Spring training is starting, and it’s time for Robinson Cano, Shin-Soo Choo and a number of other big names to suit up for new teams. Free agent signings are the lifeblood of baseball’s offseason, helping fans stay engaged during the cold of winter.
With that in mind, The Associated Press presents this list of the most significant free agent acquisitions in the history of each major league franchise - one entry per team. The definition of “significant” is subjective, of course, but these free agents were all memorable for one reason or another. Some were bargains, others were busts. Some signed record-setting contracts, and a few weren’t highly pursued at all.
There were only a couple ground rules for this exercise:
1. Each free agent featured was an established pro. In other words, teenagers signed out of obscurity didn’t count.
2. Only free agents who switched teams were eligible. We were looking for moves from one club to another - not players who signed big deals to stay in one place.
The list is presented chronologically, and it spans free agency’s entire history - from the mid-1970s all the way though this offseason:
CLEVELAND INDIANS: WAYNE GARLAND (NOVEMBER 1976)
Garland was coming off a 20-win season in Baltimore when the Indians signed him to a 10-year, $2.3 million deal - a move that quickly became a cautionary tale on the risks of long-term contracts. Amid shoulder problems, Garland went 13-19 in his first season with Cleveland and never amounted to much with the Indians. He was released after the 1981 season, having won only 28 games in his entire tenure with Cleveland. Nowadays, the idea of a 10-year contract for any pitcher seems almost preposterous.
NEW YORK YANKEES: REGGIE JACKSON (NOVEMBER 1976)
The Yankees have certainly signed their share of big-name free agents, including Dave Winfield, CC Sabathia and Mike Mussina. But Jackson’s impact still resonates all these years later. After signing a $3 million, five-year contract, Mr. October led the Yankees to World Series titles in 1977 and 1978. Jackson’s three-homer game against the Los Angeles Dodgers capped a tumultuous 1977 season and remains part of World Series lore.
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: PETE ROSE (DECEMBER 1976)
After losing in the NL championship series three straight seasons, the Phillies lured Rose away from Cincinnati with a $3.2 million, four-year deal. He delivered, hitting .331 in 1979 and helping the Phillies beat Kansas City in 1980 for their first World Series title.
SAN DIEGO PADRES: STEVE GARVEY (DECEMBER 1982)
Garvey was 34 when he began playing for San Diego at the start of the 1983 season, but he still had a few hits left in his bat. In 1984, the Padres won the NL West, and Garvey’s homer off Lee Smith of the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS remains a signature moment in franchise history.
CINCINNATI REDS: DAVE PARKER (DECEMBER 1983)
Parker was five years removed from an MVP award when the Reds landed him, and he hit a career-high 34 homers with 125 RBIs for Cincinnati in 1985. The man they called “Cobra” was a two-time All-Star with the Reds, and when he was traded to Oakland after the 1987 season, Cincinnati got Jose Rijo in return. Rijo would lead the Reds to a victory over the Athletics in the 1990 World Series.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS: DAVE STEWART (MAY 1986)
Most significant free agents are signed during the offseason - some after protracted bidding wars. Stewart, however, was picked up by the A’s amid little fanfare after Philadelphia had released the journeyman. In 1987, Stewart reached the 20-win mark for the first of four consecutive seasons, emerging as an ace on a staff that would help Oakland reach the World Series three straight years from 1988-90.
CHICAGO CUBS: ANDRE DAWSON (MARCH 1987)
Amid the collusion scandal of the 1980s, Dawson left the Montreal Expos, famously signing a blank contract with Chicago during spring training. The Cubs went with an amount of $500,000, making Dawson one of the lowest-paid regulars on the team. He hit 49 home runs that year to win MVP honors and later helped Chicago to an NL East title in 1989.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS: KIRK GIBSON (JANUARY 1988)
Darryl Strawberry and Kevin Brown are among the stars who have signed with the Dodgers over the years, but it’s hard to top Gibson’s immediate impact. The fiery outfielder was declared a free agent in an arbitrator’s collusion ruling and left the Detroit Tigers for Los Angeles at a time when the Dodgers were coming off back-to-back 73-win seasons. Gibson won the MVP in 1988 and helped Los Angeles to a World Series title with his unforgettable home run off Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley.
MINNESOTA TWINS: JACK MORRIS (FEBRUARY 1991)
Morris agreed to a one-year contract with the Twins that included player options for two more seasons. He only pitched for Minnesota in 1991, but what a memorable stint that was. The Twins went from last place to first in the AL West, then Morris delivered the performance of a lifetime in Game 7 of the World Series, shutting out Atlanta for 10 innings in Minnesota’s 1-0 victory.
NEW YORK METS: BOBBY BONILLA (DECEMBER 1991)
Bonilla became the highest-paid player in baseball when he signed a $29 million, five-year contract with the Mets, who hoped he could lead New York back to contention after Darryl Strawberry’s departure a year earlier. But the Mets flopped miserably, and Bonilla was traded during the fourth season of the deal.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS: DAVE WINFIELD (DECEMBER 1991)
The Blue Jays needed a reliable designated hitter, so they signed the 40-year-old Winfield to a one-year, $2.3 million deal. The move paid off memorably when Winfield’s two-run double in the 11th inning of Game 6 against Atlanta lifted Toronto to its first World Series title. When Winfield left after the 1992 season, the Blue Jays replaced him with another big-name free agent - and Paul Molitor helped Toronto to a repeat championship in 1993.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS: BARRY BONDS (DECEMBER 1992)
There was little doubt Bonds would leave Pittsburgh after two MVPs in three years - and the Pirates remarkably did not even offer the star outfielder arbitration as they lost him to free agency and entered a rebuilding mode. San Francisco landed the slugger with a $43.75 million, six-year deal that was a record setter at the time but now seems like a bargain. Bonds would stay with the Giants for 15 years, winning five more MVP awards, leading San Francisco to the postseason four times and setting baseball’s single-season and career home run marks
KANSAS CITY ROYALS: DAVID CONE (DECEMBER 1992)
There was a time when the Royals were significant spenders. They signed Cy Young Award winner Mark Davis away from San Diego after the 1989 season, and although that move turned out terribly for Kansas City, the Royals capitalized when Cone hit the market. He signed an $18 million, three-year deal that at the time made him the game’s highest-paid pitcher in terms of annual average. Cone went 11-14 in 1993, then won the Cy Young in the strike-shortened 1994 season.
ATLANTA BRAVES: GREG MADDUX (DECEMBER 1992)
The 1992-93 offseason would make a great documentary topic. Consider this: The Yankees were in the mix for Barry Bonds, David Cone and Maddux - and ended up with none of them. The Braves already had perhaps the best starting rotation in baseball when they acquired Maddux for $28 million over five years. Maddux was coming off a Cy Young Award with the Cubs and was entering the prime of his career when he joined Atlanta. He won the Cy Young in each of his first three years with the Braves, whom he stayed with through the 2003 season.
BALTIMORE ORIOLES: RAFAEL PALMEIRO (DECEMBER 1993)
Palmeiro signed a five-year contract in the vicinity of $30 million with the Orioles, and he certainly produced, hitting 39 home runs with 142 RBIs in 1996, followed by a 38-homer season in 1997. Baltimore reached the ALCS both those years. Palmeiro’s second stint with the Orioles included a drug suspension in 2005, but during the mid-1990s he helped Baltimore become a serious contender in the American League.
MIAMI MARLINS: AL LEITER, KEVIN BROWN, BOBBY BONILLA, ALEX FERNANDEZ and MOISES ALOU (DECEMBER 1995 through DECEMBER 1996)
It took the Marlins about a year to stockpile this impressive quintet of free agents, and Florida went on to win the World Series in 1997. Then the team was immediately dismantled. Within a year of that title, Alou, Brown, Leiter and Bonilla had all been traded - moves that set the tone for a strained relationship between the Marlins and their fans that exists to this day. Fernandez was one player Florida kept, but the Miami-area native’s promising career was derailed by a shoulder injury from that championship season. He would win only 11 more games after that.
ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: RANDY JOHNSON (NOVEMBER 1998)
Johnson actually took some heat for signing with the Diamondbacks, who had only been in existence for one season. The criticism was that he’d thrown away any chance to win an elusive World Series after he agreed to a $52 million, four-year deal with a team option for a fifth season. Johnson had the last laugh, winning four straight Cy Young Awards and helping the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in a memorable 2001 World Series.
COLORADO ROCKIES: MIKE HAMPTON (DECEMBER 2000)
Hampton’s $121 million, eight-year contract with the Rockies was briefly the richest in baseball history, but it was surpassed within days by Alex Rodriguez’s massive deal with Texas. Hampton was supposed to be the answer to Colorado’s pitching struggles in Denver’s thin air, but he posted ERAs of 5.41 in 2001 and 6.15 in 2002 before being traded.
PITTSBURGH PIRATES: DEREK BELL (DECEMBER 2000)
Pittsburgh’s fortunes have changed recently, but perhaps no episode summed up the Pirates over the last two decades better than this one. Bell agreed to a two-year deal for about $9 million in guaranteed money, then hit .173 in 2001. He followed that up the following March by threatening to go into “Operation Shutdown” if made to compete for the right field job. Bell was released later that month and didn’t play in the majors again.
TEXAS RANGERS: ALEX RODRIGUEZ (DECEMBER 2000)
Rodriguez’s $252 million deal doubled the previous richest contract in sports history, but although A-Rod was indeed terrific, he stayed in Texas for only three seasons of the 10-year agreement. Rodriguez’s deal was proof that one megastar often isn’t enough to put a team in contention. He was traded from the Rangers to the Yankees before the 2004 season.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: CHRIS CARPENTER (DECEMBER 2002)
Carpenter was coming off shoulder surgery when St. Louis signed him to a one-year deal worth only $500,000 in guaranteed money. He didn’t pitch in the majors at all in 2003, but the Cardinals signed him again after that and eventually reaped the rewards. Carpenter won 51 games from 2004-06, taking the Cy Young Award in 2005. He was an instrumental part of St. Louis’ World Series titles in 2006 and 2011.
BOSTON RED SOX: DAVID ORTIZ (JANUARY 2003)
When Ortiz signed a one-year contract with the Red Sox worth $1.25 million, then-general manager Theo Epstein said he would have a chance to be an everyday player. That turned out to be quite the understatement. Three World Series titles later, Ortiz is among the most celebrated athletes in Boston history.
HOUSTON ASTROS: ROGER CLEMENS (JANUARY 2004)
Clemens seemed headed for retirement at the end of a pennant-winning 2003 season with the Yankees, but he changed course and signed a one-year deal with the Astros. Clemens went 18-4 and won the Cy Young Award - and he’d end up pitching two more seasons for the Astros after that, helping them reach the World Series in 2005.
DETROIT TIGERS: IVAN RODRIGUEZ (FEBRUARY 2004)
Rodriguez signed a $40 million, four-year deal with the Tigers - the money was significant enough to entice the star catcher to join a team that had lost 119 games the previous season. Rodriguez gave his new franchise a bit more credibility, and his decision to come to Motown looked smart when Detroit reached the World Series in 2006 with him behind the plate.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS: JEFF SUPPAN (DECEMBER 2006)
After helping the Cardinals to a World Series title, Suppan received a $42 million, four-year contract from Milwaukee. Paid like a star, he posted a 5.08 ERA over three-and-a-half seasons with the Brewers before being released. Milwaukee will hope for better luck with right-hander Matt Garza, whom the team signed this offseason to a similar deal.
TAMPA BAY RAYS: CARLOS PENA (JANUARY 2007)
Pena joined the Rays as a non-roster invitee to spring training and ended up on Tampa Bay’s opening day roster because of an injury to Greg Norton. Pena hit 46 home runs that season, winning American League comeback player of the year honors while earning only $1.2 million. He followed that up with 98 homers in the next three years and helped Tampa Bay reach the World Series in 2008.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX: ADAM DUNN (DECEMBER 2010)
Dunn had hit at least 38 homers for seven straight seasons when he signed a $56 million, four-year deal with Chicago. His first year for the White Sox was unthinkably bad - a .159 average with only 11 home runs. Dunn has bounced back with 75 homers over the last two seasons, but Chicago hasn’t been to the postseason since signing him.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS: JAYSON WERTH (DECEMBER 2010)
Werth’s $126 million, seven-year deal was a bit of a stunner, but it sent a signal that the Nationals were serious about improving after averaging 99 losses over the previous three seasons. Werth’s numbers haven’t been great since signing his big contract, but his most recent season in Washington was his best - he hit .318 with 25 homers in 2013.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS: ALBERT PUJOLS (DECEMBER 2011)
The 10-year deal Pujols signed was worth $240 million - in other words, it looked a lot like Alex Rodriguez’s huge contract with Texas. The difference was that A-Rod was 25 when he signed with the Rangers. Pujols was nearing 32 when he joined the Angels, and the two seasons since have not been encouraging.
SEATTLE MARINERS: ROBINSON CANO (DECEMBER 2013)
Ichiro Suzuki doesn’t really count as a free agent since the Mariners had to pay his Japanese team for the right to negotiate with him. Instead, Cano is the clear choice as their most significant free agent acquisition. With Suzuki no longer in Seattle, the Mariners were fading into irrelevance despite the presence of ace Felix Hernandez. Cano, the star second baseman who went from the Yankees to the Mariners for a $240 million, 10-year contract, is the man Seattle hopes will lead a baseball renaissance in the Pacific Northwest.
Information from Baseball-Reference.com was used for this list.