Free Agency and the Jays – Part 3: Pure Free Agents

Continuing my series of free agent columns, today I am looking at how well the Jays have performed in the pure free agent market. 

My definition of a pure free agent is a player who changes teams by signing a free agent contract.  Simple as that.  These are by far the most high profile signings made each off-season, and this year will be no exception.  We have already seen Victor Martinez change teams from Boston to Detroit, and there is a good chance Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Jayson Werth, and Cliff Lee follow suit.

As far as the Blue Jays are concerned, by my count they have signed 301 pure free agents in franchise history.  Of that amount, 165 of those players have suited up for the club at the major league level.  The other 136 were either signed to minor league deals and never made the majors, or were released, traded, or waived before playing.  Some names that fit the latter category include Eric Plunk, Felix Jose, Joey Cora, Bruce Chen, and Joey Gathright. 

The vast majority of the 165 who DID play for Toronto only lasted one season with the team.  For whatever reason (one-year deal, trade, release, injury) they came, they played, they left.  These “one year wonders” can be split into many categories:

– Lesser known / little impact:  Juan Acevedo (2003), Mark Ross (1988), Dan Reichert (2003)

– Last legs of their careers:  Dave Parker (1991), Dave Righetti (1994), Frank Viola (1996)

– Former Jays on a “finale tour”:  Dave Stieb (1998), Pat Borders (1999), Tony Fernandez (2001), Pat Hentgen (2004), Shannon Stewart (2008) 

– Hopeful experiments gone awry:  Tomo Ohka (2007), Victor Zambrano (2007), Brad Wilkerson (2008)

But there are also many who did succeed, including Dave Winfield in 1992, Jose Canseco in 1998, and three from last year’s team – John Buck, Alex Gonzalez, and Kevin Gregg. 

Of the free agents who were signed for more than one year, many made a major impact on the club’s success.  Listed below are Toronto’s best (and worst) pure free agent signings in terms of WAR. (Note: the WAR figure includes all seasons played for the Jays after signing):

Number one on the “Best” list is certainly no surprise.  Roger Clemens had two outstanding season in a Blue Jays uniform, culminating in back-to-back Cy Young awards.  Doyle Alexander was dominant and helped the team to its first AL East division title.  Paul Molitor was World Series MVP.  

The other two names on the list surprised me somewhat.  Scott Downs has been brilliant out of the bullpen for six seasons and will be badly missed if (or when) he signs elsewhere, but I did not expect to see his name that high on the list.  Same with A.J. Burnett.  But more suprising than seeing those two names on the list were players who I expected to see but didn’t make the cut, including Dave Winfield, B.J. Ryan, and Dave Stewart.  

On the “Worst” chart, the two names that stand out the most to me are Marty Cordova and Pat Tabler.  Cordova won the AL Rookie of the Year award for Minnesota in 1995, but had the worst season of his professional career for Toronto in ’00 (.245 avg, .657 OPS, 4 HR, 18 RBI).  Sadly, he had one of his best seasons the very next year after signing with the Indians.  Tabler was an All-Star in 1987 for Cleveland and is prominent to Jays fans now as the teams colour commentator.  But he stunk on the field in ’91 and ’92 – both playoff seasons (.231 avg, .591 OPS, 1 HR, 37 RBI, 131 games).

In total, 38 players contributed a WAR of at least 1.0 with the team, including:

– Tony Castillo (7.5 WAR)

– Frank Catalanotto  (6.0 WAR)

– Darrin Fletcher (5.0 WAR)

– B.J. Ryan (4.5 WAR)

– Dave Winfield (3.7 WAR)

– John Buck (3.0 WAR)

– Dave Stewart (2.1 WAR)

– Frank Thomas (1.7 WAR)

– Jose Canseco (1.2 WAR)

– Corey Koskie (1.0 WAR)

70 players contributed negative WARs, including heavyweights Armando Benitez, Edgardo Alfonzo, Tanyon Sturtze, Tomo Ohka, David Dellucci, and Kevin Millar.

Whoever AA inks to a free agent contract this winter, let’s hope he fits into the good portion and not the bad.  I can’t handle another Millar…

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