The MLB free agency period is underway, though it might be a while before the Atlanta Braves actually get active.
It wasn’t always so. There was a time when the Braves could be counted on to sign one or two big-ticket items during the month of November on a yearly basis.
Today, we’re going to review the best free-agent signings in Atlanta history. (We’ll save the worst free-agent signings for a later date).
We’ve tried to combine both subjective and objective analysis here. We can’t just list the free agents who accumulated the most WAR with the Braves and rank them accordingly, because WAR is a counting stat and some contracts were longer than others.
And while we don’t want to make this all about money, how much the Braves spent on a given free agent relative to the average salary at the time certainly has to be a factor. In other words, some free agents were bigger bargains than others.
Also, we must remember that teams engage in free agency in order to push themselves closer to winning championships. Thus, how much the Braves actually won after signing a given free agent has to be considered in our rankings.
With all that said, below are what we’ve determined are the five best free-agent in Atlanta Braves history, plus a couple of honorable mentions.
Honorable mention: Andy Messersmith, SP (April 10, 1976)
The contract: 3 years, $1 million
The stats: 2 seasons, 45 games (44 starts), 16-15, 3.49 ERA, 204 K, 309.2 IP, 115 ERA+, 8.0 bWAR
What happened: Messersmith’s tenure with the Braves is remembered largely as a failure, though he was actually pretty good when he was on the mound. As baseball’s first true free agent after an arbitrator struck down MLB’s reserve clause (which bound players to their teams via a series of perpetual one-year contracts) during the winter of 1975-76, Messersmith signed with Ted Turner’s Braves shortly after the start of the 1976 season. The former Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander went 11-11 with a 3.04 ERA and made the All-Star team for a bad Atlanta team that first year, but slumped to a 4.40 ERA in 16 starts in 1977 before bone chips in his elbow ended his season. Looking to cut expenses, Turner sold the final year remaining on Messersmith’s contract to the New York Yankees in 1978. Injuries — including a separated shoulder suffered when he fell reaching for a bad throw — cut short his career, however, and he pitched in just 17 games with the Yankees and Dodgers the next two seasons before retiring at age 33.
Honorable mention: Gary Matthews, OF (Nov. 17, 1976)
The contract: 5 years, $1.8 million
The stats: 4 seasons, 588 games, .288 AVG, .354 OBP, .456 SLG, 81 HR, 291 RBI, 114 OPS+, 10.1 bWAR
What happened: Matthews, a former National League Rookie of the Year with the San Francisco Giants, was coming off a 20-home run season when he became the second high-profile free agent in less than a year to sign with the Braves. Turner was found to have tampered with Matthews by courting the outfielder while he was still under contract with the Giants, and by publicly telling San Francisco owner Bob Lurie he would top any offer Matthews’ previous team could give. MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined Turner $10,000 and later suspended him for a year, but allowed Matthews’ Braves contract to stand (as it turned out, Turner was happy to be suspended, as his absence from baseball allowed him to concentrate on winning the 1977 America’s Cup regatta race). Matthews turned in four solid seasons for some bad Atlanta teams, with his best year a 27-homer, All-Star campaign in 1979. The Braves finally fielded a winner in 1980, going 81-80. However, that would be Matthews’ last year in Atlanta. During spring training 1981, with one year left on his contract, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for second-year pitcher Bob Walk.
Honorable mention: Andres Galarraga, 1B (Nov. 21, 1997)
The contract: 3 years, $24.75 million
The stats: 2 seasons, 294 games, .303 AVG, .384 OBP, .562 SLG, 72 HR, 221 RBI, 141 OPS+, 6.2 bWAR
What happened: Galarraga had been a superstar in five seasons with the Colorado Rockies, winning a batting title and finishing in the top 10 in the National League MVP voting four times. But “The Big Cat” was also 37 years old and there were questions about his ability to hit when not at altitude. Nevertheless, with Fred McGriff’s contract having been sold to the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Braves took a chance on the aging Galarraga. He rewarded them with a fantastic 1998 season, batting .305/.397/.595 with 44 home runs for a Braves team that won 106 games. However, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma during spring training in 1999, and missed the entire season. He came back in 2000 and was a still a good — if not quite as good — hitter, batting .302/.369/.526 with 28 homers. The 40-year-old Galarraga left as a free agent after that season, and spent the next four years bouncing between Texas, San Francisco, Montreal and Anaheim before retiring after the 2004 season. The Braves struggled to find a steady first baseman for much of the next decade.
5. Brian Jordan, OF (Nov. 23, 1998)
The contract: 5 years, $40 million
The stats: 3 seasons, 434 games, .281 AVG, .334 OBP, .463 SLG, 65 HR, 289 RBI, 100 OPS+, 9.8 bWAR
What happened: Jordan wasn’t the most famous two-sport athlete in Atlanta history, but he was probably the most-accomplished on the baseball side (no offense to Deion Sanders). The former Atlanta Falcon and St. Louis Cardinal was 32 years old when he signed with the Braves, who needed a middle-of-the-order outfield bat to help replace the production they’d lost when they traded David Justice to the Cleveland Indians two years earlier. Jordan was an All-Star batting behind NL MVP Chipper Jones that first year, driving in 115 runs with 23 homers. His production dipped in 2000 (86 OPS+), but he rebounded with an .830 OPS in 2001. Jordan also played excellent defense in right field during his three seasons in Atlanta, posting 3.4 dWAR. Prior to the 2002 season and with two years remaining on his contract, Jordan was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the package that brought Gary Sheffield to Atlanta. After two years in L.A. and one with the Texas Rangers, Jordan returned to Atlanta in 2005, playing the final two seasons of his 15-year career as a part-time outfielder.
4. Lonnie Smith, OF (March 12, 1988)
The contract: 1 year, $125,000
The results: 5 seasons, 518 games, .291 AVG, .380 OBP, .456 SLG, 46 HR, 207 RBI, 141 OPS+, 17.3 bWAR
What happened: Smith is something of a special case on this list, having been signed off the scrap heap during spring training after nearly washing out of baseball due to drug problems. He actually signed a minor-league deal with only $25,000 guaranteed, but made the major-league minimum once he was promoted to Atlanta at the end of the July. Smith was not good for the Braves that season, posting an 80 OPS+ in 43 games, but with Atlanta going nowhere he signed a one-year, $400,000 extension for 1989. That turned out to be the best season of his 17-year MLB career, as he posted a .315/.415/.533 line with 21 homers and 25 steals, earning NL Comeback Player of the Year honors and posting 8.8 bWAR. Smith signed another extension — this one for two years and $2.5 million — after the season. He turned in another good year for a bad Braves team in 1990, batting .305/.384/.459 and posting 4.4 WAR. Smith’s role began to be reduced in 1991, when the Braves came out of nowhere to reach the World Series. But once leadoff hitter Otis Nixon was suspended in September for failing a drug test, Smith went back into the lineup. He played well in the postseason for the Braves that year, but is of course remembered largely for his baserunning gaffe in Game 7 of the World Series. Smith’s final year in Atlanta was 1992, by which time he was 37 years old and only a part-time player. He left after that season for Pittsburgh, and finished up in 1994 with the Baltimore Orioles.
3. Josh Donaldson, 3B (Nov. 26, 2018)
The contract: 1 year, $23 million
The stats: 1 year, 155 games, .259 AVG, .379 OBP, .521 SLG, 37 HR, 94 RBIs, 127 OPS+, 6.1 bWAR
What happened: Donaldson bet on himself after two injury-plagued seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians, signing a one-year contract with the Braves, the team closest to his roots on the Alabama and Florida Gulf Coasts. The deal turned out to be a bonanza for both sides, as Donaldson provided a much-needed big bat in the middle of the Braves’ lineup while also providing Gold Glove-caliber defense. The 33-year-old former American League MVP also served as a high-energy influence on the field and in the dugout, helping Atlanta to 97 wins and a second straight NL East championship. The Braves have expressed an interest in retaining the Donaldson’s services for 2020 and beyond, but it remains to be seen if they will meet his asking price. After playing on a one-year deal last season and with likely only one big pay day left in his career, Donaldson is almost certainly seeking a three- or four-year contract. However, if 2019 winds up being his only season in Atlanta, it will have been well worth both parties’ investment.
2. Terry Pendleton, 3B (Dec. 3, 1990)
The contract: 4 years, $10 million
The stats: 4 years, 551 games, .293 AVG, .331 OBP, .455 SLG, 67 HR, 305 RBIs, 111 OPS+, 13.6 bWAR
What happened: Pendleton was 30 years old and coming off a season in which he’d batted .230/.277/.324 with a 65 OPS+ for the St. Louis Cardinals when the Braves signed him to what was the richest free agent contract in club history at the time. A two-time Gold Glove winner and a member of two World Series teams in St. Louis, the hope was that Pendleton could bring that winning culture with him to an Atlanta club that had lost 90 games five times in the previous six years. Pendleton exceeded all expectations in his first year with the Braves, winning the NL batting title (.319) and also leading the league in hits (187) and total bases (303) with 22 homers, 86 RBIs and 6.1 bWAR as Atlanta went worst to first and reached the World Series. Pendleton even won the NL MVP Award that season (albeit in a controversial vote over Barry Bonds). He was very nearly as good for the Braves’ repeat pennant winner in 1992 (5.0 WAR, plus a Gold Glove), but faded badly his last two seasons in Atlanta. With future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones set to take over in 1995, Pendleton was allowed to leave as a free agent and signed a two-year deal with the Florida Marlins (he was traded back to the Braves for the 1996 stretch run, however). Since retiring following the 1998 season, Pendleton has spent the last two decades as a coach, including several years on the Braves’ major-league staff.
1. Greg Maddux, SP (Dec. 19, 1992)
The contract: 5 years, $28 million
The stats: 11 seasons, 363 games (363 starts), 194-88, 2.63 ERA, 2526.2 IP, 1828 K, 163 ERA+, 66.2 bWAR
What happened: It was definitely a different era when the Braves successfully pursued the No. 1 free agent on the market, but that’s just what they did when they signed the 27-year-old reigning National League Cy Young Award winner after coming up short in back-to-back World Series trips. Maddux was already considered an excellent pitcher before he signed with Atlanta, but took it to another level as a Brave. He won the Cy Young Award in each of his first three seasons with his new club, posting ERAs of 2.36, 1.56 and 1.63. Maddux finished fifth and second in the Cy Young voting in the other two years of his original deal with the Braves, and led the league in wins twice, ERA three times, complete games three times, shutouts twice, innings three times, ERA+ three times, WHIP three times and strikeout-to-walk ratio three times. Maddux also won Gold Gloves every year of that five-year deal and posted 39 WAR in that stretch. And not least, he helped put the Braves over the top when they finally won the World Series in 1995. Maddux signed a five-year, $57.5 million extension during the 1997 season, which briefly made him baseball’s highest paid player. Though not quite as dominant as he had been during the previous five years, Maddux still posted a 152 ERA+ over the course of his second contract with the Braves, winning five more Gold Gloves and posting 25.9 more bWAR. Maddux stunned the Braves by accepting salary arbitration for the 2003 season rather than becoming a free agent, earning a salary of $14.75 million (under the rules of baseball’s collective bargaining agreement at the time, teams could offer arbitration to pending free agents, and would receive a compensatory draft pick if the player turned it down). At age 37, Maddux posted the worst ERA (3.96) and ERA+ (108) since his rookie year in what proved to be his Atlanta swan song, and also failed to win a Gold Glove for the first time since 1989. He returned to the Chicago Cubs in 2004, and hung on in the majors through 2008 as essentially a league-average pitcher with the Cubs, Dodgers and Padres before retiring at age 42. Maddux was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
So there are the top free agent signings in Braves history. Check back in two weeks for the worst of the lot.
Sources: BaseballReference.com; Newspapers.com; SABR Bio project