As the 2020-21 Hot Stove begins to wind down and many of the top free agents have signed, the buzz begins to build for a couple team debuts in particular. Out west, 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer is set to begin his
We don’t know yet how those future signings will work out, but we can certainly quantify what a good first season might look like. Here are some of the best debut seasons by free agents who signed with a new team. (WAR listed is via Baseball Reference.)
2018: J.D. Martinez, Red Sox, OF/DH
Full contract: 5 years, $109.95 million (2018-22)
First season: .330/.402/.629, 43 HR, 130 RBI, 6.4 WAR
Martinez didn’t sign until late February in 2018, but that didn’t hamper his first season in Boston after coming over from Arizona. He hit 43 homers, two shy of his career high from 2017 and more than any other Red Sox player had hit in his first season with the team. Martinez had a career-high .330 batting average. He played in the outfield and served as the designated hitter, excelling at the plate to the point that he received two Silver Sluggers — for the outfield and DH. Martinez chased the American League Triple Crown into September and finished fourth in the AL MVP Award voting.
2004: Vladimir Guerrero, RF, Angels
Full contract: 5 years, $70 million (2004-08)
First season: .337/.391/.598, 39 HR, 126 RBI, 5.6 WAR
Guerrero signed with the Angels following a 2003 season with the Expos that limited him to just 112 games due to a herniated disc that kept him out in June and July. He showed no lingering effects, hitting .337, the second-highest mark of his career, with a .598 slugging percentage and 39 home runs. Guerrero won the AL MVP Award, the only such honor of his career. At the time, he was just the second Halos player to win the MVP Award (Don Baylor in 1979), though Mike Trout has since joined them (2014, ’16 and ’19).
2001: Ichiro Suzuki, RF, Mariners
Full contract: 3 years, $14 million (2001-03)
First season: .350/.381/.457, 8 HR, 56 SB, 7.7 WAR
Ichiro’s free agency wasn’t the same as the others on this list, as he was posted by the Orix Blue Wave, his Japanese club, and the Mariners paid a fee for the right to sign him. He came to Major League Baseball having won seven straight batting titles in Japan’s Pacific League and wasted no time with Seattle, leading the Majors with 242 hits and hitting .350. Ichiro also stole 56 bases and became just the second player to win an MVP Award and a Rookie of the Year Award in the same season (Fred Lynn, Red Sox, 1975), and he tacked on a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, too.
2001: Manny Ramirez, LF, Red Sox
Full contract: 8 years, $160 million (2001-08)
First season: .306/.405/.609, 41 HR, 125 RBI, 5.2 WAR
Ramirez, who signed with the Red Sox after seven stellar seasons with the Indians, was overshadowed a bit by Ichiro, but he posted his third 40-homer season in a four-season span, slugged .609 and knocked in 125 runs. He finished ninth in a crowded AL MVP Award field that included Ichiro’s aforementioned season, a 9.2-WAR showing from Jason Giambi (finished second), 52 home runs from Alex Rodriguez (sixth) and 49 homers from Jim Thome (seventh), among others.
2001: Alex Rodriguez, SS, Rangers
Full contract: 10 years, $252 million (2001-10)
First season: .318/.399/.622, 52 HR, 135 RBI, 8.3 WAR
Rodriguez’s first season in Texas under his record-breaking contract featured his first 50-homer season. He also led the AL with 393 total bases and played in all 162 games for the Rangers. As noted above, Rodriguez finished sixth in the AL MVP Award voting, playing on a Rangers team that went 75-87 while the Mariners, his old team, won a record 116 games led by Ichiro, their new star. Because of Texas’ underwhelming record — and Seattle’s ascent — A-Rod was seen as a disappointment by many, but it’s hard to argue with 8.3 WAR, which was third among AL position players behind Giambi (9.2) and Bret Boone (8.8).
1999: Randy Johnson, LHP, D-backs
Full contract: 4 years, $52.4 million (1999-2002)
First season: 17-9, 2.48 ERA, 364 K, 9.1 WAR
Johnson was 35 years old in his first season with the D-backs after a half-season in Houston, but the late bloomer showed no signs of slowing down. He won the first of four consecutive Cy Young Awards in that first season with Arizona (yes, he won the National League Cy Young Award in every year of this contract) and received NL MVP Award consideration for the third straight season (he would earn MVP votes in five of the six seasons from 1999-2004). His 364 strikeouts were fourth most in a season in the Modern Era (Since 1900), but are now fifth most — after he notched 372 in 2001.
1997: Roger Clemens, RHP, Blue Jays
Full contract: 4 years, $40 million (1997-2000)
First season: 21-7, 2.05 ERA, 292 K, 11.9 WAR
Clemens’ first start with Toronto was a complete game against the White Sox in which he allowed just one run. He never looked back that season, throwing nine complete games, including three shutouts. Clemens struck out a career-high 292 batters and posted a 2.05 ERA that was, at the time, the second best of his career (later pushed to third by his career-best 1.87 ERA In 2005). He won his fourth career AL Cy Young Award in that first season with the Blue Jays and went on to win two in two years in Toronto before being traded to the Yankees.
1996: Kevin Brown, RHP, Marlins
Full contract: 3 years, $12.6 million (1996-98)
First season: 17-11, 1.89 ERA, 159 K, 7.9 WAR
Before his first season with the Marlins, Brown had received Cy Young Award votes just once in his career, in 1992 while still with the Rangers. He’d never had an ERA under 3.30 and never had a WHIP below 1.18. Brown posted career bests in ERA and WHIP in his first season in South Florida after one year with the Orioles. Opponents slugged just .289 against him. Brown finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting to John Smoltz, who had seven more wins and an ERA that was more than a run higher (2.94), along with 117 more strikeouts.
1993: Greg Maddux, RHP, Braves
Full contract: 5 years, $28 million (1993-97)
First season: 20-10, 2.36 ERA, 197 K, 5.8 WAR
Maddux, who won the 1992 NL Cy Young Award with the Cubs, had competing offers to stay in Chicago or go to the Yankees, but he chose to sign with the Braves, whose pitching staff already had Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery. Maddux fit right in with the strong arms, leading the staff with a 2.36 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. He won the second of what would end up being four straight NL Cy Young Awards in that first season in Atlanta.
1993: Barry Bonds, LF, Giants
Full contract: 6 years, $43.75 million (1993-98)
First season: .336/.458/.677, 46 HR, 123 RBI, 9.9 WAR
Bonds won the 1992 NL MVP Award with the Pirates and had plenty to live up to in San Francisco, where his father, Bobby, and godfather, Willie Mays, once played. So what did he do? He started off his tenure with the Giants with 46 home runs, a career high for him at the time. Bonds led all of baseball by a large margin in OPS and slugging percentage. He won his second consecutive NL MVP Award and his third overall. Bonds would finish his career with seven NL MVP Awards in total.
Full contract: 3 years, $4.5 million (1988-90)
First season: .290/.377/.483, 25 HR, 31 SB, 6.5 WAR
Gibson had hit 20-plus home runs in each of the four seasons with the Tigers prior to signing with the Dodgers, with 25-plus steals in each of those seasons, too. But by WAR, he had a career year in 1988 at 6.5. Gibson hit 25 home runs, stole 31 bases and won the NL MVP Award. And none of that even considers his postseason performance in ’88 — his legendary walk-off home run in Game 1 of the World Series alone gets him onto this list, considering that’s a pretty powerful first-season statement to make as a free agent.
Full contract: 5 years, $3 million (1977-81)
First season: .286/.375/.550, 32 HR, 110 RBI, 4.5 WAR
Jackson’s regular season was good, but not necessarily award-worthy like the others noted above. But he’s here because of his performance in Game 6 of the World Series in his first season with the Yankees. Jackson hit three home runs, the third time in World Series history that a player had hit three home runs in a game, and the first time someone other than Babe Ruth had done it (1926 Game 4, ’28 Game 4).