In the 35 years since baseball’s free agent era began, teams have risked financial health with big-money contracts for pitchers, none more so than the Yankees. The best & worst:
YankeesBest value free-agent pitchers →5. David Cone, 1996, 3-year, $18M: Cone went 39-15 over three years with a 3.15 earned run average. He won 20 games in 1998, and after the Yanks were down two games to Atlanta in the ’96 World Series, Cone beat the Braves 5-2 in Game 3, launching the new dynasty. →4. Orlando Hernandez, 1998, 4-year, $6.6M: Bargain-basement money for a pitcher who in those four years made 99 starts and went 45-33 on teams that won three World Series. →3. Jimmy Key, 1993, 4-year, $16.8M: Went 35-10 his first two seasons, 48-23 over the four years and won Game 6 of that ’96 World Series. →2. Goose Gossage, 1978, 6-year, $2.8M: $466,666 a year is quaint money for now, but it was a big investment 32 years ago. And it paid off: 308 games pitched, 150 saves, 2.10 earned run average and seven post-season saves. →1. Mike Mussina, 2001, 6-year, $88.5M: A dream free agent. Always healthy, always reliable. In those six years, Mussina made 187 starts, always posted a winning record and went 92-53. To top it off, signed on for two more years and went 31-19. Worst value free-agent pitchers →5. Kyle Farnsworth, 2006, 3-year, $17.5M: Signed as a setup man for Mariano Rivera, Farnsworth went 6-9 with a 4.33 ERA, not really terrible performance, but he was widely disliked. →4. Roger Clemens, 2007, 1-year, $18M (prorated): Clemens signed in May, having been a dominant pitcher for a quarter century, but the gig was up. He went 6-6 with a 4.18 ERA. →3. Jaret Wright, 2005, 3-year, $21M: A 15-8 record for Atlanta after years of struggle got Wright a big payday. In two Bronx seasons, he went 16-12 combined with a 4.99 ERA and was traded to Baltimore for Chris Britton. →2. Carl Pavano, 2005, 4-year, $40M: Pavano rarely pitched — 17 starts in three years — before he was traded to Cleveland. But he was awful when he did pitch; a 5.00 ERA. →1. Kei Igawa, 2007, 5-year, $20M (plus $26M Japan posting fee): Igawa spent all of 2009 in the International League at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In two Yankee seasons, the Japanese left-hander was 2-4 with a 6.66 ERA in 16 games.
MLBBest value free-agent pitchers →5. Nolan Ryan, 1980, 4-year, $4.5M: Baseball’s first million-dollar man proved to be worth it in Houston. He revitalized a franchise and went 52-36 in those first four years with the Astros, with an ERA of 2.91. A decade later, Ryan would do the same for the Rangers. →4. Roger Clemens, 1997, 4-year, $40M: The Blue Jays signed Clemens away from Boston, and in two years with Toronto before a trade to the Yanks, Clemens won two Cy Young Awards and went 21-7 and 20-6, with a combined 2.33 ERA. Hard to argue with that kind of pitching. →3. Randy Johnson, 1999, 4-year, $53M: Those first four years in Arizona, at the height of the steroid era, Johnson went 81-27, with no ERA higher than 2.64, struck out 1,417 and won four Cy Youngs. If it’s possible to be worth $13.25 million a year, Johnson was. →2. Greg Maddux, 1993, 5-year, $28M: The Braves tried to put together the best pitching staff ever, and just might have succeeded. Maddux eventually won 194 games in 11 Atlanta seasons, including a record of 89-33 the five seasons of this contract. He won the Cy Young his first three years with the Braves. →1. Jack Morris, 1991, 1-year, $3.7M: Few superstars sign one-year deals anymore, but this worked out famously for Morris and the Twins. Morris went 18-12 back with his homestate team and pitched Minnesota to the World Series title, including that epic 1-0, 10-inning victory over Atlanta in Game 7. Worst value free agent pitchers →5. Bruce Sutter, 1985, 6-year, $10.125M: Barry Zito might eventually remove Sutter from this list. But Sutter was the Cadillac of relievers after the 1984 season, when he was 31 years old and set a major league saves record with 45. What the Braves didn’t know was that Sutter basically was finished. He pitched three more years, never had an ERA under 4.30 and was gone from baseball after 1988. →4. Russ Ortiz, 2005, 4-year, $33M: The former Sooner star was a stud with the Giants (67-44) and Braves (36-16), but his career floundered immediately in Arizona — 5-11 his first year, 0-5 his second before a trade to Baltimore. Overall, since signing that contract, Ortiz is 8-28 with a 6.71 ERA. →3. Denny Neagle, 2001, 5-year, $51M: A great year in Atlanta (20-5 in 1997) made him a star, and three years later the Rockies thought they could solve their ballpark hex. They couldn’t. Neagle went 19-23 with a 5.57 ERA in three Colorado seasons, his personal life spiraled downward and he hasn’t pitched since. →2. Wayne Garland, 1977, 10-year, $2.3M: Garland went 20-7 with the ’76 Orioles and was a hot item. He went 13-19 his first year in Cleveland and then 15-29 his next four years before retiring. →1. Chan Ho Park, 2002, 5-year, $65M: People forget Park was really good as a Dodger — 80-54 over six years. But in four Texas seasons, Park went 22-23 with a 5.79 ERA and became the poster child of this beleaguered franchise.