Over the last ten years, Major League Baseball teams invested billions of dollars in free agent signings to help improve their clubs. In fact, dating back to the 2013 regular season when Spotrac started tracking spending in free agency, teams have invested almost $1.4 billion dollars in free agency up until this offseason.
Looking back at these signings, some ended up yielding terrible results for the team while others exceeded expectations. MLB free agency is always a risk for the team and player involved, and – given the amount of money invested every offseason – it can be a huge gamble.
To conclude the “Decade in Review” mini-series before the calendar officially flips to 2020, we will examine the five biggest free agent signings from the past decade.
1. January 2015: RHP Max Scherzer Signs with the Washington Nationals
- Terms of the Deal: Seven-Years, $210 Million
When the Washington Nationals identified Max Scherzer as their primary target in free agency during the 2014-2015 offseason, they knew that Scherzer was the guy they were missing. Looking back in the past decade, the Nationals have never been gun shy about investing significant amounts of money into their 25-man roster. After much defeat and plenty of frustration for the team’s players and fans, that reality finally came true this past year with a World Series victory.
Add to the fact that the Nationals finished either in first or second place in the National League East every year since 2015 and you can see exactly why this signing has paid dividends. Since signing with the organization, Scherzer has appeared in five consecutive All-Star Games, won the NL Cy Young Award twice and finished in the Top Ten in NL MVP voting three of those five years. That seems like money well spent.
2. January 2011: 3B Adrian Beltre Signs with the Texas Rangers
- Terms of the Deal: Six-Years, $96 Million
At the time of the Adrian Beltre signing, the Texas Rangers were in a weird position. They had a star-studded offense that included third baseman Michael Young and outfielders Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. The organization just came off of their first World Series appearance in franchise history and were ready to spend big. However, designated hitter Vladmir Guerrero and ace pitcher Cliff Lee hit the free-agent market after the season. Unfortunately, spending serious money never transpired that year outside of signing Beltre to a sizeable sum. Nonetheless, they returned to the World Series and faced the St. Louis Cardinals.
By signing Adrian Beltre to a significant contract, the Rangers knew the injury risk attached to signing a player in his thirties. However, they also knew of the veteran leadership that he could provide while providing all-around production. As a result, the contract was signed. Looking back, it was a very good one for the Rangers as Beltre left his mark on the franchise and is now a lock to make it to the Hall of Fame. The main thing we all learned was to never touch his head!
3. December 2014: DH Nelson Cruz Signs with the Seattle Mariners
- Terms of the Deal: Four-Years, $57 Million
The Seattle Mariners are the only franchise to have never appeared in the World Series. When the organization signed Nelson Cruz, their primary goal in doing so was to help the team break curse and end up with a championship ring. However, those hopes and dreams did not work out. Nonetheless, the impact that Cruz had on the team was undeniable.
Cruz was an offensive juggernaut during all four of those seasons in the middle of the Mariners lineup. Over those four seasons, Nelson Cruz put up a slash line of .284/.362/.546 with 163 home runs, 414 RBI and a 148 OPS+. In fact, Cruz had such an impact on the Mariners lineup that he eventually developed the nickname “The Boomstick.”
Furthermore, during those seasons, the Mariners had a very respectable grouping alongside Cruz in starting in 2015. The group included second baseman Robinson Cano, third baseman Kyle Saeger, and catcher Mike Zunino. The foursome struck opposing pitchers with fear and showed other teams exactly what they should strive for when assembling their daily lineup.
Just this past offseason, Cruz continues to power lineups. Last winter, he signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Twins with an option for the upcoming 2020 regular season. The option was obviously picked up and the Twins have already reaped the rewards of having him in their lineup.
4. January 2010: LF Matt Holliday Signs with the St. Louis Cardinals
- Terms of the Deal: Seven-Years, $120 Million
In the past decade for the St. Louis Cardinals, there have been some notable acquisitions. But none is bigger than that of the re-signing of slugger Matt Holliday. Holliday was originally acquired during a midseason trade from the Oakland Athletics during the 2009 regular season. He inked a deal with the team later on that offseason and it certainly paid dividends for the organization. During the seven-year deal, Holliday appeared in four All-Star Games, won a Silver Slugger Award in 2010, and finished in the top-20 of the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award voting in three of the seven seasons.
Holliday played a significant role in the success of the St. Louis Cardinals during the 2011 regular season which ultimately led to a World Series Championship. If it wasn’t for his bat, the Cardinals might have not won a World Series that year. During those seven seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Matt Holliday finished every single season with a slugging percentage over .400. Similarly, the right-handed hitter had at least 60 walks in five of seven seasons; this helps to demonstrate the type of discipline Holliday had during many of his at-bats. The contract lifespan might have ended poorly, but it brought a World Series Championship to the organization. Cardinals fans will be forever grateful for that.
5. December 2014: LHP Jon Lester Signs with the Chicago Cubs
- Terms of the Deal: Six-Years, $155 Million
During the 2014-2015 offseason, the Chicago Cubs were priming themselves as a potential dynasty and were starting to establish their brand among the rest of the competition in the National League Central. General manager Jed Hoyer and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein knew that the time for a World Series Championship was quickly approaching. They also knew that the organization lacked impactful starting pitching to contend. Therefore, Epstein reunited with Jon Lester, who he knew from his days with the Boston Red Sox.
The southpaw went on to play a significant role in the Cubs’ World Series success in 2016. In fact, Lester was so impactful that postseason that he was named co-National League Championship Series MVP alongside Javier Baez. When you look over the last five seasons of this deal, that postseason was the peak moment and yielded the highest return on the Cubs’ investment.
Lester has one season remaining with the team coming up in 2020 before becoming a free agent again. Regardless, the moment that will always stay in the minds of Cubs fans is the one mentioned above. It was hard to beat the work ethic, confidence, and skill set of Jon Lester during the 2016 season.
As you can see, free agent signings have been a big deal over the past decade as teams look for every way possible to upgrade their teams. Looking ahead to the next decade, it will likely play an even more prominent role in the game and more significant money will be spent in it.
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