Burning Money: A Look At Free Agency Highs-and-Lows Since 2000

Mandatory Credit: zimbio.com

Mandatory Credit: zimbio.com

Without fail, November and December remind me each and every year why baseball is the greatest sport on the face of the earth. While some sports fall off during the ‘offseason,’ the hot stove is white-hot by this point and the trade rumors are swirling as much as the snow is here in the Windy City.

Blockbuster trades and free agent signings breathe life into struggling franchises. Teams that fell just short of the ultimate goal are fervently looking to retool and restock in hopes of clearing that final hurdle in the next go-round and, sometimes, they manage just that. But in other instances, free agent deals become painful burdens, crippling clubs for years to come.

Most people point to the New York Yankees’ signing of Alex Rodriguez as the worst free agent signing since the turn of the century. I happen to disagree. It’s not that I’m wild about giving a player $275 million over 10 years, but until the deal draws to a close, it’s hard to judge it accurately.

What I mean by this is simple. After a season in which many, including myself, felt Rodriguez deserved American League Player of the Year honors (33 HR, 86 RBI, .842 OPS), there is, at least for the time being, reason to have hope in A-Rod. As a designated hitter, he’ll have a chance to preserve what little life is left in his body as he takes aim at Barry Bonds‘ all-time home run record with two years to play.

Odds are, he’ll fall short and he’ll by no means play up to his $21 million annual salary, but the Yankees knew that when they signed the deal. They paid that money hoping in the front-half of the deal, they’d ride Rodriguez’s bat to the Fall Classic and watch him rack up the long-balls.

Mandatory Credit: usatoday.com

Mandatory Credit: usatoday.com

For me, the single-worst free agent signing belongs to a West Coast team, the San Francisco Giants. Anyone who’s even loosely followed the game over the past decade-plus knows exactly what I’m talking about already – Barry Zito. The southpaw was outstanding during his tenure with the rival Oakland Athletics, even winning the AL Cy Young in 2002, and his eight-year run set him up for a major payday heading into the 2007 campaign.

San Francisco opened up its checkbook, inking Zito to a seven-year, $126 million contract that was heavily backloaded. The left-hander’s struggles are well-documented by this point: he won more games than he lost just one time with the Giants, did not finish a season with a sub-4.00 ERA and lost double-digit games on five separate occasions.

But what made that contract so bad is that aforementioned structure: Zito was making $20 million a year in the final stint of the seven-year deal; by contrast, he earned just $10 and $14 million, respectively, in the first two years of that contract. Essentially, they paid more for his worst years – the exact opposite of what the Yankees did with the deal given to A-Rod.

Now, as bad as these signings were, there have been some major success stories to come out of free agent signings, as well.

Since 2000, one move outshines the rest – the Seattle Mariners’ signing of Japanese hit-machine Ichiro Suzuki. Given a three-year, $27 million deal ahead of the 2001 campaign, there were more than a handful of people ready to say this was a desperate move by a franchise seeking to garner attention in the Pacific Northwest.

Instead of being overmatched by what many considered to be superior talent here in the States, Suzuki racked up over 660 base hits in his first three seasons, putting together a .328/.374/.440 slash-line, winning both the American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in his inaugural campaign – leading Seattle to a record 116 wins in the process.

For the rest of the decade, Suzuki was the face of the franchise – epitomizing consistency in every way. During his 12 years in Seattle, he batted .322, averaging 226 hits per 162 games played. And in terms of bang for your buck, the left-handed-swinging speedster appeared in fewer than 157 games only one time. Once.

Two years prior to Ichiro coming to the big leagues, flame-throwing southpaw Randy Johnson took his talents to Arizona, setting the Diamondbacks up for a run of success that culminated in a World Series championship in 2001. The four-year, $53 million deal spanned a run of dominance few can claim.

The Big Unit not only won the National League Cy Young award every single year of that deal, but he also made the NL All-Star team annually, as well. He averaged 20 wins per season and racked up around 350 strikeouts. By contrast, the league leader in punchouts last season, Clayton Kershaw, had 301 – and it was a fairly large deal around the game.

That’s not to mention the postseason dominance Johnson displayed alongside Curt Schilling. In 33 innings and change between the NLCS and the World Series, he posted an earned run average in the low-1.00 range – splitting World Series MVP honors with Schilling as the two essentially carried the D-backs to the title over the heavily-favored Yankees.

When you go out on a limb and bring in top talent, you’re never sure what you’ll get: Seattle got one of the best players in the history of the game, but never reached the Fall Classic. By contrast, the Giants went out and got a stud left-hander only to have him implode perennially, while San Francisco went on to win three World Series titles.

Free agency is a gamble. In today’s game, you’re overpaying in hopes of changing the course of your organization. Sometimes, it bloats your payroll and leaves you nothing to show for it. But if it’s done right, you may just change baseball history forever.

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