The offseason is almost over, and with the exception of James Shields, every big-name free agent has signed. The current free agent season did continue the tradition of at least one surprising signing, however. One player always manages to provide a surprise for unexpectedly getting a huge contract and raising the market for his peers.
More often than not, that player and contract become a lesson in free agent economics for overzealous general managers and owners who think they’re one piece away from contention or feel they need to make a statement to the rest of MLB. We don’t yet know what this year’s edition of free agency will yield, but the previous nine offseasons each have that one signing that changed the market and ended up resulting in regret for the big-spending team.
Here are the most unexpected free agent signings of the past 10 years. They may not have been the worst contracts handed out, but were certainly a surprise.
2015: Max Scherzer, Nationals. Maybe we shouldn’t have been as surprised about Scherzer signing with the Nats as we seemed to be. Despite already having five starting pitchers, Washington had been viewed as a sleeper contender for the top free agent pitcher, especially because Mike Rizzo drafted Scherzer as the Diamondbacks’ scouting director. Signing a contract in excess of $200 million wasn’t unexpected either, with Scott Boras being Scherzer’s agent and the two turning down the Tigers’ $144 million offer last spring.
But the sum of all parts — the Nats, the blockbuster contract, and the creative seven-year, $105 million deferment — combined to make Scherzer’s deal the most surprising of the 2015 free agent season.
2014: Robinson Cano, Mariners. The Yankees’ best player leaving the Bronx via free agency for more money elsewhere? That alone makes this an unexpected move. But even if Cano decided to ditch the Yankees, it would have been for another big bucks contender like the Dodgers, Tigers, Nationals or Rangers, right? The Mariners? Free agent power hitters wanted no part of Seattle and Safeco Field’s bigger outfield dimensions. And even if the Mariners wanted Cano, the team wouldn’t meet his demands for a 10-year, $300 million contract.
OK, but how about $240 million? Even if it wasn’t the milestone that $300 million represented, that figure was reportedly $65 million more than what the Yankees offered. How could Cano say no to that? Well, he didn’t. And in doing so, the Mariners’ fortune as a franchise changed.
2013: Josh Hamilton, Angels. The Rangers seemingly couldn’t afford to lose their slugging outfielder, and presumably had the money to keep him. But it appeared that Hamilton was ready to move on, especially as his relationship with Texas fans deteriorated. Yet the Yankees, Dodgers or Red Sox would surely ultimately end up with the best hitter on the open market. The Orioles seemed like a great fit. If there was a sleeper in the crowd, perhaps it was the Brewers.
But the Angels had just handed out $240 million to Albert Pujols the previous year. C.J. Wilson received another $78 million from owner Arte Moreno. The roster was stocked with outfielders Mike Trout, Peter Bourjos, Torii Hunter and the overpaid Vernon Wells. Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo were good for DH duty. Was there even a spot for Hamilton? Obviously, the Angels would clear one.
2012: Prince Fielder, Tigers. After Pujols signed his mega-deal with the Angels, it seemed like Fielder would soon follow. Maybe Pujols getting $240 million scared some teams off, figuring (correctly) Fielder would want similar money. With Boras as his agent, maybe Fielder would seek more. How his larger frame might hold up over the course of a long-term contract was also surely a concern.
The Cubs seemed like a good fit for Fielder, but they had traded for Anthony Rizzo. Yet the market was still strong. The Marlins were suddenly spending big money on free agents. The Rangers seemingly had a spot waiting for Fielder. The Orioles needed a slugging first baseman, as did the Mariners and Blue Jays. And the Nationals seemed like the most likely destination. Then the Tigers swooped in following Victor Martinez’s season-ending injury. Despite already having Miguel Cabrera at first base, Detroit owner Mike Ilitch ponied up a nine-year, $214 million deal.
2011: Jayson Werth, Nationals. Here is a tough year from which to choose a surprise. The Red Sox arguably shocked MLB by signing Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million contract. The Yankees inked Rafael Soriano to a three-year, $35 million deal to be a setup man behind Mariano Rivera. But the Nats signing Werth to a seven-year, $126 million package was a huge surprise.
Was he even worth that kind of money? Werth was coming off three excellent seasons with the Phillies, but at 31 years old, had his best days already passed? Washington needed a star outfielder, but was Werth really that guy? Yet here he was being paid superstar money. Much like the Tigers signing Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez to surprising free agent deals in 2004 and 2005, this signaled to MLB that the Nats were open for business and would be a player for top talent in the future as they progressed toward contention.
2010: Chone Figgins, Mariners. This was a relatively weak year in free agency. Mets fans would surely cite Jason Bay’s four-year, $66 million contract here, but we’re not necessarily talking about the worst free agent signings. The Mariners felt they had to add impact players to catch the Angels in the AL West. But signing Figgins had the feeling of, “Well, we have to bring in someone.”
Seattle chose badly in giving a four-year, $36 million deal to Figgins. For one thing, the Mariners didn’t really know where he would play when they signed him. Maybe third base, maybe second base. What about left field? Figgins became a cautionary tale in paying big money for speed — a skill that can quickly deteriorate. If a player stops hitting and getting on base, that speed can’t be properly utilized. Even with strong defense, he then becomes an overpaid glove. This was a surprise that turned into a disaster.
2009: Edgar Renteria, Giants. Calling this an unexpected signing might be a stretch, but coming off a poor 2008 season with the Tigers during which he compiled a .699 OPS and played poor defense at shortstop, Renteria’s market value seemed uncertain. But going back to the National League was the right move for Renteria, and the Giants needed a shortstop to replace the ancient Omar Vizquel and calcifying Rich Aurilia. So Renteria got a two-year, $18.5 million deal. San Francisco overpaid, but arguably got their money’s worth when Renteria won World Series MVP in 2010.
2008: Carlos Silva, Mariners. Again, this isn’t a list of the worst free agent signings, but Seattle signing Silva qualifies as both surprising and terrible. The right-hander was coming off two sub-.500 seasons with the Twins during which he posted season ERAs of 5.94 and 4.19 and averaged less than four strikeouts per nine innings. The Mariners saw that and gave Silva a four-year, $48 million contract.
That was the price of starting pitching at the time, but it doesn’t mean Seattle had to give that kind of money to Silva. The team tried to tout Silva’s low walk rates and high innings totals, but ultimately, signing Silva was an overreaction to losing out on Hiroki Kuroda. With a 6.81 ERA and just 34 starts with the Mariners, Silva is essentially the poster child of the failed Bill Bavasi regime.
2007: Gary Matthews Jr., Angels. Alfonso Soriano signing an eight-year, $136 million contract and Barry Zito’s seven-year, $126 million deal are also worthy contenders here. But those players had a track record of success. Did anyone cash in on one good year better than Matthews did after his 2006 season?
The outfielder hit .313 with an .866 OPS, 44 doubles, 19 home runs, 79 RBI and 10 stolen bases — pretty much a career outlier. That was good enough for the Angels, who shelled out a five-year, $50 million contract for a 32-year-old journeyman. To be fair, the Giants reportedly offered the same deal. San Francisco dodged a bullet there, as Matthews hit .248 with a .708 OPS and played terribly in center field during his three years in Anaheim and was eventually dumped off to the Mets.
2006: B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays. Imagine any team giving a five-year contract to a closer now. It wouldn’t happen. And most GMs might point to Ryan as a reason. The left-hander had one good year as the Orioles’ closer, notching 36 saves and 2.43 ERA with 100 strikeouts in 70.1 innings. Ryan had two quality seasons as a setup man before that, so he wasn’t necessarily a one-year fluke.
But that one standout season convinced the Blue Jays to offer a five-year, $47 milion deal to a closer who would turn 30 before putting on a Toronto uniform. At the time, it was the largest contract ever given to a reliever. Ryan pitched well in his first season with the Blue Jays, compiling a 1.37 ERA and saving 38 games. The next year, he blew out his elbow and required Tommy John surgery, thus demonstrating the hazards of giving a long-term contract to a pitcher.