Big Unit deal ranks No. 1 in D-backs history

Hall of Fame pitcher wins 4 NL Cy Young Awards, WS title

Big Unit deal ranks No. 1 in D-backs history

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.

PHOENIX -- It's hard to believe now, but when the Arizona Diamondbacks signed Randy Johnson to a four-year, $52 million free-agent contract following the 1998 season it was greeted with some skepticism in the game.

Johnson was 35 years old at the time he signed the deal and the D-backs were coming off an inaugural season which saw them lose 97 games.

History, however, remembers the deal as not only the best signing in D-backs history, but quite possibly one of the all-time best free-agent pitching contracts.

Here's some of what Johnson accomplished over those four seasons:

• Four National League Cy Young Awards.

• A World Series championship in 2001, which included a co-MVP Award with Johnson pitching in relief in Game 7 -- one day after starting and winning Game 6.

• Johnson's win totals were 17, 19, 21 and 24.

• Johnson easily led baseball in innings pitched with totals of 271 2/3, 248 2/3, 249 2/3 and 260.

• The D-backs won the NL West in 1999, 2001 and '02.

• In 1,030 innings, Johnson fanned 1,417 and had an ERA+ of 187.

Johnson grateful for scouts

Johnson lived in the Phoenix area and some speculated that he valued the money and living at home more than winning.

The Big Unit bristled at that during a media conference to announce his signing.

"A lot of people in the last couple of days have been wondering why I would choose the Diamondbacks when all I've ever talked about is wanting to win," Johnson said. "Well, I feel that I'm not going to lose anything by coming here. This team is not the same team that lost last year."

Indeed, then-owner Jerry Colangelo had already signed free-agent pitchers Todd Stottlemyre and Greg Swindell, along with infielder Greg Colbrunn, to help accelerate the team's progress.

"Had Jerry not done what he's done in the last couple of weeks, I wouldn't have felt this team was as good on paper as some of the other teams I was interested in going to," Johnson said. "So if those things hadn't been done, I'd probably be holding a press conference some place else."

Good thing for the D-backs that wasn't the case as they went on to win 100 games in 1999, becoming the quickest expansion franchise to accomplish that feat.

Honorable Mentions

Paul Goldschmidt's five-year, $32 million deal he signed prior to the 2013 season is not a free-agent agreement, but it is one of the best decisions in the organization's history. Since signing the deal, Goldschmidt has made four All-Star Game appearance and has twice finished second in the NL Most Valuable Player Award voting, while compiling an OPS of .949

• Not long after Johnson signed his deal, free-agent outfielder Steve Finley reached out to Colangelo and expressed his interest in joining the D-backs. Finley signed a four-year, $21.5 million contract, and over the four years in addition to winning two Gold Glove Awards, Finley hit 108 home runs and had an OPS of .852.

Steve Gilbert has covered the D-backs for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGilbertMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.