The MLB Hot Stove season is in full effect, with free agents flying off the board, but which player is the best signing ever for each team?
After a slow start this year, MLB’s offseason has kicked up into full gear over the past week. The Los Angeles Angels have been the most aggressive team so far, snapping up a few key free agents and trade chips. The New York Yankees made the biggest splash of all so far by acquiring NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins. Many of the biggest names, like Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, remain unsigned while teams try and figure out their true value.
None of this could have happened without the efforts of Marvin Miller and Curt Flood to reverse MLB’s draconian reserve clause. Under this system, players were only given one-year contracts and had no real ability to negotiate their true value on the open market. Barring a trade or release, a player would spend his entire career with one team.
Flood and Miller challenged the status quo took a case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1972. They were ultimately shot down, but paved the way for Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith to declare themselves free agents in 1974. MLB finally agreed to allow players enter the open market as free agents after six years of service time in 1976.
Free agency was slow to catch on, and there was even a period in the late 1980s where the owners colluded to stop players from changing teams. Ultimately, the whole process has been smoothed out and free agency functions as a fair way for players to seek their true value on the open market. Some teams were hesitant to build their rosters with free agents, and some have been more aggressive, but every MLB team has still signed millions of dollars worth of contracts with players each winter.
Determining which free agent is the best signing in each team’s history is an interesting process, and I have set some rules for myself. International amateur free agents are not eligible for this list. We are considering only players that were signed away from another team. That means players like Mike Piazza or Matt Holliday, who signed long-term extensions after a midseason trade are not eligible. I’ve also ruled out players from Japan and Cuba like Ichiro Suzuki and Yoenis Cespedes.
Keep those rules in mind as you read through the list while we kill time waiting for this year’s class of elite free agents to sign their next big contract.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Randy Johnson, 1999
- The Terms: four years, $52.4 million with option for fifth year
More than a few of the free-agent signings on this list changed the trajectory of a franchise, and that is certainly true for the first team up. Entering just their second year in existence, the Arizona Diamondbacks were able to woo Randy Johnson, a Hall of Famer at the height of his powers, to the desert. The payoff was immediate.
The Diamondbacks had lost 97 games in 1998, their expansion season. In Johnson’s first season, Arizona became the fastest expansion team to 100 wins, finishing 100-62 and winning the NL West. In his first year with the team, the Big Unit went 17-9 with a 2.48 ERA and led the league in complete games, innings, strikeouts, ERA+ and FIP. He won the NL Cy Young to become just the third pitcher to win the award in both leagues.
The 1999 season was just the beginning of Johnson’s dominance for the Diamondbacks. He would win the Cy Young four years in a row and played a pivotal role in helping elevate the franchise and attract Curt Schilling. The duo pushed the Diamondbacks to the 2001 World Series title in an epic matchup with the New York Yankees. In that run to the championship, Johnson went 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 41.1 innings.
Johnson spent eight of his 22 MLB seasons with the Diamondbacks and went 118-62 with a 2.83 ERA. He won the Cy Young four times and led the league in strikeouts five times, notching four 300-strikeout seasons. Johnson also had a 20-strikeout game, a perfect game and won the pitching Triple Crown for the Diamondbacks in 2002.
Johnson’s number was retired by the Diamondbacks, and he is the first player to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame wearing the franchise’s cap. He has worked as an assistant in the front office since 2015.