With players reporting to spring training this week (and TOC beginning its season previews), the offseason is all but officially over. And with that, free agent signings have essentially come to an end — especially among the top talent available. Yet this is also the time of year that MLB clubs can find some good value in the bargain bin. That is, unless some team already made a great deal. But we probably won’t know that until later this season.
Will any of this offseason’s free agent signings match the bargains we’ve seen over the past decade? If so, a general manager or two is going to look very smart, considering how much prices have increased on the open market. With so much money flowing throughout MLB now, maybe it’s not possible to truly find good value anymore. At the very least, it seems unlikely that a team will match some of the savvy deals listed below.
Here are the best free agent bargains of the past 10 years. The following players far outperformed the terms of their contracts, and in most cases, cashed in after the fact. But the smart teams walked away before the deals became truly expensive.
2015: Michael Morse, Marlins. OK, maybe it’s a bit premature to declare any 2015 signing a bargain since we don’t yet know how that contract will work out. But getting Morse for $8 million a season (on a two-year, $16 million deal) looks like a potential steal. Consider that the outfielder-first baseman has averaged nearly 19 home runs per year over the past five seasons.
Morse hit .279 with an .811 OPS with 32 doubles, 16 homers and 61 RBI with the Giants last year. That production arguably would have made him Miami’s most productive hitter not named Giancarlo Stanton. And the Marlins will be paying Morse less per season than Billy Butler, Alex Rios, Nick Markakis and Kendrys Morales. Morse’s injury history makes him a risk, but the hope is that playing first base will be less demanding on his body.
2014: Nelson Cruz, Orioles. Cruz could be the poster child for this article. Has there been a better free agent bargain in recent years than a guy who languished on the open market until late February before signing a one-year deal for $8 million, then going on to hit 40 home runs for a division champion? MLB teams wish such a potential bargain had been available in free agency this year.
Two factors played a role in reducing Cruz’s potential market: 1) He served a 50-game PED suspension in 2013 for his involvement with Biogenesis and 2) The Rangers extended him a qualifying offer, meaning that a team had to give up a first-round draft pick to sign him. Though Cruz had been a consistent power threat for the previous five seasons, MLB clubs weren’t sure how much of that could be attributed to PEDs. The Orioles were rewarded for taking a risk with a monster season.
2013: Bartolo Colon, Athletics. As with Cruz, Colon’s market was diminished by a PED suspension, hit with a 50-game penalty late in the 2012 season after testing positive for testosterone. Colon being 39 years old at the time likely didn’t help his profile either. But the A’s, seeking a veteran starting pitcher who could throw a lot of innings, were the beneficiary of that thin market, re-signing the right-hander to a one-year, $3 million contract.
For that price, Oakland got a pitcher who not only threw 190 innings, made 30 starts and compiled an 18-6 record, but also finished second in the AL with a 2.65 ERA. Incentives eventually pushed Colon’s salary higher, but a $3 million base salary for an ace-caliber performance was a considerable bargain. Compare that to the two-year, $15 million deal the Angels gave to Joe Blanton during the same offseason.
2012: Cody Ross, Red Sox. This was a pretty good year for free agent bargains, making for a tough choice. The Mariners signed Hisashi Iwakuma to a one-year, $1.5 million contract, getting a 9-5 record and 3.16 ERA in 30 appearances (16 starts). Fernando Rodney inked a one-year, $2 million deal with the Rays and racked up 48 saves, an 0.60 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 74.2 innings.
But the pick here is Ross, who signed with the Red Sox for one year and $3 million. He hit .267 with an .807 OPS, 34 doubles, 22 home runs and 81 RBI in 528 plate appearances. Additionally, Ross saved four runs more than the average right fielder defensively, according to FanGraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating. Boston didn’t get sucked into thinking Ross could maintain that production long-term, however, making this deal look even better.
2011: Lance Berkman, Cardinals. Melky Cabrera was a savvy investment for the Royals in 2011, batting .305 with an .809 OPS, 44 doubles, 18 home runs, 87 RBI and 10 stolen bases. He provided all of that production for the cost of a one-year, $1.5 million contract.
Yet Berkman put up superstar numbers for St. Louis at approximately one-third of the going rate for that level of hitter. At least on a short-term, one-year basis. The Cardinals did have to pay $8 million, but got a .301 average, .959 OPS, 23 doubles, 31 homers and 94 RBI at that price. (Berkman was a butcher on defense, however, costing the Cards -18 Defensive Runs Saved.) In the World Series, Berkman batted .423/.516/.577 in the World Series, helping St. Louis to its 11th championship.
2010: Aubrey Huff, Giants. During the 10-year span we’re covering here, 2010 may have been the best for bargains. Jim Thome compiled a 1.039 OPS and hit 25 homers in 380 plate appearances. He signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Twins. The D-Backs inked Kelly Johnson to a one-year, $2.35 million contract, getting a .284 average, .865 OPS, 36 doubles, 26 home runs, 71 RBI and 13 stolen bases.
However, the choice here is Huff. He cost the Giants $3 million on a one-year deal. That seemed improbable, given how bad Huff was the previous season, batting a combined .241 with a .694 OPS for the Orioles and Tigers. But the first baseman rebounded in a big way, leading San Francisco with an .891 OPS, 26 home runs and 86 RBI. In the World Series, Huff notched a .957 OPS as the Giants beat the Rangers in five games.
2009: Russell Branyan, Mariners. No team received more for its money in 2009 than Seattle did with Branyan. “Russell the Muscle” cranked 31 homers with a .560 slugging percentage and 76 RBI in 505 plate appearances, mostly playing at first base while Ken Griffey Jr. began his Seattle victory lap at DH.
Branyan led the Mariners in OPS, home runs and slugging percentage that season, providing that kind of production for just $1.4 million on a one-year deal. Hitters like Pat Burrell were making $8 million per year. Even Jerry Hairston Jr. made $2 million that season. How badly does Seattle need an impact bat like Branyan now — especially at that price? The slugger returned to Seattle the following season after signing a one-year contract with the Indians. But he never approached such numbers again.
2008: Milton Bradley, Rangers. Bradley was a high-maintenance headache for much of his career, but the Rangers got great value out of him on a one-year deal. For a $5 million salary, Texas got a player who hit 32 doubles and 22 home runs, while leading the AL with a .436 on-base percentage and .999 OPS.
Batting mostly as a DH, Bradley’s OBP was 20 points higher than the next closest AL hitter (Joe Mauer) and his OPS surpassed Alex Rodriguez by more than 30 points that season. And though he only played 20 games in the outfield, Bradley was no liability, credited with +4 Defensive Runs Saved. Texas got Bradley’s best year out of him before he cashed in after the season on a three-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs.
2007: Jose Guillen, Mariners. Showing that not much has changed in eight years, Seattle was looking for a power-hitting, corner outfield bat. The Mariners found their man in Guillen, nabbing him on a one-year, $5.5 million deal, as he was coming back from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Guillen followed through with arguably the best year of his career, batting .290 with an .813 OPS, 23 home runs and 99 RBI in 659 plate appearances.
Interestingly, the Mariners didn’t pick up their end of Guillen’s $9 million mutual option for 2008. Perhaps that’s because Guillen wanted to cash in with a multi-year deal in free agency. Yet Seattle also had a roster crunch that made Guillen expendable. He got his money, inking a three-year, $36 million contract with the Royals, but never matched that 2007 production again.
2006: Frank Thomas, Athletics. We may have saved the best bargain for last on this list. Coming off year in which he played in only 34 games, made 124 plate appearances and batted .219, Thomas looked as if his career might be reaching its end. Evidently, other MLB clubs thought Thomas had little to offer as a DH coming off multiple leg injuries. The A’s took advantage of that depressed market, snapping up the 37-year-old for $500,000.
For half a million dollars, Oakland got a player who came back to hit .270/.381/.545 with 39 homers and 114 RBI. Incentives pushed Thomas’ eventual paycheck over $3 million, so this wasn’t a dollar-store signing for the A’s. But they still got phenomenal value for that contract, letting the Blue Jays pay big money for lesser production when Thomas signed a two-year, $18 million deal after the season.