Alomar was coming off nine consecutive All-Star appearances and seven Gold Glove Awards in those nine seasons when the Indians signed the 30-year-old free agent to a four-year, $32 million contract.
Though he was traded prior to the fourth year of the deal, Alomar hit .323/.405/.515 for Cleveland from 1999-2001, and was named an All-Star and a Gold Glove Award winner each season. He finished in the top four in AL MVP voting in two of those seasons, '99 and '01.
In the '99 ALDS against the Red Sox, Alomar hit .368 (7-for-19) with four doubles, three RBIs and two stolen bases in five games.
Shortstop: Miguel Tejada to Orioles in 2004 (5.2 WAR/162 over four seasons)
Baltimore signed the 2002 AL MVP to a six-year, $72 million contract in December 2003. He was an All-Star in three of four seasons before being traded to the Astros following the '07 season.
Tejada posted an .865 OPS or better in each season from '04-'06, leading the Majors with 150 RBIs in '04 and tied for the lead in doubles with 50 in '05.
While Alex Rodriguez posted an 8.5 WAR/162 games over three seasons for the Rangers after signing a record-breaking $252 million contract in 2000, his cost per WAR was over $5 million as a result of the $67 million of his remaining salary Texas paid when trading him to the Yankees in 2004. As a result, we'll give Tejada the nod for providing more bang for the buck.
Third base: Adrian Beltre to the Rangers in 2011 (6.9 WAR/162 in six seasons)
Beltre was entering his age-32 season when Texas signed him to a six-year, $96 million contract, giving up a first-round pick to Boston in the process (the Red Sox selected Blake Swihart). The deal has paid dividends so far, with Beltre continuing to shine both at the plate and in the field.
Beltre has been a three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove Award winner in that span, and in the 2011 World Series against the Cardinals, Beltre hit .300 (9-for-30) with two doubles, two homers and three RBIs.
Left field: Barry Bonds to the Giants in 1993 (9.2 WAR/162 over 15 seasons)
With the Giants on the brink of being sold and relocated to Florida, a new ownership group purchased the team and acquired Bonds, a two-time NL MVP while with the Pirates. The contract was for six years and $43.75 million, at the time the largest in baseball history.
Bonds won his third NL MVP Award in '93. He went on to win four more MVP Awards with San Francisco, setting a record with 73 home runs in 2001.
Until 2002, Bonds had been notoriously unproductive in the postseason, but that October for the Giants, he hit .356 (16-for-45) with eight home runs and 16 RBIs, leading San Francisco to the NL pennant.
Center field: Johnny Damon to the Red Sox in 2002 (4.4 WAR/162 over four seasons)
Damon was coming off his worst offensive season (.687 OPS) since his rookie year when Boston signed him to a four-year, $31 million contract in December 2001. But his first season with the Red Sox was also his first All-Star season, as Damon slashed .286/.356/.443 with a Major League-leading 11 triples, 14 home runs and 63 RBIs.
Two years later, Damon posted an .857 OPS with 20 home runs and a career-high 94 RBIs to help the Red Sox reach the postseason for the second straight year. He hit .467 in the AL Division Series against the Angels, and once the Red Sox reached the World Series, Damon hit .286 with two doubles, a triple and a home run to help lift Boston to its first championship in 86 years.
Right field: Larry Walker to the Rockies in 1995 (6.7 WAR/162 in 10 seasons)
The Rockies were entering their third season as a Major League franchise when they landed free-agent right fielder Larry Walker with a four-year, $22.5 million contract.
Walker, who played for the Expos during the first six years of his big league career, began his tenure in Colorado by posting a .988 OPS with 36 home runs and 101 RBIs in 131 games in `95.
Walker saw his '96 campaign cut short due to injury, but in '97 he had a huge season, slashing .366/.452/.720 with 49 home runs and 130 RBIs to claim the NL MVP Award.
Walker won the first of three batting titles with the Rockies in '98, and Colorado signed him to a six-year, $75 million extension in '99. He was a four-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove Award winner in 10 seasons with the Rockies.
Designated Hitter: Don Baylor to Yankees in 1983 (2.7 WAR/162 over three seasons)
The Yankees signed the 33-year-old Baylor to a four-year, $3.7 million contract in December 1982. Four seasons earlier, Baylor was voted the 1979 AL MVP, but he hadn't produced similar offensive numbers since.
In his first season with New York, Baylor approached his '79 form, hitting over .300 for the first time in his career while posting an .856 OPS. In all, Baylor would hit .267/.345/.472 while averaging 24 home runs and 88 RBIs in three seasons before the Yankees traded him to the Red Sox in '86.
Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.