12 free-agent deals that delivered instant payoffs

November 25th, 2023

Any team that signs a marquee free agent is obviously looking for an immediate impact, whether the deal is for one year, five years or 10. Of course, that doesn't always happen -- but there are plenty of examples of players making sensational first impressions.

Here are a dozen players who stepped up in a big way in Year 1 after signing a free-agent contract with a new team. (WAR listed is via Baseball Reference.)

2018: , Red Sox, OF/DH
Full contract: 5 years, $109.95 million (2018-22)
First season: .330/.402/.629, 43 HR, 130 RBI, 6.4 WAR

Martinez didn’t sign until late February in 2018, but that didn’t hamper his first season in Boston after coming over from Arizona. He hit 43 homers, two shy of his career high from 2017 and more than any other Red Sox player had hit in his first season with the team. Martinez had a career-high .330 batting average. He played in the outfield and served as the designated hitter, excelling at the plate to the point that he received two Silver Sluggers -- for the outfield and DH. Martinez chased the American League Triple Crown into September and finished fourth in the AL MVP Award voting, while Boston won the World Series.

2004: , RF, Angels
Full contract:
5 years, $70 million (2004-08)
First season: .337/.391/.598, 39 HR, 126 RBI, 5.6 WAR

Guerrero signed with the Angels following a 2003 season with the Expos that limited him to just 112 games due to a herniated disc that kept him out in June and July. He showed no lingering effects, hitting .337, the second-highest mark of his career, with a .598 slugging percentage and 39 home runs. Guerrero won the AL MVP Award -- the only such honor of his career -- after leading the Angels to an AL West title. At the time, he was just the second Halos player to win the MVP Award (Don Baylor in 1979), though Mike Trout has since joined them (2014, '16 and '19).

2001: , RF, Mariners
Full contract: 3 years, $14 million (2001-03)
First season: .350/.381/.457, 8 HR, 56 SB, 7.7 WAR

Ichiro’s free agency wasn’t the same as the others on this list, as he was posted by the Orix Blue Wave, his Japanese club, and the Mariners paid a fee for the right to sign him. He came to Major League Baseball having won seven straight batting titles in Japan’s Pacific League and wasted no time with Seattle, leading the Majors with 242 hits and hitting .350 to spur the Mariners to 116 victories. Ichiro also stole 56 bases and became just the second player to win an MVP Award and a Rookie of the Year Award in the same season (Fred Lynn, Red Sox, 1975), and he tacked on a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, too.

2001: , LF, Red Sox
Full contract: 8 years, $160 million (2001-08)
First season: .306/.405/.609, 41 HR, 125 RBI, 5.2 WAR

Ramirez, who signed with the Red Sox after seven stellar seasons with Cleveland, was overshadowed a bit by Ichiro, but he posted his third 40-homer season in a four-season span, slugged .609 and knocked in 125 runs. He finished ninth in a crowded AL MVP Award field that included Ichiro’s aforementioned season, a 9.2-WAR showing from Jason Giambi (finished second), 52 home runs from Alex Rodriguez (sixth) and 49 homers from Jim Thome (seventh), among others.

2001: , SS, Rangers
Full contract: 10 years, $252 million (2001-10)
First season: .318/.399/.622, 52 HR, 135 RBI, 8.3 WAR

Rodriguez’s first season in Texas under his record-breaking contract featured his first 50-homer season. He also led the AL with 393 total bases and played in all 162 games for the Rangers. As noted above, Rodriguez finished sixth in the AL MVP Award voting, playing on a Rangers team that went 75-87 while the Mariners, his old team, won a record 116 games led by Ichiro, their new star. Because of Texas' underwhelming record -- and Seattle's ascent -- A-Rod was seen as a disappointment by many, but it's hard to argue with 8.3 WAR, which was third among AL position players behind Giambi (9.2) and Bret Boone (8.8).

1999: , LHP, D-backs
Full contract: 4 years, $52.4 million (1999-2002)
First season: 17-9, 2.48 ERA, 364 K, 9.1 WAR

Johnson was 35 years old in his first season with the D-backs after a half-season in Houston, but the late bloomer showed no signs of slowing down in what was a 100-win campaign for Arizona. He won the first of four consecutive Cy Young Awards in that first season (yes, he won the National League Cy Young Award in every year of this contract) and received NL MVP Award consideration for the third straight season (he would earn MVP votes in five of the six seasons from 1999-2004). His 364 strikeouts were fourth most in a season in the Modern Era (Since 1900), but are now fifth most -- after he notched 372 in 2001.

1997: , RHP, Blue Jays
Full contract: 4 years, $40 million (1997-2000)
First season: 21-7, 2.05 ERA, 292 K, 11.9 WAR

Clemens’ first start with Toronto was a complete game against the White Sox in which he allowed just one run. He never looked back that season, throwing nine complete games, including three shutouts. Clemens struck out a career-high 292 batters and posted a 2.05 ERA that was, at the time, the second best of his career (later pushed to third by his career-best 1.87 ERA In 2005). He won his fourth career AL Cy Young Award in that first season with the Blue Jays and went on to win two in two years in Toronto before being traded to the Yankees.

1996: , RHP, Marlins
Full contract: 3 years, $12.6 million (1996-98)
First season: 17-11, 1.89 ERA, 159 K, 7.9 WAR

Before his first season with the Marlins, Brown had received Cy Young Award votes just once in his career, in 1992 while still with the Rangers. He’d never had an ERA under 3.30 and never had a WHIP below 1.18. Brown posted career bests in ERA and WHIP in his first season in South Florida after one year with the Orioles. Opponents slugged just .289 against him. Brown finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting to John Smoltz, who had seven more wins and an ERA that was more than a run higher (2.94), along with 117 more strikeouts.

1993: , RHP, Braves
Full contract: 5 years, $28 million (1993-97)
First season: 20-10, 2.36 ERA, 197 K, 5.8 WAR

Maddux, who won the 1992 NL Cy Young Award with the Cubs, had competing offers to stay in Chicago or go to the Yankees, but he chose to sign with the Braves, whose pitching staff already had Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery. Maddux fit right in with the strong arms, leading the staff with a 2.36 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. He won the second of what would end up being four straight NL Cy Young Awards in that first season in Atlanta, which piled up 104 victories.

1993: , LF, Giants
Full contract: 6 years, $43.75 million (1993-98)
First season: .336/.458/.677, 46 HR, 123 RBI, 9.9 WAR

Bonds won the 1992 NL MVP Award with the Pirates and had plenty to live up to in San Francisco, where his father, Bobby, and godfather, Willie Mays, once played. So what did he do? He started off his tenure with the Giants with 46 home runs, a career high for him at the time. Bonds led all of baseball by a large margin in OPS and slugging percentage. He won his second consecutive NL MVP Award and his third overall. Bonds would finish his career with seven NL MVP Awards in total.

1988: , LF, Dodgers
Full contract: 3 years, $4.5 million (1988-90)
First season: .290/.377/.483, 25 HR, 31 SB, 6.5 WAR

Gibson had hit 20-plus home runs in each of the four seasons with the Tigers prior to signing with the Dodgers, with 25-plus steals in each of those seasons, too. But by WAR, he had a career year in 1988 at 6.5. Gibson hit 25 home runs, stole 31 bases and won the NL MVP Award. And none of that even considers his postseason performance in '88 -- his legendary walk-off home run in Game 1 of the World Series alone gets him onto this list, considering that’s a pretty powerful first-season statement to make as a free agent.

1977: , RF, Yankees
Full contract: 5 years, $3 million (1977-81)
First season: .286/.375/.550, 32 HR, 110 RBI, 4.5 WAR

Jackson’s regular season was good, but not necessarily award-worthy like the others noted above. But he’s here because of his performance in Game 6 of the World Series in his first season with the Yankees. Jackson hit three home runs, the third time in World Series history that a player had hit three home runs in a game, and the first time someone other than Babe Ruth had done it (1926 Game 4, '28 Game 4).