Top 10 free-agent deals of the decade

These are the deals that worked out great for both player and team

December 3rd, 2019

Will Leitch took an in-depth look at the game in 2019 with a series exploring Major League Baseball's Data Decade. From the best World Series, to the best starting pitchers and more, Leitch ranked, dissected and celebrated all the things we loved most about the Great American Pastime during the past 10 years.

In our Data Decade series, we look back at the 10 best free-agency contracts given out this decade. These are deals that worked out great for both player and team. Perhaps the player could have gotten a smidge more, or the team could have paid a scooch less. But when you get production like this, those little margins don’t really matter. Teams should pay for production. Here are players who were productive.

Important notes

* We are not including extensions, or players who re-signed with a team after hitting the market (sorry, Justin Turner).

* Deals must be for at least 3 years, as we want to focus on contracts where a team and player made a big commitment to one another.

* The year listed is the first year he played on the deal, even if he signed it in November or December of the year before.

1. Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals
Contract: Seven years, $210 million, 2015

Scherzer was already 30 years old when he hit the market in 2015, older than you’d typically like your free agents to be, and his numbers in his final season in Detroit were actually a little worse than his American League Cy Young Award-winning numbers of the year before. The Nationals were not daunted, and smartly so: He has become his best self in Washington and this year helped lead the Nats to their first World Series. So far Scherzer has finished in the top five of NL Cy Young Award voting in each year of the deal (so far) and won the award in 2016 and '17. And he has tossed two no-hitters in a Nationals uniform. Scherzer still has two more years to go, which might worry you a little if he wasn’t still one of the best five pitchers in the game.

2. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers
Contract: Six years, $96 million, 2011

It’s bizarre to think that Beltre was considered not just a consolation prize for the Rangers after failing to re-sign Cliff Lee, but even an awkward fit, considering Texas already had a third baseman in Michael Young. (There were actually people who didn’t think Young should lose his job!) Beltre was probably already a borderline Hall of Famer when he signed this deal, but he secured his shoo-in status with year after year of brilliance with the Rangers, culminating with him reaching the 3,000-hit plateau. Just don’t touch his head.

3. Matt Holliday, LF, Cardinals
Contract: Seven years, $120 million, 2010

The Cardinals traded the A’s Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Peterson (along with $1.5 million) for Holliday in July 2009, but they were swept that postseason by the Dodgers, in large part because of a dropped fly ball by Holliday that would have won Game 2. They happily shelled out $120 million for the slugger, and he was worth every penny. Initially, he was thought of as a lineup supplement for Pujols, but after Albert left, Holliday became his replacement, and he did a reasonable impersonation. Holliday put up a career .293/.380/.494 line for St. Louis, which, adjusted for ballpark factors, was actually better than he’d pulled off in Colorado. He made four All-Star teams, received NL MVP Award votes four times and ended up helping the Cards win a World Series title in 2011. And his final homer as a Cardinal might have been his most memorable.

4. Nelson Cruz, DH, Mariners
Contract: Four years, $57 million, 2015

It is difficult to overstate how panned this deal was at the time. FanGraphs said the Mariners were “paying Cruz twice as much as they should” and the contract was “almost definite overpay.” (And they were one of the nicer ones.)

Cruz ended up hitting 163 homers in those four years and putting up a fairly ridiculous 148 OPS+. The Mariners didn’t make the playoffs any of Cruz’s four years in town, which had been the goal of signing him, but it was anything but Cruz’s fault. Amazingly, he went and signed with the Twins last offseason and was so good that the club reportedly already plans to pick up his 2020 option.

5. Jayson Werth, OF, Nationals
Contract: Seven years, $126 million, 2011

This was supposed to be a desperation contract for the Nationals, a massive overpay for a former Phillies postseason hero from a team trying to forge an identity for itself without any semblance of success on its own. But Werth gave instant credibility for a franchise that very much needed it, and two years after he signed, the Nats were in the postseason … and he was surrounded by stars. Washington's master plan was to have Werth kick off a great decade for the franchise. He did, with the club reaching the postseason in four of the seven years of the deal.

6. Andrew Miller, LHP, Yankees
Contract: Four years, $36 million, 2015

This was the largest contract ever for a non-closer reliever at the time, and he was so good for the Yankees that when they fell out of contention in 2016, they traded him the Indians for Clint Frazier, thought to be a top-shelf prospect at the time, and lefty Justus Sheffield, whom they used to get James Paxton from Seattle during the past offseason. Miller was even better for the Indians, and that stretch from 2016-17 has to be considered one of the best two-year runs for a reliever ever: 137 innings, 22 earned runs, 218 strikeouts. Miller's last year in Cleveland was rough because of injuries, but not so rough that he didn’t go out and sign another big two-year deal with St. Louis immediately after that one ran out.

7. Ben Zobrist, 2B/OF, Cubs
Contract: Four years, $56 million, 2016

Zobrist had just won a World Series with the Royals and was considered, in many ways, to be the missing piece for several contending teams, including the NL Central-rival Cubs and Cardinals. The Cubs got him, and he was everything they could have possibly hoped for. He was more than that, actually: After all, he was the 2016 World Series MVP, still the only World Series MVP in Cubs history.

8. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers
Contract: Six years, $147 million, 2013

Technically speaking, this deal was for six years, $147 million, but Greinke opted out after only three years at $70 million. That puts the deal on this list, though he was good enough in the next three seasons for the D-backs that it would at least be under consideration. (That new Arizona deal, now with Houston: Maybe not so much.) Never forget that Greinke finished 19-3 with a 1.66 ERA in 2015 … and somehow finished second in the NL Cy Young Award race.

9. Daniel Murphy, 2B, Nationals
Contract: Three years, $37.5 million, 2016

Murphy had sort of come out of nowhere to start hitting like the monster he became midway through the 2015 season, and he was the Mets’ postseason hero that October. But there was still some skepticism across the industry, with most clubs making Zobrist their primary focus at second base. In fact, the Nationals only signed Murphy to this deal after Brandon Phillips had vetoed a trade that would have sent him from Cincinnati to Washington to be the primary second baseman. That decision -- as well as the one to sign Murphy -- sure paid off for the Nats: Murphy led the NL in slugging and OPS in 2016, finishing second in the NL MVP Award race to Kris Bryant, and was nearly as good in '17. Those first two years, Murphy was a top-20 MLB player. The Nationals traded him to the Cubs at the '18 Trade Deadline for the player who would ultimately netted them Yan Gomes, by the way.

10. Jon Lester, LHP, Cubs
Contract: Six years, $155 million, 2015

The Cubs were clearly gearing up for their run at a dynasty before they signed Lester, but when president of baseball operations Theo Epstein inked his old Red Sox postseason hero to this deal, you knew they meant business. He essentially put up the same numbers in Chicago that he did in Boston -- that’s to say, excellent ones -- but the NLCS MVP Award he shared with Javier Báez in 2016 justified every possible expense. His '19 season was wobbly, and he has one year left. Given that Lester was a stalwart for years and helped the club win its first World Series in more than a century, the deal has more than paid for itself whatever happens in '20.