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Braves Throwback Thursday: Worst free-agent signings in Atlanta history

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Braves’ offseason moves haven’t always turned out well

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Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves
B.J. Upton’s 5-year, $75.25 million contract immediately started to look like a bad signing for the Atlanta Braves in 2013. (Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

We gave you the good two weeks ago, now it’s time to deal with the bad.

The Atlanta Braves have been active in the free agent market over the years, but not always in a positive way. The Braves have signed some players to contracts that turned out to be absolute stinkers.

As noted before, we’ve tried to combine both subjective and objective analysis here. We can’t just list the free agents who accumulated the least amount of 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 worse 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 lost 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 worst free-agent in Atlanta Braves history, plus a few (dis)honorable mentions.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Dishonorable mention: Claudell Washington, OF (November 15, 1980)

The contract: 5 years, $3.5 million

The stats: 6 seasons, 651 games, .278 AVG, .339 OBP, .435 SLG, 67 HR, 279 RBI, 111 OPS+, 4.7 bWAR

What happened: Washington had been traded three times in four years when Braves owner Ted Turner signed him to what was then one of the richest contracts in baseball prior to the 1981 season. The deal — which was worth more than twice what Washington’s old team, the New York Mets, had offered him — was immediately panned throughout the game. One anonymous owner complained to the Atlanta Constitution that Turner must have drunkenly mistaken Washington for fellow free agent Dave Winfield, a perennial All-Star who would later sign a 10-year contract with the New York Yankees (the newspaper later issued a front-page apology). At any rate, Washington had an OK run in Atlanta, performing reasonably well as a hitter — he was an All-Star in 1984 — but with wretched outfield defense dragging down his overall value. He signed a one-year, $750,000 extension for 1986, but was traded that June to the New York Yankees in a deal that brought Ken Griffey Sr. to Atlanta.

Chicago White Sox v California Angels Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

Dishonorable mention: Steve Lyons, UT (January 8, 1992)

The contract: 1 year, $600,000

The stats: 1 season, 11 games, .071 AVG, .071 OBP, .214 SLG, 0 HR, 1 RBI, -0.2 bWAR

What happened: Lyons — nicknamed “Psycho” for his eccentric nature — was one of the more versatile players of his era, capable of playing all eight defensive positions at least passably well. He never could hit, however, posting a career OPS+ of 77. For some reason, a Braves team fresh off a World Series appearance signed him to a one-year contract that paid him more than established regulars David Justice, Steve Avery, Greg Olson and Mark Lemke, among others. With Justice shelved by a bad back, Lyons actually got regular playing time in spring training, but hit .105 with four errors. He followed that up by going 1-for-14 in 11 games to start the regular season. Justice was activated in late April, and the Braves designated Lyons for assignment. As an 8-year major-league veteran, he could and did refuse a demotion to Triple-A Richmond, and was released on April 30. Lyons soon after signed with Montreal, but his contract was sold to Boston after just 16 games with the Expos. He went 4-for-27 between the three teams, and was out of baseball a little more than a year later.

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Dishonorable mention: Derek Lowe, SP (January 13, 2009)

The contract: 4 years, $60 million

The stats: 3 seasons, 101 games (101 starts), 40-39, 4.57 ERA, 384 K, 575.1 IP, 87 ERA+, 1.8 WAR

What happened: Lowe had been an All-Star and World Series hero in Boston and had turned in an excellent 4.5-WAR 2008 season for the Los Angeles Dodgers when the Braves signed him prior to the 2009 season. As Atlanta’s first significant free agent addition in more than a decade, the 36-year-old Lowe was hailed as a potential savior for a Braves rotation that had been in sharp decline since the departures of Hall-of-Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. However, Lowe proved to be little more than an innings-eater in Atlanta, posting one league-average season (2010) and two sub-standard ones (2009 and 2011). The only two categories in which he ever led the league with the Braves were hits allowed (232 in 2009) and losses (17 in 2011). With one year left on his contract, Atlanta traded him to Cleveland for minor-league reliever Chris Jones (who never reached the majors) prior to the 2012 season. The Indians released Lowe the following August after he posted a 5.52 ERA in 21 starts.

Atlanta Braves v Florida Marlins Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

5. Kenshin Kawakami, SP (January 13, 2009)

The contract: 3 years, $23 million

The stats: 2 seasons, 50 games (41 starts), 8-22, 4.32 ERA, 164 K, 243.2 IP, 94 ERA+, 1.2 WAR

What happened: Kawakami — who signed with the Braves on the same day as Derek Lowe — was Atlanta’s first Japanese free-agent import. The 33-year-old had a been a Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and Eiji Sawamura Award (the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award) winner during an 11-year career with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central League. His first year in Atlanta wasn’t bad, with a 3.86 ERA and a 107 ERA+ despite a 7-12 record. His second season, however, was a disaster, with a 5.15 ERA and 32 walks in 87.1 innings pitched. He was relegated to the bullpen in June, but only got into one of the Braves’ next 40 games (allowing three runs in one inning in that outing). Kawakami was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett in August, and returned to make two appearances for the big-league club in September. The Braves outrighted him to Double-A Mississippi after the season, and he played out the final year of his contract in the minors (posting an 8.86 ERA) before returning to Japan in 2012.

Atlanta Braves v San Diego Padres Photo by Andy Hayt/San Diego Padres/Getty Images

4. Bartolo Colon, SP (November 17, 2016)

The contract: 1 year, $12.5 million

The stats: 1 season, 13 games (13 starts), 2-8, 8.14 ERA, 42 K, 63 IP, 54 ERA+, -2.1 WAR

What happened: The 2017 Braves were not expected to contend (they ended up going 72-90) and signed Colon along with fellow 40-something R.A. Dickey to buy some time until the team’s young pitchers were ready. While Dickey was solid (102 ERA+, 2.3 WAR), the 44-year-old Colon was so bad he was released less than halfway through the season. He’d won 15 games with a 3.43 ERA with the New York Mets the previous season, but lost it nearly immediately with Atlanta. Colon allowed one run in two of his first three outings with the Braves, but then had starts where he surrendered 4, 6, 5, 8, 7, 9 and 6 runs before he was finally cut loose at the end of June. Colon later latched on with Minnesota and was better in a relative sense (5.15 ERA in 15 starts), which earned him a contract with the Texas Rangers in 2018. His career finally ended after he posted a 5.78 ERA for the Rangers at age 45.

Nick Esasky Photo by Thomas S. England/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

3. Nick Esasky, 1B (November 17, 1989)

The contract: 3 years, $5.7 million

The stats: 1 season, 9 games, .171 AVG, .256 OBP, .171 SLG, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 18 OPS+, -0.6 WAR

What happened: Esasky was 30 years old and coming off a 1989 season in which he’d batted .277/.355/.500 with 30 homers and 108 RBIs for the Boston Red Sox — good for a 133 OPS+ in that low-offense era — when the Braves signed him to anchor their lineup. But things immediately turned sour for Esasky, who picked the Braves in part because he made his offseason home in the Atlanta area. During spring training in 1990, he began being troubled by headaches and dizzy spells, at first believing he had a case of the flu. It never got better, and Esasky was benched after nine regular-season games in which he managed just six hits and struck out 14 times in 35 at-bats and made five errors in the field. Esasky tried everything he could to cure his vertigo, even getting glasses and having dental work done. He eventually traveled to the famed Mayo Clinic to seek answers, and the closest he ever came to a firm diagnosis was that the he had been the victim of a mysterious viral infection. The Braves — on their way to a last-place finish — later installed David Justice at first base, and the youngster won National League Rookie of the Year honors before moving to the outfield the following year. Esasky, however, never played again. Atlanta signed Sid Bream to play first base beginning in 1991, and Esasky was officially released in mid-1992.

Atlanta Braves v Texas Rangers Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

2. B.J. Upton, OF (November 29, 2012)

The contract: 5 years, $75.25 million

The stats: 2 seasons, 267 games, .198 AVG, .279 OBP, .314 SLG, 21 HR, 61 RBI, 66 OPS+, -2.1 WAR

What happened: Nearly seven years later, Upton’s contract remains the richest for a free agent in Braves history in terms of dollar value. He was 28 and coming off a 2012 season in which he’d hit 28 homers and stolen 31 bases with the Tampa Bay Rays, but also had posted a pedestrian .298 on-base percentage. Three weeks after signing B.J., the Braves traded for younger brother Justin, then an up-and-coming slugger with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Justin Upton had two fine years in Atlanta, but B.J. (who later asked to be called by his given name, Melvin) was one of the worst players in the National League — both offensively and defensively — during his time with the Braves. Even worse, the Braves were so intent on getting out from under the final three years of Upton’s contract that they traded All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel along with him to the San Diego Padres on the eve of the 2015 season. (The trade wasn’t a total loss, however. In addition to three players, the Braves acquired in the deal a competitive balance round draft pick, which they used to select Austin Riley.) Upton had a bit of a bounce back in a part-time role with the Padres that season (posting a 110 OPS+) but was out of baseball after another sub-standard season split between San Diego and Toronto in 2016.

Atlanta Braves Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

1. Bruce Sutter, RP (December 7, 1984)

The contract: 6 years, $9.1 million; plus an annuity that paid an additional $34 million over 30 years

The stats: 3 seasons, 112 games, 40 saves, 4.55 ERA, 108 K, 152.1 IP, 84 ERA+, -0.1 WAR

What happened: Sutter was among the most-celebrated and accomplished relief pitchers in baseball when he signed with the Braves prior to the 1985 season. He had ridden his split-fingered fastball to 260 saves, a 2.54 ERA, six All-Star appearances and a Cy Young Award (1979) in nine seasons with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. Atlanta had slipped to 80-82 in 1984, and owner Ted Turner believed that Sutter was the missing piece to put the Braves back into National League West contention as they had been in 1982 and 1983. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. Sutter’s ERA ballooned to 4.48 in 1985, and his shoulder was already beginning to bother him by the end of the season. He was shut down at the end of May 1986, and missed the remainder of the season and all of 1987 after surgery to relieve a nerve impingement. Sutter returned to pitch in 38 games in 1988 — posting a 4.76 ERA and 14 saves, but that would be the end of the line for the future Hall-of-Famer. Diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff, Sutter tried the return the following spring before going on the disabled list again. Atlanta released him at the end of the 1989 season with a year left on his contract, but he’s still being paid by the Braves to this day. Thanks to a 30-year annuity fund that was negotiated and vested when Sutter signed his original contract and earns 12-13 percent interest annually, he has received $1.12 million every year since 1990. He has two years left on that annuity, and in 2022 will receive a lump sum of $9.1 million — the “principle” on the original contract. Sutter will be 69 years old when he’s finally off the Braves’ payroll.

So there are the worst free-agent contracts in Atlanta Braves history. Here’s hoping they don’t add to this list any time soon.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Darryl_Palmer4. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: BaseballReference.com; BaseballAlmanac.com; The Athletic; Newspapers.com; SABR Bio project