The best free-agent deals ever, ranked

With one more great season, Scherzer could top the list

January 22nd, 2021

Prior to the 2014 season, the Tigers offered Max Scherzer, then 29 years old and fresh off an American League Cy Young win in '13, a six-year extension worth $144 million. Scherzer declined it, feeling he could do better, and after another good season in 2014 (this time finishing fifth in the Cy Young balloting), he did just that, signing a seven-year deal with the Nationals worth $210 million, though taking into account how much of it was deferred, the dollar value at the time was more like $185 million.

Setting that issue aside, it was at the time the second-largest contract given to a pitcher -- Clayton Kershaw had signed for $215 million the year before -- and it remains to this day in the top five. It was a little risky because of the dollar amount, and it was viewed as something of an unexpected fit, given that the 2014 Nationals already had baseball's best rotation ERA (3.04) and were forced to move Tanner Roark (who had thrown 198 2/3 innings with a 2.85 ERA) into the bullpen to make room.

Six years later, we have the benefit of hindsight. Scherzer, 37 in July, is entering the final season of that contract. Let's take a look to see what it brought the Nationals:

• 1,118 innings, most in baseball
• 34.5 WAR, best in baseball among pitchers
• 2.80 ERA, third-best among starters
• Back-to-back Cy Youngs (2016, 2017)
• 5 straight top-5 finishes in the Cy Young (2015-19)
• 5 All-Star selections in 5 years (2020 did not have All-Stars)
• A no-hitter (2015)
Another no-hitter (also 2015, arguably the best-pitched game)
• A 20-strikeout game, against his former Tigers team, no less (2016)
• 49 1/3 postseason innings, with a 2.92 ERA
• The 2019 World Series trophy
• A nearly assured Nationals cap in Cooperstown in the future

You might say it worked out.

Actually, you might say a lot more than that. You might say it was an overwhelming success in every conceivable way, that it now looks like a bargain for the Nationals, that it was a steal at twice the price, almost no matter what Scherzer does in 2021. (Even in 2020, when he had his highest ERA since 2012, he still struck out 92 in 67 1/3 innings.) And you might say that given what Scherzer provided, it was perhaps the best free-agent signing of all time.

So ... could you say that? How would one even define that? Let's give it a shot.

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Let's try to set some rules.

First, we're only going to look at true free-agent deals, not contract extensions.

Second, we're going to only look at deals of at least three years, because we're trying to look for the big-ticket decisions, not outlier situations when a player like Justin Turner signs a Minor League deal or David Ortiz gets a one-year deal and suddenly turn their careers around.

Third, just signings of Major Leaguers, not international arrivals like Ichiro Suzuki, Aroldis Chapman or José Abreu.

Fourth, just initial contracts, not secondary ones that kept the player around beyond the initial term -- and on that note, players had to have stuck around with their original team for at least half the contract before being traded. (Sorry, A-Rod.)

Finally, we're not going to worry too much about the dollars, because that has obviously changed massively over the years; the highest-paid pitcher in 1989, for example, was Orel Hershiser ... who made all of $2.8 million that season. When the Yankees signed Reggie Jackson in 1976, it was for five years and $2.9 million. Total. This isn't about dollars per WAR, or surplus value, though if you must, FanGraphs estimates Scherzer's production has been worth $276 million thus far, a number that certainly does not include the extra value of a World Series win.

What we're trying to get to is this: Who did the best to add a great player when they had the chance to?

So, we invented a junk stat, a hastily thrown-together and somewhat-arbitrary way to evaluate, just to have some kind of methodology here. We searched for a few dozen of the most notable free-agent signings over the decades -- skipping, obviously, the ones who are still early on in the contract, like Bryce Harper and Gerrit Cole -- and we came up with a points system.

We started off with the average WAR/year, because nothing is more important than how a player performs. (Example: Kirk Gibson had 9.9 WAR over three years with the Dodgers, an average of 3.3 per year.) We added one point for each above-average year (2 WAR or more), which in Gibson's case was true for two of the three years, and another two points for each MVP or Cy Young Award won. That's two more points for Gibson, the 1988 NL MVP.

Then we added two more points for each World Series-winning team they were a part of, because isn't winning it all the point of adding a top free agent, even if it's still a team game? That's another two for Gibson; we also gave one point for being on a team that made it to the World Series and lost. In a few cases, a bonus point was added if the player was traded before the end of the contract for someone who ended up continuing to help the team, like when the Mets turned Carlos Beltrán into Zack Wheeler. As we said: junk stat. We invite you to come up with your own superior system. You can see our full list and results here.

Here, by this method, are the 10 best free-agent signings in baseball history.

1) Randy Johnson, D-backs, 1999-2002

4 seasons, 4 Cy Youngs, 4 above-average seasons, 1 title, 9.9 WAR/yr

Our system may not be flawless, but it does have Johnson at the top, and it is almost literally impossible to do better than "four consecutive Cy Young Awards in every season of a four-year contract, and the franchise's first -- and to date, only -- World Series title." How do you do better than that? You don't. You can't. The system works.

Johnson was also notable for basically putting a second-year D-backs franchise on the map, joining them a year after the original 1998 Arizona squad had lost 97 games. He was already 35 years old by the time he arrived, but he contributed a 39.7 WAR (9.9 WAR/year) over the four years of his initial contract, a span that's without hyperbole on the short list for some of the very best pitching in baseball history.

2) Greg Maddux, Braves, 1993-97

5 seasons, 3 Cy Youngs, 5 above-average seasons, 1 title, 1 pennant, 7.8 WAR/yr

It's not like Maddux is that far behind, though. Coming off a 1992 NL Cy Young win with the Cubs, he signed a five-year deal with the Braves and won the Cy the first three years he was in Atlanta, also helping the Braves to a World Series title in '95 and a follow-up appearance in '96. Speaking of being "on the short list for some of the very best pitching in baseball history," this qualifies, too, and his numbers might have looked even better had he not missed out on a dozen or so starts due to the 1994-95 strike and lockout. Over these five years, Maddux had a 2.13 ERA.

3) Max Scherzer, Nationals, 2015-21

6 seasons, 2 Cy Youngs, 6 above-average seasons, 1 title, 6.1 WAR/yr

It feels, to us, that, "Yes, Scherzer is one of the best pitchers ever, and was one of the best free-agent signings ever," but also, "No, he's not quite as good as Johnson or Maddux" sounds about ... right? In the first six years of this deal, Scherzer has been above-average six times, with the pair of Cy Youngs and the 2019 World Series ring.

If he has another very strong full season in 2021, it's not out of the question he jumps to No. 1 on this list. We wouldn't bet on it, but it's possible. So as to our original question of, "Is he the best free agent signing ever?" the answer is, "Not yet, but he's in the conversation."

4) Roger Clemens, Blue Jays, 1997-98

2 seasons, 2 Cy Youngs, 2 above-average seasons, 10.1 WAR/yr, returned value in trade

Here, perhaps, we have our first controversial ranking, because Clemens only lasted in Canada for two seasons. (He qualifies here despite our three-season minimum, because he signed a four-year deal with the Blue Jays after 13 seasons with the Red Sox.) The Blue Jays didn't win anything in those two years; they didn't even make the playoffs. So in order to make it here, those two seasons would have needed to be astronomically, historically great, and ... well, they were.

Clemens won the Cy both seasons, handily in 1997 and unanimously in '98. He threw 498 2/3 innings with a 2.33 ERA for Toronto, averaging 10.2 WAR across the two seasons. That '97 season -- 11.9 WAR -- is legitimately one of the single greatest pitching seasons in baseball history. We tossed in a bonus point here, too, because when he requested a trade after the '98 season, the Blue Jays turned the remaining two years of his contract into David Wells, who would finish third in the Cy Young voting in 2000, as well as Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd.

5) Barry Bonds, Giants, 1993-98

6 seasons, 1 MVP, 6 above-average seasons, 8.3 WAR/yr

Remember, we're talking just about the first six years of Bonds' time with the Giants, so this doesn't include the four straight MVP Awards from 2001-04, or helping the Giants reach the World Series in 2002, or the 73 homers in '01, or really any of the span that ended up ruining his legacy. We're not including any of that, and this still rates this highly, which tells you a lot about how great Bonds was, and how great this signing ended up being.

Bonds had won the NL MVP in 1992 with the Pirates, his second in three years, and then immediately captured the '93 award as well. He'd post a line of .307/.445/.617 over the six years of his initial deal, slamming 235 homers, and because he was, at the time, still an outstanding defensive left fielder, he put up 49.6 WAR (average of 8.3/year) during the length of the contract, the highest of anyone on our list. The only reason he isn't higher here is because the Giants didn't win much, and he wouldn't win another MVP until 2001.

6) Manny Ramírez, Red Sox, 2001-08

8 seasons, 8 above-average seasons, 2 titles, 4.2 WAR/yr, returned value in trade

Ramírez mashed in Cleveland for parts of eight seasons, then signed an eight-year deal with Boston ahead of the 2001 season. To say it went well was something of an understatement; Ramírez finished in the Top 10 of MVP voting each of the first five seasons, notably helping the Red Sox break their curse in 2004, as well as winning a second title in '07. While the end of this marriage was a messy one, Ramírez was an above-average player every single one of his eight seasons in Boston, and as a bonus, when he was traded to the Dodgers in 2008, part of the return from the three-way trade with Pittsburgh was Jason Bay -- who hit 45 homers with 7.2 WAR over a season and a half with the Red Sox.

7) Adrián Beltré, Rangers, 2011-16

6 seasons, 1 pennant, 6 above-average seasons, 6.0 WAR/yr

Fresh off a successful one-year stint in Boston, Beltré signed a six-year deal with Texas. He received MVP votes in each of the six seasons, he hit 30 homers or more four times, he continued to play outstanding defense and the Rangers went to the World Series in his first season there. Simply put, he was outstanding in each of the six seasons, and what more can you ask out of a free-agent contract than that?

The partnership was so successful that he came back for two additional seasons before retiring, and despite not even arriving in Texas until he was 32, it seems incredibly likely he'll be wearing a Rangers cap when he's inducted into Cooperstown in a few years.

8) Mike Mussina, Yankees, 2001-06

6 seasons, 6 above-average seasons, 2 pennants, 4.8 WAR/yr

Mussina landed in the Bronx after a successful decade with Baltimore, and the Yankees went to the World Series twice in his first three seasons, though obviously the club had already built a considerable core before he even arrived. Still, like Beltré, Mussina was good to great for each of the seasons in his original contract, later choosing to return for two more seasons. Though he never racked up any hardware with the Yankees, the fact that he was solidly good -- averaging 4.8 WAR/year in these six years -- makes this one of the better free-agent signings on record and helped push him into the Hall of Fame in 2019.

9) Kevin Brown, Marlins, 1996-97

2 seasons, 2 above-average seasons, 1 title, 7.5 WAR/yr, returned value in trade

After three seasons flailing about as an expansion franchise, the Marlins went out and signed Brown to a three-year contract entering the 1996 season, and the results were stunning. In his first year, he posted a 1.89 ERA in 233 innings, finishing second in the Cy Young voting. In his second year, he posted a 2.69 ERA in 237 1/3 more innings, including throwing a no-hitter, as the Marlins pushed their way to a most unexpected World Series title. Over those two seasons, he was worth 14.9 WAR. He probably should be in the Hall of Fame.

And then .. he was gone. In what would have been the third season of his deal, the Marlins blew up a World Series team, shipping Brown off to San Diego. That move wasn't fruitless -- part of the return was young first baseman Derrek Lee, who would be Florida's regular first baseman for the next six seasons, including during their second World Series run in 2003 -- but it sure would have been nice to see what Brown and the rest of those '97 Marlins could have done for an encore.

10) Reggie Jackson, Yankees, 1977-81

5 seasons, 4 above-average seasons, 2 titles, 1 pennant, 3.4 WAR/yr

It feels right to have this one in here, because this is definitely among the most famous free-agent deals of all time, coming as it did in the initial group of free agents when the concept was first introduced. Jackson actually turned down more money from the Expos and the Padres to join the Yankees, where he would famously become "Mr. October" for his exploits in helping New York win back-to-back titles in '77 and '78. (They'd return and lose to the Dodgers in his final season there in '81, too.) All told, Jackson had a 148 OPS+, helped the team reach three World Series, and got George Steinbrenner the headlines he craved.

Next up: Dave Henderson (A's 1988-90), Matt Holliday (Cardinals 2010-16) Vladimir Guerrero (Angels 2004-09), Carlos Beltrán (Mets 2005-11) and Goose Gossage (Yankees 1978-83).