In yesterday’s chat, I was asked if Jim Thome was the best free agent signing any team made this winter. I’ve actually seen this idea pushed forward several times of late, as he’s continued to pound the baseball and help propel the Twins into first place. Make no mistake, Thome is having an excellent season, running a .412 wOBA that is the seventh highest in baseball among players with at least 250 plate appearances.
But while Thome has been a bargain for the Twins after signing for just $1.5 million this winter, he’s not the best signing of last winter. The contenders for that award:
Colby Lewis: 2 year, $5 million, +3.4 WAR
The Rangers took a small gamble on his success in Japan translating back across the ocean and have hit the jackpot for doing so, as Lewis has been a high quality starting pitcher while earning a paltry $1.75 million this year. Not only do they have his services next year on the cheap as well, but they hold a $3.25 million option for 2012, which will almost certainly be exercised as long as he stays healthy. By the time this contract is over, the Rangers will probably have gotten three years of Lewis’ pitching for a grand total of about $8 million, or less than what Ben Sheets got for 2010 alone.
Kelly Johnson: 1 year, $2.3 million, +4.4 WAR
The Diamondbacks were beneficiaries of the Braves decision to non-tender Johnson rather than go to arbitration with him a second time. Even though they guaranteed him only one year, they still hold his rights for 2011, as he’s arbitration eligible for the final time. He’ll get a big raise after a monster season, but his paycheck will still be far less than what he’d get as a free agent. A no risk move that has paid off big time this year and will continue to provide value again next year.
Aubrey Huff: 1 year, $3 million, +4.4 WAR
One of the main reasons the Giants are still in contention in the NL West, Huff has basically replicated his 2008 season, playing everyday and providing significant offensive value. The Giants got their cleanup hitter for a fraction of what other first baseman were signing for, and have to be thrilled that they missed out on giving Adam LaRoche a multi-year deal.
Adrian Beltre: 1 year, $10 million, +5.7 WAR
The best performer from last winter’s crop, Beltre has been the Red Sox’ best player. His defense is as good as ever, but now he’s hitting the ball well again and easily earning his salary. While he’s more expensive than the rest of the guys on this list, he’s also packing a lot of value into one roster spot, and for a team trying to maximize their wins, that offers a lot of advantages. The Red Sox probably now wish that they could have gotten a team option for 2011 rather than giving Beltre an opt-out, because he’s going to get a big raise this winter.
Alex Gonzalez: 1 year, $2.8 million, +2.9 WAR
It’s hard to imagine this signing working out any better for the Blue Jays. They got a monster April from their shortstop, where he posted a .403 wOBA, and then dumped him a few months later for a better, younger player at the same position in Yunel Escobar. While Gonzalez didn’t provide as much value on the field as some other free agents, he established enough value early in the season to get used as a trade chip in the summer, bringing back a return that could pay off for years to come.
Of these five, I think Lewis still stands out as the best of the bunch. The Rangers solidified their rotation without spending any real money, and they can look forward to two more bargain basement seasons still to come. Thome has had a great year, but there’s no way the Rangers would rather have him than their #2 starter.