THE BIG HIT | the Black Friday Sales of Baseball

by Ken Napzok

It’s Thanksgiving time here in the States, the launch of the holiday season, (apologies to Halloween) and with baseball having a little bit of a rough start to the offseason I was all set to present to you all here a nice article of thanksgiving to the things, moments, and players that make up this great game, past and present. A little ode of gratitude to my favorite sport. But then it struck me… that’s not what this holiday is about! Just look out of your window. This holiday is about SHOPPING.

SALES.

SWIPING THAT CREDIT

TEN PERCENT OFF ITEMS MARKED UP DAYS BEFORE.

GET THEM BARGAINS.

God bless the holidays. 

So, with that in mind, let’s discuss some of the best free agent bargains the game has ever seen. And these aren’t those types of bargains where a team got a certain amount of measurable performance above the projected statistics divided by the market value of the contract sign as compared to the league average weighted for ballparks. (or CAOMPATPS/MV+ for all you future General Managers and Vice Presidents of Baseball Operations out there.) I’m talking five of the best free agent signings in the post-Flood-McNally-Messersmith era. While the stats definitely matter, this has more to do with the team’s taking a risk when no one else would and getting rewarded. This is about making a move that fans and pundits alike questioned and getting to sip your I Told You So tea all the way to the bank. This is about those deals that changed the direction of a franchise. 

This list is also my opinion and should not be taken as historical fact.* 

* Yes, it should. 

So, with that in mind, put down the big screen TV you just bought for the price of a Blu-Ray and let’s celebrate the Greatest Free Agent Bargains Ever. 

5 – Ivan Rodriquez, 2004, Detroit Tigers

Can a four-year, $40 million-dollar contract in 2004 be considered a bargain? It can be when your long-suffering team loses 119 games in 2003 and by 2006 you’re winning the World Series. 

Ivan Rodriquez was an old 32 year when the 2004 season began. He had been playing in the Majors since he was 19 and all of it at the most demanding position in the sport. (Yes, there are those rumors about what vitamins he took during baseball’s most challenging era, but he is in the Hall of Fame, so I guess all is forgiven.) Pudge was coming off a solid 2003 season in which he helped the Marlins win the World Series, but giving a long term deal to a catcher two seasons removed from the All-Star game nods and Gold Gloves that made him one of the best in the biz is risky no matter any way you slice it. 

The Tigers took the leap but knew what they needed from him. And they got it. 

He was productive for all four seasons of the deal even if the numbers did start to slide as age began to get the victory it always gets. But beyond that Ivan Rodriquez changed the tone, lead on the field, and helped usher in the new era that gave birth to one of the best teams in recent years, the 2006 Tigers. 

Free Agency wasn’t just the promise of better pay and employment opportunities for the players — I mean at the beginning it was — but it was also supposed to represent a chance for teams to change their fortunes. And to do it quick. The Tigers swooped in to grab a veteran player at a fair price and it worked out exactly as the system promised. That’s a bargain… and a win. 

4 – D.J. LeMahieu, 2019, New York Yankees

In another parallel universe, Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, one of them, maybe both, are playing for the New York Yankees. When the 2018 season ended, all eyes were on those big-time free agents and, though, many other teams were absolutely in the mix, it just seemed natural that one of them would end up in those classic pinstripes. That’s just how it goes in baseball. Going back to the days of Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, and moving on up through the ages, the Yankees, for better and often worse, get those big names. 

And then they didn’t. 

Manny Machado signed with the Padres. Bryce Harper the Phillies. Hell, even A.J. Pollack signed with the Dodgers. But the Yankees stood pat. While the world waited for the big move, they signed D.J. LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million-dollar pact on January 19th, 2019. Sure. Great. Every team needs that key utility guy. LeMahieu was a former batting champ and three-time Gold Glove winner. Everyone thought he was going to do just fine filling in for Manny every week or so, maybe grab some starts while Didi worked his way back and just, you know, take a lot of notes from the bench. 

Well, Manny never arrived. Same with Harper. And all that happened was D.J. LeMahieu out played almost everyone. And that includes Machado and Harper. Yes, Harper’s old school glory numbers were a little higher, but the slap and dash infielder from the Rockies turned in a MVP-caliber season for the price of someone far below those results. (Talk about a great CAOMPATPS/MV+!!) The best stat might have been that he only struck out 90 times while Machado and Harper both set career highs in whiffing. 

LeMahieu captured the attention of the biggest city in the world and become a hero to one of the most demanding audience in the game’s history. They didn’t need a $300 million-dollar man. They just needed D.J. 

Now, yes, this is a story still unfolding and we shall see what happens from here. Can D.J. keep it going? Was this truly a breakout season that foretold what was to come from now on or will he fade back to the solid, but unremarkable, levels he was at? Stay tuned, but LeMahieu’s 2019 season will always remain as one of the best bargain signings ever. 

3 – Terry Pendleton, 1991, Atlanta Braves

When you think of the Atlanta Braves and their dominance in the ‘90s many names roll out of your memory banks. Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Justice, and Jones (Chipper and Andruw). You might even think of a Grissom, Nixon, Gant, McGriff, or Klesko. But the name that should be on the mentioned every time is Terry Pendleton. 

The Braves were a last place team in 1990 and the franchise was a long way from the Dale Murphy golden days of the early 80s. (When Joe Torre managed them to the playoffs in 1981.) In fact, they hadn’t had a winning season since 1983. However, the talent was bubbling up to the surface. There was hope. They needed an anchor 

Terry Pendleton was not on any “sign this guy to anchor your team” lists when the 1990 season ended. The slick fielding third baseman was coming off a year in which he poked the ball around to a .230 average with 6 home runs, 58 RBI, and a sense that at 29 the tide had turned. He drove in 96 in 1987, won two Gold Gloves, and helped the Cardinals get to the postseason in ‘85 and ‘87. Good career, especially for ‘80s baseball, but UCLA future stud Todd Zeile was ready to move out from behind the plate to take his job and now he could go find a gig elsewhere, maybe. 

John Schuerholz had taken over running the Braves and as the new GM, Schuerholz got busy. First, he signed Sid Bream (a good pick up) and then he went after Pendleton. There was some interest in Pendleton from some clubs. I was a young Yankee fan back then and distinctly remember reading an update — probably from the Sporting News — claiming the Yankees were looking at Pendleton. I remember it, because I was not happy about it. Terry Pendleton wasn’t the Yankees answer, my teenage daydream of a brain thought. 

I was wrong. The Cardinals were wrong. Baseball was wrong. Except for John Schuerholz. He signed him to a four-year deal worth 10.2 million. (Gasp. SO much money.) This wasn’t smart, right? This looked like a desperate organization bringing in a washed up name to provide false hope. 

Except Pendleton won the National League batting title with a crisp .319 average. He hit 22 home runs, drove in 86 runs, led the league in hits, and, for the new stat heads, raised his OPS+ 74 points. 

Beyond the stats, Terry Pendleton helped craft the new attitude of the organization. He wasn’t just driving in runs; he was at the center of this new era in the franchise. A chapter had turned, and he was helping to write it. In a close vote, he beat out Barry Bonds for the N.L. MVP award and followed up this great season with an even better statistical effort in 1992. He finished second in the MVP voting, helped return the Braves to the World Series, and cemented this franchise as a winning one in this new decade. 

When you think of the 1990s Braves and their success, you have to think back to the bargain that helped start it all. 

2 – Andre Dawson, 1987, Chicago Cubs

The 1986 offseason was a weird one. Like the offseason before, there were a ton of big names on the market, but no big offers. Free Agency — still only about a decade old — had taken a weird turn. Of course, very soon the world would learn that the owners had conspired to taint the market, turn their backs on the idea of signing players to big contracts, and, for the first time, in a lot of young fans’ lives the word collusion was added to their vocabulary. The owners were shooting dirty pool and it did all eventually come out in the wash.

In the middle of that, one of the most fabled free agent signings in history took place and became one of the best bargains ever. Andre Dawson signed with the Cubs, 

Andre Dawson wanted out of Montreal at any costs. Though he had been one of the game’s most dynamic and exciting five-tool players, Dawson’s knees were crumbling on the unforgiving Astroturf of the old Olympic stadium. He took all of his five-tools including one of the best outfield arms ever that had helped net him six straight Gold Gloves from 1980 to 1985 and went to the Cubs and basically said, “Hey, I want to play here.” The Cubs and GM Dallas Green — who I’m guessing never looked at a stat on a com-pu-ter screen — said no. 

No other teams signed Dawson and the 1987 spring training began. Dawson and his agent Dick Moss (there is a pill for that) showed up at the Cubs training site in Mesa, Arizona trying to get a contract. They said no. 

So, with no other options, Dawson signed a blank contract, handed it over to the club, and told them to fill in the rest. Didn’t matter. He wanted to play. And play Dawson did.

Dawson’s 1987 was his best yet and best ever. (Though he’d register some big seasons after ‘87) He led the National League with 49 home runs — tying him with rookie Mark McGwire for the MLB lead — and drove in 137 runs. He became the first player ever to win the Most Valuable Player award for a last place team. 

That the Cubs finished in last place is a curious note but does nothing to take away that Dawson accomplished this all on a one year-deal that with bonuses ended up being worth only $700,000 bucks. A number that the club filled in on their own. The Hawk signed a new deal with a lot more after that working his way toward the Hall of Fame. 

We always hear about players betting on themselves to get a bigger contract, but no bigger self-bet was ever made by a player than this one. Andre Dawson literally handed his new employers a blank check and said, “Pay me whatever you want. I just want to play.” And play he did. 

1 – David Ortiz, 2003, Boston Red Sox

It wasn’t that David Ortiz was a bad player for the Minnesota Twins from 1997 to 2002, it’s just that he wasn’t good enough to keep his spot with the amount of that was due to him. 

The small market Twins had to make a tough decision on their power hitting, not so slick fielding first baseman/ DH. So, following a 20 homer, 75 RBI, .839 OPS season, Ortiz was cut. He was now a free agent, but not by choice. Things didn’t look good. 

But Pedro Martinez believed in him and he pulled the strings a legend earns a right to pull and had the Boston Red Sox sign Ortiz to compete in their crowded first base/ DH competition. Jeremy Giambi, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, and Shea Hillenbrand were all ahead of him His free agent contract wasn’t even guaranteed. Ortiz would make 1.25 million if he made the team. IF he made it. 

That contract was signed in January of 2003. Thirteen years later Ortiz would retire after leading the league in RBI, doubles, slugging percentage, and OPS at 40 years of age. Between those seasons Ortiz was just simply the heart of the once cursed franchise and one of the best sluggers ever to step into the box. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame soon enough. Like Dawson, like Pendleton, like any of the players on this list, Ortiz could have been signed by any team. He could have been placed on a different path. But no one else signed him. The Red Sox crunched the numbers and took a swing. It was a bargain basement signing and it turned out to be one of the greatest signings in history. I don’t necessarily think the Curse of the Bambino was real, but a move like this sure does feel like something that would break it. 

All of these — and more — are baseball’s eternal lessons in looking for the best bargains around. 

Happy shopping, you thankful souls. 

Transaction Mania

Those San Diego Padres are making moooooooves, kids! They are absolutely moving and grooving their way through this offseason. With rumors floating around them and some of the bigger fish in the sea, the Padres aren’t waiting for any chips to fall into place. First, they signed LHP Drew Pomoranz to a four-year deal, hoping that the former starter — an All-Star with them in 2016 — can keep his transition into a top bullpen arm going. He’s only two seasons removed from a 6.08 ERA, but that was while he was starting. That’s old news. He’s only 30 and doesn’t have the pressure of closing. He just has to take the ball from Stephen Strasburg and get it into the niii — I mean — the starter… definitely just a random starter is what I meant. Good move that is potential bigger.

THEN the Padres swung a good old-fashioned trade with the Milwaukee Brewers. A lot of baseball pundits have already drooled over this trade. I’m in that boat as well. The Padres sent 16th ranked prospect Luis Urias and LHP Eric Lauer for key stretch run contributor Trent Grisham and RHP Zach Davies. Now is this deal on par with The Trade Everyone References when everyone talks about the fine art of trading employees? 

No. No, it’s not the Roberto Alomar & Joe Carter for Tony Fernandez & Fred McGriff trade of December 1990 in which the Blue Jays and these same Padres swapped All-Stars. But, in this modern age, it’s close enough. 

All four of these players will be helpful pieces for both clubs, but the appeal of the trade to the pundits, roto nuts, and, you know, normal fans is that it wasn’t made for just financial reasons or pure business needs. It was made Because Baseball. It’s two teams filling needs… and that is absolutely refreshing. 

The San Diego Padres — like the Braves and White Sox last week — are making these moves to help build on what they have and what they just might be getting before next season. Here’s the dreamers, schemers, and the general managers. 

This week in baseball history…

On November 29th, 1976, Reggie Jackson stepped on the biggest stage in the baseball world when the free-swinging slugger signed a five-year deal worth a jaw dropping $3.5 million with the New York Yankees.

Jackson was already a star. From 1968 to 1975, Reggie was a bonafide stud with the Oakland Athletics. A lot of the stats he gobbled up look like precursors of the numbers we see today. Big power numbers — including two home run titles that weren’t his 47 home run season in 1969 — and even bigger strike out numbers. (Reggie is still the all-time whiff king.) Beyond that, Reggie was a Brand before we knew what to call it. He was a bat flipping, quote making, big game winning personality powerhouse. Teammates hated him. They loved him. Teammates fought with him. They needed him. Reggie Jackson was one of a kind in 1976. 

After being shipped off to Baltimore for the ‘76 season because A’s owner Charlie Finley knew he wouldn’t be able — and maybe willing — to pay Jackson the upcoming free agent money he’d want, Reggie Jackson the Brand hit the open market. 

New York was the only logical choice and it turned him from superstar to legend. 

When you think of Reggie, you don’t initially think of the great seasons in Oakland or clearing the roof of Tiger Stadium with a 1971 All-Star game blast. You don’t think of his tremendously productive later seasons with the California Angels. (130 OPS+ at 39 in 1985) You don’t think of any of that first. You think about Mr. October being the straw that stirs the drink. You think of Reggie Bars and three World Series home runs on three pitches. You think of the Yankees going back-to-back in ‘77 and ‘78 with Jackson in front of it all. You think of just five seasons of the 21 total he played. As we wait for the news of which big name free agent of today’s era will sign the giant deal to be the hope of a franchise, take a moment to look back at one of the most important and legendary deals ever made. 


Walk Off Quote

“I just want to play baseball” — David Ortiz, baseball player

***

Ken Napzok spends too many hours negotiating baseball contracts on video games, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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