Few free agents in major-league history have ever offered the kind of value on the dollar of Tim Wakefield. According to the excellent resource fangraphs.com, which looks at the totality of a player’s statistics and assigns a value to it, Wakefield’s performance has been “worth” roughly $70 million since 2002 (the earliest season charted by the site), or roughly $40 million than he’s earned in that time.
Clearly, he has been one of the foremost bargains in baseball for several years. Certainly, there have been few free-agent pitchers to ever offer the kind of return that he’s delivered.
Yet one can make a case that he is not the top free-agent signing in Red Sox history. Here is one person’s list of the top 10 Red Sox free-agent signings since the advent of the modern free-agent era in 1976. Send omissions, observations, kudos or hate-filled invective to email@example.com.
1) David Ortiz
Signed one-year, $1.25 million contract in Jan. 2003
Red Sox Earnings: Has made approximately $53 million to date
Performance: According to fangraphs.com, he has been worth approximately $100 million to date
It takes a special, special free agent to be a better free-agent value than Tim Wakefield. Miraculously, the Red Sox would appear to have one on their roster. Though Ortiz has spent less than half the time that Wakefield has in Boston, there just haven’t been other players on the market who have done the types of things he’s done: five top-five A.L. MVP finishes, 243 homers (an average of 43 per 162 games), 777 RBIs (136 per 162 games), five All-Star appearances, three postseason walkoff hits…
One can make a compelling case that Ortiz has been not merely a better free-agent signing than Wakefield, but the greatest free-agent signing of all time.
2) Tim Wakefield
Signed one-year deal for major-league minimum in April 1995
Red Sox Earnings: Approximately $49 million to date
Performance: According to fangraphs.com, he has been worth more than $70 million since 2002 alone, a time during which he has made a bit more than $32 million.
He’s outperformed his contracts by almost $40 million in the last eight years, and surely by tens of millions more dollars in his first seven years with the Sox (for which Fangraphs does not have data).
Given his steadiness through the years, it is remarkable to think that many wanted to see his tenure in the Red Sox rotation come to a grinding halt prior to the start of this year. There is little doubt that his league-leading 11 wins this year reflect some good fortune, but he’s been what he’s always been: a consistent, above-average performer.
He is now 175-148 with a 4.33 ERA for the Sox, with an ERA+ of 110 (meaning an ERA of roughly 10 percent better than average). There is remarkable value in that, particularly given his reliable innings contributions over the years.
3) Manny Ramirez
Signed eight-year, $160 million deal in Dec. 2000
Red Sox earnings: $160 million (Sox paid all, even though Ramirez was traded last July 31)
Performance: According to Fangraphs, from 2002 through last July, he performed at the level of a $98.6 million player during the regular season, but was paid $134.2 million.
Based on performance alone, he might be at the top of the list. But his massive, payroll-choking contract and the occasional, well, weirdness cut into the payoff. He probably wasn’t worth $20 million a year for the life of the contract – if he had been, the Sox wouldn’t have tried to trade or waive him every year – but the fact that the contract wasn’t entirely dead weight is, in its own way, remarkable.
Ramirez had five top-10 A.L. MVP finishes as a member of the Sox. He hit .312 with a .411 OBP and .588 slugging mark, and an OPS+ of 155. He hit 274 homers with 868 RBIs as a member of the Sox. He gets bonus points for huge postseason contributions in 2004 and 2007 (something not accounted for in Fangraphs) and having facilitated the acquisition of Jason Bay.
4) Bill Mueller
Signed two-year, $4.2 million deal with $2.5 million team option in Jan. 2003
Red Sox earnings: $6.7 million
Performance: According to Fangraphs, he was worth $32.7 million to the Red Sox
Mueller was the understated, blue-collar guy on the Idiots, so it was always easy to overlook him. But his three years with the Sox were very, very good. He won a batting title while hitting in the bottom of the lineup, hit .303 with a .378 OBP, .853 OPS and 119 OPS+ during his three years in Boston, went 6-for-14 (.429) in the 2004 World Series, and offered the Sox at least one infield position of defensive competence during a three-year period of glove work that gave Derek Lowe nightmares.
5) Hideki Okajima
Signed two-year, $2.5 million deal with $1.75 million team option in Dec. 2007
Red Sox earnings: Approx. $3.5 million to date
Performance: Through Saturday, worth $13.9 million
He’s endured a couple of struggles, but overall, he’s been one of the game’s best setup men since coming to Boston after the 2006 season. He’s been a bargain to this point, earning an All-Star berth, excelling in his two postseasons and giving the Sox a backup closer when Jonathan Papelbon has been unavailable.
It will be interesting to see whether there comes a point when his raises through salary arbitration (for which he is eligible following the 2009-2011 seasons) make his performance less valuable than his salary. Thus far, however, it hasn’t even been close.
6) Johnny Damon
Signed four-year, $32 million deal in Dec. 2001
Red Sox earnings: $32 million
Performance: Fangraphs listed him as worth $38.3 million
In many respects, Damon was the last major move of the John Harrington/Dan Duquette front office. As swan songs go, this was a pretty solid one.
Damon delivered very good defense in center – often while having to cover for the deficiencies of Manny Ramirez – and played the role of the leadoff hitter qua catalyst perfectly for most of his Boston tenure. He hit .295 with a .362 OBP and .803 OPS for a slightly-above-average 108 OPS+, fouled off roughly a million pitches, made two All-Star teams, swiped an average of 25 bags a year while scoring 115 times per annum.
He also arguably represented the beginning of the change in Red Sox culture. Before Damon signed, there was a perception that Boston was a miserable place to play. Damon represented a starting point in changing a clubhouse that had seemed particularly poisoned in 2001.
7) Mike Timlin
Signed a one-year, $1.85 million deal in Jan. 2003
Earnings: Made approx. $15.9 million in six years with the Red Sox
Performance: Fangraphs listed him as worth $15.9 million during the regular season
Timlin was part of the Sox’ remarkable free-agent class of the 2002-03 offseason. He combined with Mueller and Ortiz to deliver the Sox extraordinary quality for very modest money.
Timlin went 30-22 with a 3.76 ERA and 125 ERA+ in his 394 games with the Red Sox. Those numbers were skewed a bit by his poor final season, but for most of 2003-2007, he was an anchor in the bullpen. He also made more playoff appearances (28) than any other pitcher in franchise history.
8) Tom Burgmeier
Signed in Dec. 1977
Burgmeier was the Okajima of his day, a steady lefty who produced steady excellence out of the bullpen. He was named to one All-Star team when he assumed closing duties in 1980, but otherwise, Burgmeier toiled in relative obscurity as a set-up man.
His performance, however, was phenomenal. He went 21-12 with a 2.72 ERA for the Sox, with an ERA+ of 157. He also averaged nearly two innings an appearance. Among pitchers who threw at least 400 innings during Burgmeier’s Boston tenure, he had the fifth-best ERA in the game. Three of the four pitchers ahead of him (Rich Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers) are in the Hall of Fame.
9) Brian Daubach
Signed minor-league deal in Dec. 1998
Earnings: Approx. $3.2 million over four years (1999-2002 only – does not count his second stint with Boston, in 2004)
Daubach had been released by the Mets and twice by the Marlins when the Sox signed him to a minor-league deal following the 1998 season. He became a source of steady production in the Sox lineup, hitting at least 20 homers and driving in at least 70 RBIs in all four of his seasons with the Sox.
He hit .266 with a .342 OBP, 834 OPS and 109 OPS+, and earned $400,000 or less in three of those four years. He was an average to slightly above-average contributor while making far less than what such a player normally costs.
10) Keith Foulke
Signed three-year, $18.75 million deal with fourth-year $7.5 million team option (declined) and $3.75 million player option (declined)
Earnings: 3 years, $18.75 million
Value: $6.8 million
Foulke’s overall numbers in Boston weren’t bad: a 13-9 record, 3.73 ERA, 47 saves, 127 ERA+. That said, he didn’t come close to earning his money during those injury-riddled final two season with the Red Sox.
Of course, the reason he was injured probably had a lot to do with what he did in 2004. He was phenomenal during the regular season (2.17 ERA, 31 saves) and a singular force in every round of the postseason, when he had a 0.64 ERA in 14 innings.
What he did while throwing 100 pitches and entering in back-to-back-to-back days in Games 4-6 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees unquestionably changed the course of that season. For that, the Sox likely won’t complain about a couple of years of dead contractual weight and “Johnny from Burger King” proclamations.
Earnings: five years, approx. $10 million
Jefferson had next to no plate discipline, and was generally considered a defensive liability (hence his frequent service as a designated hitter), but he had an unusual ability to hit a baseball and hit it hard. In his five years, he hit .316 with a .363 OBP and .868 OPS. Like most left-handed hitters, Fenway was a very friendly place to him (.336 average, .377 OBP, .901 OPS at home as a Red Sox), but the man produced. He had a 119 OPS+ during his stay in Boston, and while he cost the Sox more than did Daubach, he still wasn’t an outrageous luxury item.
Signed five-year deal for approximately $1 million in Nov. 1976
Campbell was the first major foray into free agency for the Red Sox, and in many ways, the last for nearly 25 years. The Sox didn’t dabble much in free agency until this decade, but Campbell was undoubtedly a big-ticket item when he signed.
Relievers were used differently in the ‘70s, and so Campbell had been in ’76. The Twins employed him to the tune of 78 appearances and 168 innings, during which he went 17-5 with 20 saves.
Campbell was spectacular in his first year with the Sox, going 13-9 with a 2.96 ERA and an A.L.-leading 31 saves in 140 innings. He finished fifth in Cy Young voting, but his arm ligaments likely turned to confetti at the end of the ’77 campaign.
He ended up going 28-19 with a 3.57 ERA and 122 ERA+ while in Boston, though he averaged just 49 innings a season after that first campaign. Still, if Foulke makes the list, then Campbell should at least sniff it.
Earnings: Approx. $5 million in seven years
His usage was so limited that it’s hard to call him a great value, but he did go 23-8 with a 3.78 ERA and 128 ERA+. Besides, he sold some T-shirts. Some very, very large T-shirts.
Earnings: Five years, $16.75 million
He had one pretty bad year as a Sox starter with very good luck/support (1996: 12-9, 5.59 ERA), one pretty good year as a starter with pretty bad support/luck (1997: 6-10, 3.74) and one great year (1998) as the Sox closer with a league-leading 46 saves, and two years (1999-2000) when he was essentially useless due to injuries.
Earnings: Four years, $1.5 million
The Sox signed him after he was released by the Brewers, and got solid value over four seasons in which he made a bit more than spare change. He was the epitome of the situational lefty, but he averaged 60 games a year and went 7-5 with a 3.98 ERA and 114 ERA+ for next to nothing.