Since its advent in Major League Baseball in the mid-1970s, free agency has done much for baseball.
It’s largely responsible for the parity we’ve seen in the game in recent decades, giving general managers an invaluable tool with which to build contending teams while making multi-millionaires out of countless erstwhile unremarkable players in the process. But free agency has also resulted in some spectacular busts through the years.
We’ve combed the annals of free-agent contracts and compiled this list of the five worst signings ever:
5. Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs (2007; 8 years, $136 million) — The speedy, slugging second baseman had just completed a stellar 40/40 season — the fourth and last player ever to do so — with the Washington Nationals and landed the fattest contract in Cubs history. And while never matching his ’06 performance, he still managed two very productive seasons on Chicago’s North Side.
But then the wheels fell off. Although he enjoyed something of a resurgence in 2012 (.262/32/108), Soriano has averaged just .248 with 23 homers, 70 RBIs, and five stolen bases in his other three seasons as a Cub. Those numbers aren’t awful on their own, but considering that $136 million contract, Soriano’s signing ranks among the biggest busts ever.
4. Vince Coleman, New York Mets (1990; 4 years, $12 million) — For his first six seasons, all with the St. Louis Cardinals, Vince Coleman was the one of the leadoff hitters in all of baseball. The outfielder led the league in steals every single year he played, including his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1985 when he swiped 110 bags. Consider this: Coleman stole 100 or more bases in each of his three big-league seasons. Since then, no one has stolen more than 80, and that was Coleman himself in his fourth season. But after landing the big money with the rival Mets, Coleman slowed down. Big time. His steal total for all three seasons in Queens didn’t reach 100. Coleman, and the free-agent stacked Mets, floundered.
3. Andruw Jones, Los Angeles Dodgers (2007; 2 years, $36 million) — The Dodgers should have realized something was rotten in Denmark when they signed the former Braves All-Star outfielder to a fat contract in ’07. In his last year in Atlanta, Jones hit just .222, although he swatted 26 long balls and drove in 94 runs. As it turned out, L.A. would have been thrilled if he came anywhere near .222 — or even .200 — in Dodger blue. Jones’ contract wasn’t the only thing that was fat — the Dodgers’ new slugger showed up for spring training 20 pounds overweight, a very inauspicious start to an injury-plagued ’08 season in which the former perennial MVP contender hit an embarrassing .158 with only three homers in 238 plate appearances. Jones was released in January 2009.
2. Chan Ho Park, Texas Rangers (2002; 5 years, $65 million) — Over the first six seasons of his career, Park went 84-58, won at least 12 games five times in a row, and proved himself a horse by hurling 190 or more innings in all five of those campaigns for the Dodgers. But the former All-Star caught the injury bug after signing one of the game’s most lucrative free-agent contracts with Texas and never pitched more than 155 innings in a season in Arlington. That might not have been so awful, however, because when Park did take the mound he was but a husk of his old self. His earned run averages as a Ranger, which ranged from 5.46 to 7.58, drove Texas to trade him to San Diego for a washed-up Phil Nevin in 2005.
1. Mike Hampton, Colorado Rockies (2000; 8 years, $124 million) — When the Rockies signed Hampton to what was then the richest contract in all of baseball, they were getting an ace pitcher just one season removed from a 22-win campaign. The 2000 NLCS MVP was never the same in the Mile High City, though. Before being unceremoniously dumped by the Rox just two years into his eight-year mega-deal, Hampton put up numbers — 21-28, 5.75 ERA — that assured him the dubious distinction of worst free-agent signing ever.
Brett Wilkins, a San Francisco Giants fan, would have been compelled in the name of journalistic objectivity to include Barry Zito (58-69, 4.47 ERA after signing 7-year, $126 million deal) on this list, but following his solid 2012 season and stellar 2012 World Championship postseason, Zeets no longer qualifies. Heck, plenty of Giants fans wouldn’t mind if Brian Sabean resigned him– at a deep discount, of course!