Snell becomes latest Cy-winning free agent

November 15th, 2023

Blake Snell picked a good time to become the best pitcher in the National League.

Snell won the NL Cy Young Award on Wednesday, which put him on two exclusive lists. One, he is the seventh pitcher to win a Cy Young in each league. And more importantly for this space, he is the 11th pitcher to be a free agent immediately following a Cy Young Award win.

Six of the previous 10 pitchers changed teams. The other four all re-signed with the club they’d been on when they won the award. What will happen to Snell this offseason? We will see.

Until then, here’s a look at the Cy Young winners who were free agents in the offseason after winning the award, in reverse chronological order by the year in which they won the award, and where they ended up signing.

2023: Blake Snell, Padres
Signed with: TBD
Entering his May 31 start against the Marlins, Snell owned a 5.04 ERA and had served up nine homers through his first 10 outings. The left-hander then dealt six scoreless innings that night in Miami, beginning an incredible run over the season’s final four months that helped him lock up his second Cy Young.

Snell allowed zero runs in 12 of his final 22 starts. He pitched 130 innings over that span and gave up only 68 hits and six homers while striking out 180 batters. He ended with an MLB-best 2.25 ERA and an NL-leading 6.0 bWAR among pitchers.

2022: Justin Verlander, Astros
Signed with NYM
Verlander faced quite a bit of uncertainty heading into 2022, having not pitched since July 2020 due to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. And yet, at age 39, Verlander answered those questions decisively. He made his ninth All-Star team, going 18-4 with an MLB-best 1.75 ERA and 220 ERA+, also leading the Majors in WHIP (0.83). Afterward, he was a unanimous choice for his third Cy Young Award and became the fourth-oldest pitcher to win one.

2021: Robbie Ray, Blue Jays
Signed with SEA
Ray had a 6.62 ERA in 2020, then led the AL at 2.84 in ‘21. That 6.62 mark was the highest ERA for a pitcher in the season prior to winning a Cy Young, per the Elias Sports Bureau. He led the Majors with 248 strikeouts, and his 1.05 WHIP led the AL. He won the award in November after officially hitting free agency, then signed a five-year, $115 million contract with the Mariners later in the month.

2020: Trevor Bauer, Reds
Signed with LAD
Bauer, the 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner, was a free agent before he announced he was joining the Dodgers on a three-year deal after adding a very notable honor to his résumé.

Bauer had a great season, posting the second-lowest ERA in the Majors and lowest in the NL, at 1.73. His contract-year performance was already on the way to netting him a notable deal on the free-agent market. But his situation of being a free agent who won a Cy Young Award is unique. He was the eighth pitcher to be a free agent in the offseason immediately following a Cy Young Award win, and just the fourth to change teams, with the other four all re-signing with the team they’d won the award with.

2004: Roger Clemens, Astros
Re-signed with HOU
Clemens was in his age-41 season when he won the seventh and final Cy Young Award of his career. The Texas-raised hurler had signed as a free agent on a one-year deal with the Astros entering 2004, following a five-year tenure with the Yankees and an initial retirement announcement after 2003. He had a 2.98 ERA and 212 strikeouts in ‘04, beating Randy Johnson and teammate Roy Oswalt for the award.

He became a free agent after the season, and at the time of the award announcement, had not formally stated whether he planned to pitch in 2005 or not. As the offseason progressed, he made it known he did want to pitch, and returned to the Astros on a one-year, $18 million deal. At the time, it was the largest total value for any one-year contract in history.

1996: John Smoltz, Braves
Re-signed with ATL
Smoltz won his first and only Cy Young Award in 1996, in a year where he had a 2.94 ERA in 253 2/3 innings. He led the Majors with 276 strikeouts and received all but two of the 28 available first-place votes for NL Cy Young, beating out Kevin Brown. At 29 years old, Smoltz was set to be a free agent for the first time following the season.

He re-signed with the Braves relatively quickly, inking a new contract in late November. At four years and $31 million, it was, at the time, the largest contract for a pitcher in baseball history by both total value and average annual value. It was superseded by another Braves pitcher a few months later, when the team gave Tom Glavine a four-year, $34 million extension.

1992: Greg Maddux, Cubs
Signed with ATL
Speaking of that vaunted Braves rotation, Maddux joined it following his first Cy Young Award. In 1992 he had a 2.18 ERA in a Major League-leading 268 innings for the Cubs as a 26-year-old with free agency on the immediate horizon. Maddux received a $34 million offer from the Yankees, but signed with the Braves -- on the heels of back-to-back World Series appearances -- instead, for $28 million. That total value still set the record for the largest pitcher contract at the time.

Maddux’s 1992 award was his first of four straight, which established a record matched only once since, by Randy Johnson. He’s also the only pitcher to win two consecutive Cy Young Awards with two different teams.

1990: Bob Welch, A's
Re-signed with OAK
As a 33-year-old in 1990, Welch had a 2.95 ERA, 127 strikeouts and 27 wins in 35 starts. He won the AL Cy Young, receiving 15 of 28 first-place votes, ahead of Roger Clemens -- who had a 1.93 ERA and 209 strikeouts.

In December, Welch re-signed with the A’s for four years and $13 million. He made 35 starts again in 1991, but never posted an ERA below 3.25 again, finishing his career after 1994 in Oakland.

1989: Mark Davis, Padres
Signed with KC
Davis, who began his career primarily as a starter, made 70 appearances in 1989, all in relief. It was his second season pitching exclusively out of the bullpen. In ‘89, he recorded 44 saves and had a 1.85 ERA. He received 19 of 24 first-place votes for the award, beating out second and third place finishers Mike Scott and Greg Maddux.

In December, Davis signed with the Royals, netting a four-year, $13 million contract. Davis joined none other than fellow 1989 Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen on the Royals’ staff, marking the first time a team entered a season with both reigning winners from the previous season.

1984: Rick Sutcliffe, Cubs
Re-signed with CHC
Sutcliffe became the first -- and to this point only -- pitcher to win a Cy Young Award after an in-season trade after he joined the Cubs on June 13 from the Indians. After posting a 5.15 ERA in 15 starts with the Indians, he went on a strong run in Chicago, with a 2.69 ERA in 20 starts for the Cubs, going 16-1. He won the NL award unanimously, then headed into free agency.

In December, Sutcliffe chose to re-sign with the Cubs, after receiving offers from the Padres, among other teams. He got a five-year, $9.5 million deal, which was -- this may sound familiar -- the largest by total value for a pitcher at the time.

1974: Catfish Hunter, A's
Signed with NYY
Hunter threw 318 1/3 innings in 1974, posting an AL-leading 2.49 ERA and a Major League-leading 0.99 WHIP. He beat out Fergie Jenkins for the award, receiving 12 of 24 first-place votes. Hunter became a free agent following the season, but not in the way we are used to. And unlike the others listed above, he did not play the season "heading into free agency" the way we would recognize now.

In November 1974, he claimed that his contract had been violated, telling A’s ownership that he hadn’t been paid part of his contract, which was meant to go into an insurance annuity. The case went to an arbitrator, who ruled that the contract had indeed been violated. That made him a free agent, the first big-time name to hit the open market in this way in the modern era after Curt Flood’s Supreme Court case.

Hunter signed a five-year deal with the Yankees worth more than $3 million, the first multi-million dollar contract in total value in history.