The Best National League Free Agent Signings of All Time

Teams ideally build through the draft and their own farm system, however, free agency is unavoidable. Whether it’s making a huge splash for the top-of-the-rotation starter or plugging a hole on the bench, it’s necessary for teams to utilize the free agent market to fill out their roster. Scott Maxwell brings us the best Natoinal League free agent signings of all time.

In the second installment of Franchise Free Agents, we turn our focus to the National League. Pitchers and outfielders dominate the list of the best free agent signings in each team’s history, with several Hall of Fame members in the ranks. Two former Red Sox make the list, making a grand total of nine current and former members of the club across both leagues.

National League

Arizona Diamondbacks

Randy Johnson, 2001

The Big Unit, a.k.a. the Brother From Another Mother, took the expansion Diamondbacks into uncharted territory after their fans had suffered an entire year of existence without a playoff appearance. Johnson won FOUR consecutive Cy Young awards with Arizona. In the 2001 World Series, he won three games and was named co-MVP with some guy named Schilling. He forever endeared himself to Red Sox fans by helping close the book on the 1996-2000 New York Yankees dynasty. Sadly, he then turned into a hideous, overrated monster immediately upon joining the Yankees prior to the 2005 season.

Atlanta Braves

Greg Maddux, 1992

Maddux was fresh off a Cy Young season with the Cubs, and picked up right where he left off by winning three more with Atlanta from 1992-1994. He helped lead the Braves to three World Series appearances, winning the 1995 championship. Maddux was a master of command and a perennial Gold Glove fielder. The Hall of Famer also dug the long ball, hitting two jacks in his 12 years with the club.

Chicago Cubs

Andre Dawson, 1987

When general managers sign free agents, they no doubt have visions of Dawson’s 1987 season dancing in their heads. After spending a decade in Montreal, the Cubs inked Dawson after the tumultuous ‘blank check negotiations’ between agent Dick Moss and GM Dallas Green. This occurred right in the midst of agents trying to prove collusion by MLB owners attempting to keep salaries down. Dawson and the Cubs reached an agreement, and The Hawk went on to win MVP honors after hitting 49 home runs and knocking in 137 runs. He never matched those totals again, but finished in the top 20 in MVP balloting three more times.

Cincinnati Reds

Dave Parker, 1984

Parker left Pittsburgh as a free agent after establishing himself as one of the most feared hitters in the league. With the Reds, he finished in the top 5 of MVP voting twice, won two Silver Sluggers, and reached a career-high in total bases. Parker was dealt to Oakland for Jose Rijo in 1989. Though Parker won a World Series ring that year with the A’s, Rijo led the Reds to a title the following season.

Colorado Rockies

Larry Walker, 1995

The Rockies most memorable free agency period was probably during the 2000-01 offseason with the disastrous signings of Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle – two all-time benchmarks of bad pitcher contracts Their best free-agent signing, however, was undoubtedly Walker, who thrived in the Mile High air. Walker led the Rockies to their first-ever postseason in 1995 and won the NL MVP in 1997. He enjoyed career-highs in batting average, home runs, and RBI in the hitters’ paradise of Coors Field. His numbers dipped significantly in 2003 and was traded to the Cardinals in 2004. Walker was the only batter for the Cardinals that produced during the 2004 World Series, which the Red Sox swept (you may have heard that story before).

Los Angeles Dodgers

Zack Greinke, 2013

Believe it or not, the Dodgers don’t have a ton to choose from here. It came down to Greinke and Kirk Gibson, and Greinke provided three excellent seasons to Gibson’s one. He served as the team’s co-ace with Clayton Kershaw, and he held up much better than his counterpart in the playoffs. Greinke finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting all three seasons and won two Gold Gloves with the Dodgers. His best season was in 2015, when he went 19-3 with 200 strikeouts and a miniscule 1.66 ERA, numbers which most seasons would guarantee a Cy Young win, but Greinke was edged out by Jake Arrieta’s 22 wins and 1.77 ERA.

Miami Marlins

Moises Alou, 1997

Alou was part of the Marlins infamous 1997 spending spree that resulted in a World Championship and the controversial, immediate dismantling of the club. Alou batted .312 with 23 HR and 115 RBI, and was a monster in the 1997 World Series with a 1.101 OPS in 31 plate appearances. After being sold off to Houston for a few scrubs, Alou continued to be one of the top players in the game for several years (when he wasn’t falling off treadmills).

Milwaukee Brewers

Mike Cameron, 2008

If the Dodgers’ options were sparse, Milwaukee’s could be described as a wasteland. Though his decline had begun, Cameron played an excellent centerfield and provided some thump in the Brewers order. Milwaukee got the final two years of decent production of Cameron’s career  his .801 OPS made it one of the more productive stints in his career. In typical Red Sox fashion, that club signed Cameron to a two-year deal after his decline was complete. His OPS dropped to .637 and he appeared in only 81 games over two seasons.

New York Mets

Carlos Beltran, 2005

For a big market club, the Mets largely have an unfortunate free agent history. One of the few that worked out fairly well for the star-crossed club was Beltran. Few free agents have helped their value more in a contract year than Beltran did in 2004. He was unstoppable in the playoffs, with an OPS over 1.500 in the NLDS and NLCS with some heroics to boot. Off that performance, the Mets signed him to a seven-year, $119M deal. Beltran had some solid seasons, particularly in 2006 when he helped the Mets reach the postseason and finished 4th in the MVP voting. He never quite lived up to the superstar status the Mets were hoping for, though, as injuries derailed his 2009 and 2010 seasons. He was traded to the San Francisco Giants for Zack Wheeler in the final year of his deal. He finally went to a World Series with the Cardinals in 2013, got injured after one at-bat in Game 1, and suffered a soul-crushing defeat at the hands of the mighty Red Sox in six games.

Philadelphia Phillies

Pete Rose, 1979

Rose was entering his age-38 season when he finally left Cincinnati, so these were far from his prime years. Still, the Phillies were willing to gamble that Pete still had something in the tank. Against the odds, Rose continued to rack up hits well into his 40s. Come playoff time, when the stakes were raised, you can bet Pete helped the Phillies win their first-ever World Series in 1980.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Francisco Liriano, 2013

The Pirates have historically been a franchise that lets free agents leave rather than adding them to the club. Their limited budget all but ensures a reclamation project in this spot. Which brings us to Liriano. After undergoing Tommy John surgery, he was never able to replicate his fantastic 2006 rookie season in Minnesota when he went 12-3 with 144 Ks in just 121 innings of work. When signed by Pittsburgh, Liriano was coming off a disappointing 2012 season in which he had a bloated 5.43 ERA and was maddeningly inconsistent (in other words, he was lefty Clay Buchholz). He started the 2013 Wild Card game and gave Pittsburgh its first playoff victory in over a decade. The Liriano signing is still paying dividends for the Pirates into the 2016 season.

San Diego Padres

Rollie Fingers, 1977

Fingers was let go as part of the dismantling of the 1970’s Oakland A’s dynasty. The Red Sox had originally purchased Fingers (along with Joe Rudi) in 1976, only to have the transaction voided by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Fingers finished in the top 20 of MVP voting in 1977 and again in 1978, when he topped the NL in saves. The powerhouse 1978 Red Sox team would certainly have benefitted from his services to help cover for Don Zimmer’s stupidity.

San Francisco Giants

Barry Bonds, 1992

This one is easy. Even when Bonds had a regular-sized head he was a perennial MVP candidate as well as a Gold Glove outfielder. He arrived from Pittsburgh with two MVPs already in hand, and Bonds continued to be one of the best players in the game in San Francisco. The Giants only went to one World Series during his tenure: a 2002 loss to the Angels. It was only after Bonds retired that the franchise began winning World Series titles. Interesting.

St. Louis Cardinals

Matt Holliday, 2010

One of the most storied franchises in baseball, the Cardinals best players have tended to be either homegrown or acquired via trade. In other words, they are the baseball equivalent of the Boston Celtics when it comes to free agency. One major exception was when the Cardinals inked Holliday to a 7-year, $120M deal in an offseason when many Red Sox fans were clamoring for then-GM Theo Epstein to go after the Rockies slugger. Epstein decided to wait and give that money to Carl Crawford instead. Ouch. Holliday has since been a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. He helped lead St. Louis to their unlikely 2011 World Series title as well as to a second Fall Classic in 2013 against the Red Sox.

Washington Nationals

Max Scherzer, 2015

While this is still a work in progress, Scherzer was the prize of the 2015 free agent class. Already established as a Cy Young-caliber pitcher, the Nationals signed him to an enormous seven-year $210M deal. Scherzer didn’t disappoint, becoming one of only six pitchers in MLB history to record two no-hitters in a season. He struck out 276 batters and started 33 games on his way to 5th place in the Cy Young voting in his first season with Washington. Things could go horribly wrong, but the early returns are that the Nationals will remain happy with the signing. Probably happier than, say, the Red Sox spending $188M on Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Thanks again, Cherington.

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About Scott Maxwell 5 Articles
Scott is a teacher, husband and father living in New Hampshire. His hobbies include travel, collecting baseball cards, playing wiffle ball, and digging in to the history of baseball. He has been a moderator and member of for over a decade and has led discussions with John Henry, Ben Cherington and Mike Hazen.

1 Comment

  1. The Giants being in a World Series is miracle enough. The pitching sucked in most cases.
    Please look at actual stats before you start throwing out innuendos.

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