Free Agency and the Jays – Part 4: Re-Signed Free Agents

Today’s column is my final post about Toronto’s free agency history, with the focus on re-signed free agents.  

The definition of a re-signed free agent is pretty straightforward: a player who played for the Blue Jays, declared free agency, but decided to come back to Toronto instead of a different team.  The key is that they became a free agent before signing a new contract.  That is why players who signed contract extensions, such as Vernon Wells, are excluded.  They never officially hit the open market.

From baseball-reference.com I counted 50 re-signed free agents.  Some players are on the list more than once, including Gregg Zaun (who re-signed twice with the Jays) and Danny Cox (three times). 

Of those 50, 19 players re-signed with Toronto but never played for the Jays after signing.  Many were sent straight to the minors, including Raul Chavez in the 2010 season.  Dave Stieb fits that category as well, signing with Toronto as a free agent in April of 1998, pitching in 19 games, and then re-signing in December of ’98 before retiring.   

The remaining 31 re-signed free agents had varying degrees of name value and impact after returning to Toronto.  Many are players that fans likely do not remember or have never even heard of in the first place, names such as Mike Huff, Willie Aikens, and Pat Lennon.  Others are some of the most famous Blue Jays in franchise history, including Ernie Whitt, Joe Carter, and Mookie Wilson.

In terms of impact, 16 players (51.6%) had a positive WAR in their second (or third) stint with the club, by far the highest percentage of the three free agent categories.  To me, this makes perfect sense.  When Ernie Whitt re-signed with the Jays, he already knew the team.  He was familiar with the city, the fans, the manager, the clubhouse, the stadium, the climate, and his teammates.  There was no adjustment period required, like there is for pure or amateur free agents.

Listed below are Toronto’s best (and worst) re-signed free agents:

I don’t remember Ernie Whitt becoming a free agent, but apparently he did, granted free agency on November 12, 1986.  He re-joined the Jays on January 8, 1987 and had three outstanding seasons (.261 avg, .771 OPS, 46 HR, 198 RBI), culminating in the 1989 AL East division title.  Jim Clancy had a dynamite ’87 season, going 15-11 with a 3.54 ERA and 180 K in 241.1 IP.  It’s interesting to note that four of the six names listed are catchers, indicating that the Jays have traditionally gone back to the well for a backstop.

But it is the “Worst” list that stands out the most by far, in particular the man who hit the most famous home run in Blue Jay history.  Stairs, Griffin, and Samuel were all bit players, and Cox sucked royally in ’95 (1-3, 7.40 ERA, 2.00 WHIP), but Joe Carter was (and still is) a Toronto legend.  How can he be the third worst re-signed free agent in club history?

The reason is 1995 – 1997.  When he became a free agent after the ’92 World Series, most thought he would sign with his hometown Royals.  When he re-upped with the Jays, fans were overjoyed, and he paid them back with two excellent seasons in ’93 and ’94.  Both years he went to the All-Star game, and both years he finished in the top-12 in MVP voting.  But 1995, 1996, and 1997 were bad years.  Sure he still hit for power and drove in runs (an average of 25 HR, 95 RBI per year), but his OBP was very low (.297), and his OPS was below average (.732), with a brutal .234 avg / .284 OBP / .399 SLG / .683 OPS line in 1997.  Plus his defense was bad, a staggering -26 zone rating in the three years.

But we will never remember that Joe.  To us fans, Joe Carter will always be the heroic figure who jumped around the basepaths in 1993, no matter what the WAR figure says.

Other notable re-signed free agents include:

– Mark Eichhorn (re-signed in 1993, 1.1 WAR)

– John McDonald (re-signed in 2009, 1.1 WAR)

– Mike Flanagan (re-signed in 1988, 0.8 WAR)

– Mookie Wilson (re-signed in 1989, 0.8 WAR)

– Rance Mulliniks (re-signed in 1990, -0.2 WAR)

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