The Smallest Big Free Agent Signings

With Spring Training slowly motoring into life, that means another cash-flush free agency session has come to its conclusion. In truth, though, maybe we should think of this time of year — extension-signing season — as the time and place where all of the true money is spent.

Consider: of the twenty largest contracts (in terms of total value) active in the Majors today, only eight of them were signed when the player was a free agent. Those eight players are:

Player Signing Team Total Value (in $M)
Albert Pujols LAA 240
Robinson Cano SEA 240
Prince Fielder DET 214
Max Scherzer WAS 210
CC Sabathia NYY 182
Mark Teixeira NYY 180
Jon Lester CHC 155
Masahiro Tanaka NYY 155

That leaves twelve players who signed their massive deals while already under team control, including the top three most-valuable contracts in the game:

Player Extending Team Total Value (in $M)
Giancarlo Stanton MIA 325
Alex Rodriguez NYY 275
Miguel Cabrera DET 248
Joey Votto CIN 224
Clayton Kershaw LAD 215
Joe Mauer MIN 184
Justin Verlander DET 180
Felix Hernandez SEA 175
Buster Posey SFG 167
Matt Kemp LAD 160
Troy Tulowitzki COL 157
Adrian Gonzalez BOS 154

Here’s how misleading free agent spending can be: if you were to line up each of the 30 teams by their biggest-ever free agent signing, the New York Yankees would only be sixth. Since the Yankees traded for and then extended Rodriguez, their biggest-ever signing is Sabathia ($182M). That trails what the Washington Nationals paid for Scherzer ($210M), what the Detroit Tigers paid for Fielder ($214M), what the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners paid for Pujols and Cano (both $240M), and what the Texas Rangers, so many moons ago, paid for A-Rod ($252M).

For all of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ new cash-flow, their largest-ever signing, Zack Greinke ($147M), is only good enough for ninth place. Nearly a third of the league has, at one point, out-spent the Dodgers’ biggest-ever free-agency splurge.

So I was curious: with all 30 teams lined up, who would be the five teams in the back of the line? Who has managed to get through our century of rapidly inflating contracts without ever breaking the bank?

While the identities of these five teams didn’t really surprise me, I was astonished to see just how (relatively) tiny these smallest biggest contracts were. Also a surprise: each of these five teams has made the playoffs in the last two seasons. Here we go:

5. Kansas City Royals – Gil Meche – 5 years (2007-2011) – $53M
Here’s one positive about Dayton Moore’s vaunted Process: with so many homegrown players in the fold, the Royals have rarely had to pursue and spend on free agents. At the moment, the Royals’ biggest free agent signees are Omar Infante (4 years/$30.25M) and Jason Vargas (4 years/$32M). Even when Moore spent a combined $68.3M in free agency this offseason — with the Royals primed to set a new all-time franchise-high in payroll for the third consecutive season — it came in little chunks. The Royals’ largest individual commitment this offseason went to Edinson Volquez (2 years/$20M).

Moore got his tenure off to its famously rocky start by spending big on Meche, who had posted a 4.82 FIP in his first six seasons, with the Seattle Mariners. The poor fella would retire before the final year of the contract, which at least kept the 2011 Royals’ payroll down — that payroll being $38.1M for the whole team. There is no more apt avatar for the most recent generation of Royals futility.

4. Cincinnati Reds – Francisco Cordero – 4 years (2008-2011) – $45M
I’ve examined the Reds’ unique lack of Japanese players, and it turns out the Reds have operated entirely without big-name free agents as well. What’s interesting about the Reds is that they’ll actually land in the upper half of team payroll this season, and they’ve increased payroll in each of the last seven seasons.

But all of their big-money players — Votto, Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey — are home-grown. Brandon Phillips was acquired via trade and then extended — same as Ken Griffey Jr. Johnny Cueto, while signed as an international free agent, is currently playing under a contract extension. The most expensive free agent on the Reds’ roster right now is actually Aroldis Chapman, who was originally signed to a 6-year/$30.25M deal. And what a bargain: Cordero produced 2.6 WAR during his four years in the Reds’ bullpen. Chapman was good for 2.7 WAR just last season.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates – Francisco Liriano – 3 years (2015-2017) – $39M
Yes, what appeared to be, on the market, a prudent investment in a reliable starting pitcher also counts as the Pirates’ biggest free agent investment of all-time. This does count as growth for the Pirates: just a few years ago (2010), their entire payroll was $39.068M, with the best-compensated player on that team being Paul Maholm at $5M.

GM Neal Huntington’s deft timing at offering extensions has been phenomenal, rendering free agent pursuits unnecessary for the Bucs. If the Pirates pick up Starling Marte’s club options for 2020 and 2021, they will pay him $55M for eight seasons — FanGraphs dollars estimates that Marte has already provided $50.2M of value to Pittsburgh. If Andrew McCutchen had not signed his extension prior to the 2012 season, he would be entering free agency this offseason. Instead, the Pirates hold a team option on McCutchen for the 2018 season, which, when exercised, would make his deal worth 7 years and $66M.

In other words: the Pirates wouldn’t have pulled the trigger on this deal unless they really believed in Liriano.

2. Oakland A’s – Yoenis Cespedes – 4 years (2012-2015) – $36M
The small-market A’s have actually outspent the Pirates, in total, more years than not. For instance, in 2007 the A’s payroll topped out at $79.3M (a team record until last season) while the Pirates were still puttering around at $38.5M. But Billy Beane has traded his about-to-be-free-agents for prospects so many times that the A’s hardly ever spend on free agents. Their biggest free agent investment to end last season in Oakland was Scott Kazmir, who is on a prudent 2-year/$22M deal.

Incredibly, Mark McGwire almost won the title as the A’s biggest-ever free agent signing: his deal from 1992-1997 was good for $28.12M, and it ended — of course — with him getting traded in the last year of the contract.

Considering what the A’s are willing to invest in free agency, it makes it all the more clear that they really, really think that Billy Butler (3 years/$30M) can help them.

1. Tampa Bay Devil Rays – Wilson Alvarez – 5 years (1998-2002) – $35M
Confession: I had never heard of Alvarez before. In an effort, no doubt, to start their expansion franchise off with a bang, the Devil Rays spent big on the journeyman starter (an All-Star with the 1994 White Sox!). During his tenure with the Devil Rays, Alvarez missed two entire seasons with a shoulder injury, and contributed 63 starts of 4.99 FIP ball when healthy. Tampa Bay’s best win total over the duration of this contract: 69 wins. Best win total.

With a backstory like this, it’s quite understandable why Andrew Friedman’s re-named Rays have avoided this racket. Some of Tampa Bay’s biggest free agent contracts in the meantime have gone out to Carlos Pena (3 years/$24.1M) and James Loney (3 years/$21M), who is the Rays’ most lucrative free agent of the moment. That’s right. James Loney: lucrative.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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9 years ago

Didn’t A-Rod technically opt out of his contract and become a free agent when the Yankees gave him 275?

9 years ago
Reply to  Mike

Yeah but I think it was during the exclusive negotiating window. Does that still count?

9 years ago
Reply to  Chris

No way.

He opted out during game 4 of the WS, and signed much later.

He was a Free Agent, I think.

9 years ago
Reply to  LSCT

Yep. He was absolutely and completely a free agent.

9 years ago
Reply to  Mike

Indeed. A-Rod voided his contract on 10/29/07 and signed as a free agent on 12/13/07.