Free Agency and the Jays – Part 1

With free agency season upon us, and with rumours flying left and right, I became curious about Toronto’s history in free agency.  We all know about players like Paul Molitor and Roger Clemens, but what about others?  How many free agents have the Jays signed in franchise history?  Who was the best?  Who was the worst?

To find the answers to these questions I decided to undertake an extensive research project about the Toronto Blue Jays and their history of free agent signings.

To do this study I relied heavily on, as I normally do with most baseball columns.  Using their immense database, I was able to piece together every free agent signing the Toronto Blue Jays have ever made dating all the way back to the inaugural season (1977).  I then ranked each player based on performance and came up with the best and worst signings.

Before I move on, let me clarify a few things:

First – I only ranked the free agents who actually ended up playing for Toronto.  Some went straight to the minors, and others were released or traded or waived before ever suiting up for the Jays.  They have been removed.

Second – my definition of a free agent is a player who is signed to a contract when he does not currently have a contract.  Players who have their contracts extended without ever being declared a free agent are not listed twice.  That is why Carlos Delgado only has one contract with the Jays.

Third – I split the free agents into three types:

Amateur Free Agents – players who were not drafted or were not eligible for the draft.  These players are normally signed young and don’t make an impact for several years.  Think Carlos Delgado.

Re-Signed Free Agents – players who played for the Blue Jays, were granted free agency, but decided to sign with Toronto again instead of another team.  Think Joe Carter after the ’92 season.

Pure Free Agents – players who switched teams to join Toronto.  Think A.J. Burnett.

(I will be posting three more parts in this series, one exploring each type of free agent in more detail.)

Fourth – Though it might not be universally supported, I used WAR as my performance ranking statistic, for two reasons: 1) it combines everything into one number, and 2) it allows comparisons between hitters and pitchers.

Fifth – Each contract is graded separately, not each player.   For instance, Gregg Zaun is on the list three separate times because he signed three separate free agent contracts with Toronto.  In 2004 he signed as a “Pure Free Agent”, and then Re-Signed twice afterwards.

Sixth – This is strictly a performance ranking, and does not include length or dollar value of contracts.  I realize that those figures have the potential to change the results a lot, but I didn’t have the time or resources to go to that level of analysis.

On to the numbers.

Free Agent Totals

In the history of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise, the team has signed 410 different free agent contracts.  171 of them went to players who never played for the team for one reason or another, names such as Leroy Stanton, Chico Walker, and Aaron Holbert.  That means 58.3% of all players ever signed have contributed in some way to the major league club.

On a year-by-year basis, Toronto signed more free agents (22) in 2009 than in any other year, but only seven wore a uniform.  Players like Brandon Fahey, Lance Broadway, Joey Gathright, and Troy Cate never made it to the majors.

1988 was a banner year in terms of free agents making the team.  Eight signings, seven major league players.  Doug Blair failed to play for the Jays after signing that contract but Carlos Delgado, Frank Wills, Graeme Lloyd, Juan Beniquez, Mark Ross, Mike Flanagan, and Sal Butera all eventually made their way to the big club.

Free Agents by Type

Remember the days when the Blue Jays owned the Dominican and other Latin American areas?  It seemed like each year a new latin player would join the team and make a splash.  A large amount of these players were signed by Toronto as amateur free agents, and looking at the WAR numbers below, that is where the Jays have had the most success:

Though Toronto’s pure free agent signings have combined to provide a higher WAR, on a per-player average, the amateur free agent signings have provided the most impact.

But just because as a group they perform the best doesn’t make them the safest bet, or even the best bet, for two reasons.  The first is shown in the chart below:

Only 37% of the amateur free agents provided a positive WAR to the Jays during the life of their contracts, meaning about two-thirds of the players performed worse than an average minor leaguer.  Re-Signed free agents had the best percentage, which certainly makes sense considering they should already know the team, the city, the ballpark, and the manager.

The second reason is timing.  Amateur free agents normally take a long time to develop. They are young, from another country, don’t speak the language, and generally start in low-A ball.  If you want immediate impact, you won’t find it here.  This is evident below:

Toronto’s Best Free Agent Signings

How do you judge a good free agent signing?  For the purposes of this article, by two factors – immediacy and impact.  Teams obviously want a player to perform at a high level when they sign him, but they also don’t want to wait several years for a player to make that impact.  Detroit didn’t just sign Victor Martinez so he can learn the ballpark and the pitching staff for three years before playing at a high level in the fourth.

Using that criteria, here is a look at the top-5 free agents ever signed by the Blue Jays:

On the first chart (the best FA based on their first year), number 1 & 2 are not suprising.  Clemens won the Cy Young and Molitor the World Series MVP.   But Jim Clancy re-signing and doing that well in 1987?  Frank Castillo in 2000?  Unexpected to say the least.

Looking at the second chart, again no suprise to see Clemens at the top.  He won another Cy in his second year as a Jay.  Tony Fernandez had a great second year in his third go-around with the team, but who knew that Burnett would rank so high?

As for the worst?

Not exactly what the GM was expecting when they inked those guys to new deals.  For those wondering what kind of stats Gomez put up to earn a negative WAR, they aren’t pretty: 469 plate appearances in 153 games, .223 avg, .534 OPS, 0 HR, 32 RBI, 2 SB to 10 CS, 16 errors for a .976 fielding percentage, and a -7 zone rating at SS.  Ouch.

When it comes to the life of the contracts there are no suprises at the top (note: life of the contract captures all service time with the Jays from the day the first contract was signed to the day the player left the team.  Carlos Delgado obviously didn’t sign a 16 year contract in 1988, but he did sign as an amateur free agent in ’88 and stay with the franchise until ’04 without ever declaring free agency.)

The only real suprise in the best FA table is Luis Leal, ranking ahead of such names as Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield.  But Leal actually pitched six very solid seasons for Toronto in the early 80’s, so his recognition is justified.

On the worst FA table, there is our old friend Luis Gomez again, who actually put up another stinker of a season in 1979.  And lo and behold, look who is also on the list – 500 Level Fan’s least favourite Blue Jay of all time Mr. Kevin Cash.  At last, my hatred is justified!

Come back to next week for the rest of the series, including:

Part 2 – A more in-depth look at the Best and Worst Amateur Free Agent signings in Blue Jay history.

Part 3 – A more in-depth look at the Best and Worst Pure Free Agent signings.

Part 4 – A look at Re-Signed free agents.

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