Maddux ranks at top of Braves' free-agent deals

Maddux ranks at top of Braves' free-agent deals

Before bidding adieu to the Hot Stove season, we asked our 30 beat reporters to look back at their club's past and answer the following question: Who is the best free-agent signing in the team's history?

We narrowed the choices with the following parameters: The signings had to be multiyear contracts, to exclude fluky one-year deals and to focus on players who got real commitments. And contract extensions don't count. Only instances when every team in the league had a chance to bid on the player were allowed, including international free agents who received Major League contracts.

ATLANTA -- Braves general manager John Schuerholz was under the impression he had acquired Barry Bonds, until he returned to Atlanta's Spring Training complex during that morning in 1992, when he learned the agreement he'd made with the Pirates the previous night had been nixed, essentially because of Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland's irate reaction to the proposed deal.

After eliminating the Pirates from the National League Championship Series for a second straight year, the Braves exited the 1992 season with the hope of snagging either Bonds, the reigning NL MVP Award winner, or Greg Maddux, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, off the free-agent market.

Bonds had a definite interest in playing for the Giants and Maddux was widely expected to sign with the Yankees. But as the Braves turned their interests toward enriching a starting rotation that already included Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery, they quickly learned Maddux was willing to take less money than the Yankees were offering for an opportunity to be a part of what the Braves were building in Atlanta.

It turned out to be the best free-agent deal in club history.

"We worked hard to get the best hitter in the game, and ended up with the best pitcher in the game," Schuerholz said.

After his five-year, $28 million deal was finalized during the 1992 Winter Meetings, Maddux proceeded to win each of the next three NL Cy Young Awards to become the first pitcher to receive this honor in four consecutive years. He remained with the Braves through the end of the 2003 season, compiling 194 wins and a 72.9 fWAR -- second only to the 77.9 fWAR fellow Hall of Famer Randy Johnson compiled within this span (1993-2003).

Maddux compiled a dazzling 2.22 ERA over the 191 starts he combined to make through his first six seasons with Atlanta. In the process, he developed a close bond with Smoltz and Glavine, the other two Hall of Fame pitchers who combined to help the Braves to maintain the base of those vaunted rotations that propelled the club toward a record 14 consecutive division titles (1991-2005), five NL pennants and one World Series title (1995).

Two months before his original deal with the Braves would have expired at the end of the 1997 season, Maddux signed a five-year, $57 million extension with Atlanta. Though he was 32 years old at the start of the deal, it still proved to be a wise investment as Pedro Martinez, Johnson and Kevin Brown were the only pitchers to produce a better ERA from 1998-2002.

"Some could argue [signing Maddux] set the fortunes of the organization in place for more than a decade," Schuerholz said.

Honorable mention free-agent deals

• Before Maddux helped extend the organization's success with his 1993 arrival, Terry Pendleton ignited the run when he left the Cardinals to sign a four-year, $10.2 million deal with the Braves before the 1991 season. Pendleton won the NL MVP Award that same season as he helped the Braves rise from their perennial last-place dwelling to experience the first of five trips made to the World Series during the 1990s. Pendleton solidified the defense at third base, became a mentor to his successor Chipper Jones and began a relationship that continues to thrive as he prepares for his 16th straight season on Atlanta's coaching staff.

•  Brian Jordan left the Cardinals after the 1998 season to come to Atlanta, where he had earned an NFL Pro Bowl selection during his brief stint (1989-91) with the Falcons. Jordan earned an NL All-Star selection in 1991 and compiled a 9.3 fWAR during his first three seasons with the Braves. He hit five home runs, including four against the second-place Mets, over the final 13 games of the 2001 season, which concluded with Atlanta winning the NL East before being eliminated by the D-backs in the NLCS.

• Smoltz entertained an offer to join the Yankees after the 2001 season, but instead opted to stay with the Braves, who provided him a chance to enrich his Hall of Fame resume with the dominant stint he experienced as their closer. Smoltz rejoined Atlanta's rotation in 2005 and remained an integral part of the organization until he experienced right shoulder issues in '08.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.