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Was Randy Johnson the best free-agent signing in baseball history?

Where does it stack up against other candidates?

Pitcher Randy Johnson #51 of the Arizona Diamondbacks

On yesterday, they asked their 30 team reporters each to select the best free-agent signing in their franchise’s history. Steve Gilbert must have spent all of seconds figuring out the answer to that question for the Diamondbacks: it is, far and away, Randy Johnson joining the team in 1998. [Gilbert also mentions Steve Finley’s deal, and an honorable not-free-agent deal, Paul Goldschmidt’s contract extension, both of which paid off handsomely for the team] But the team’s communication VP, Josh Rawitch, then lobbed out this potentially interesting question on Twitter.

Ooh. Good question. Of course, free agency has been around a lot longer than the Diamondbacks, since the mid-seventies when a series of landmark cases changed the landscape of baseball - and, subsequently, other sports - forever. We couldn’t possibly hope to analyze every single deal. But what we do have, are 30 contenders, each the suggestion of someone who is familiar with the team in question. So, let’s use that as a short-list and see how the Johnson deal stacks up against the other 29 “best free-agent signings in franchise history”.

To analyze this, I’ve looked at the bWAR value put up by the player in question over the length of the contract. That’s it: any extensions subsequently entered into are not counted, and if the player is dealt to another team, their value for them is still included in the total. The table below lists the details of each contract: it’s length, cost, years covered, value produced and value per year. It’s in descending order of the last column.

Best free-agents by team (per MLB)

Team Player Length Years Cost ($m) bWAR WAR/yr
Team Player Length Years Cost ($m) bWAR WAR/yr
D-backs Randy Johnson 4 1999-2002 $52 38.3 9.6
Giants Barry Bonds 6 1993-1998 $43.75 49.5 8.3
Marlins Kevin Brown 3 1996-98 $12.6 23.5 7.8
Braves Greg Maddux 5 1993-97 $28 38.9 7.8
Blue Jays Roger Clemens 4 1997-2000 $40 27.5 6.9
Indians Roberto Alomar 3 1999-2001 $21.9 20.3 6.8
Mariners Ichiro Suzuki 3 2001-03 $27 16.8 5.6
Rockies Larry Walker 4 1995-98 $22.5 21.4 5.4
Athletics Dave Henderson 3 1988-90 $1.925 15.3 5.1
Rangers Nolan Ryan 1 1989 $1.5 5.1 5.1
Pirates Russell Martin 2 2013-14 $17 9.7 4.9
Orioles Rafael Palmeiro 5 1994-98 $30 23.4 4.7
Red Sox Manny Ramirez 8 2001-08 $160 36.6 4.6
Rays Fernando Rodney 1 2012 $2 3.8 3.8
Angels Vlad Guerrero 5 2005-09 $70 17.2 3.4
Dodgers Kirk Gibson 3 1988-1990 $4.5 9.8 3.3
Yankees Orlando Hernandez 4 1998-2001 $6.6 12.6 3.2
Astros Nolan Ryan 4 1980-83 $4.5 12.2 3.1
White Sox Carlton Fisk 5 1981-85 $2.9 15.1 3.0
Cardinals Matt Holliday 7 2010-16 $120 20.8 3.0
Tigers Ivan Rodriguez 4 2004-07 $40 11.7 2.9
Reds Dave Parker 2 1984-85 $2.07 5.7 2.9
Mets Mike Piazza 7 1999-2005 $91 19.1 2.7
Twins Paul Molitor 2 1996-97 $5.5 5.2 2.6
Cubs Moises Alou 3 2002-04 $27 6.7 2.2
Royals Kendrys Morales 2 2015-16 $17 3.3 1.7
Nationals Jayson Werth 7 2011-17 $126 9.6 1.6
Brewers Larry Hisle 6 1978-83 $3.155 6.7 1.1
Padres Goose Gossage 5 1984-88 $9.955 4.3 0.9
Phillies Pete Rose 4 1979-82 $3.24 3.2 0.8

Josh seems to have a credible case across these 30 candidates, with Johnson trailing only Bonds and Clemens in overall production, and leading them in terms of WAR per season. I was going to get deeper, and start figuring out cost per bWAR, then realized I’d need to adjust for inflation - and probably not just garden variety inflation, but specifically baseball salary inflation, which has outpaced the regular kind. The average MLB salary in 1989, say, was $512,804, which is about $1.5 million today. But the average MLB salary now is almost three times that, at $4.4 million. In the end, life’s too short. [Especially when Mrs. SnakePit and I are heading out for dinner and Resident Evil!]

Still, some odd entries on there, and some which don’t even obey the rules. It explicitly says, “The signings had to be multiyear contracts, to exclude fluky one-year deals and to focus on players who got real commitments.” But the Nolan Ryan deal for Texas was for one year, albeit with an additional option year. The same goes for the Rays and Fernando Rodney. Beyond those, Larry Hisle seems a very odd choice for the Brewers, and the author admits it could well have a place on a list of worst signings, since Hisle averaged less than 16 games per season over the last five years of it. Jayson Werth, too, has had just two good seasons out of his six in Washington thus far.

I do have to resist an urge to smack the Giants’ writer, who begins, “The issue isn't whether Barry Bonds is the franchise's best free-agent signee ever. It's whether he's the best free-agent signee in the annals of professional sports, period.” True, over the entire 15 years Bonds was in San Francisco, he piled up 112.3 bWAR, more than any player for a single baseball team in the free-agent era. But if you look at the period of the actual free-agent contract, he averaged less WAR per year than the Big Unit despite being seven years younger, and Bonds won only one award compared to RJ going 4-for-4 in Cy Youngs. Meanwhile, the Giants didn’t win a single playoff game from 1993-98 - so what, exactly, did this contract get San Francisco?

Admittedly, I’m somewhat (okay: very) biased on the topic. But in terms both of sheer individual performance and what it brought the team - I suspect, no Randy = no 2001 World Series win - Arizona’s signing of Johnson was the best deal, even if the longer-term production of Bonds was superior.