Ok, so the season is over. The World Series was exciting, but the wrong teams were playing. Free agency officially began yesterday (kind of…teams can only negotiate with their own free agents for the first five days) and this Blue Jays team has some obvious decisions to make. You already all know what these decisions are, and have read multiple articles about them, and will see any more in the coming days, so let’s do what the nine does best…focus on the past. The Blue Jays have made some fantastic free agent signings over the years, and here’s hoping by the time spring training roles around there will be many more names added to the list.
Of note: this list includes only players who were signed away from another team, extensions and re-signing like the ones given to Joe Carter, Roy Halladay, Jose Bautista and others didn’t qualify for this list.
9. Frank Catalanotto, 4 yr/10 million on Dec 28, 2002
This list could have opened with a virtual ten-way tie, as the Blue Jays have signed a lot of low profile, good impact players over the years. I chose Frank, in part, because he ended up playing five seasons with the club. I also chose Catalanotto because I wrote this a day before my anniversary, and Frank Catalanotto was my wife’s favourite player for his tenure in Toronto. Catalanotto joined the Jays from the Rangers organization and preceded to fill out the left-handed hitting side of a platoon with Reed Johnson for the majority of his time with the team. On the cheap, the Jays ended up with a high on-base guy to put near the top of the order, as he hit second for much of his time in Toronto. His lowest OBP as a Jay was .344 and he had an above average wRC+ for four of his five seasons in Toronto. A great addition to any team, he filled his role perfectly; never an all star or really even a full time player, Catalanotto produced for half a decade for the Jays.
Fun Fact: Not only does he have the greatest last name in Blue Jays history, he also managed to set the team record for hits in a game, going 6/6 in a win against the Chicago White Sox on May 1, 2004. Toronto won the game 10-6, as Catalanotto hit five singles and one double from the his familiar second spot in the batting order.
8. Russell Martin, 5 yr/82 million on Nov 14, 2014
Others (in particular, Vernon Wells) have signed for more money as a Blue Jay, but nobody has signed a larger free agent contract to join the Jays than Canadian product and elite catcher Russell Martin. It’s perhaps too early to include him on this list, as he’s only two years into his five year contract with the Jays, but what Martin has done with this team in the last two years earns him a place on this list in my mind. Martin joined the team as a former three time all-star, as well as a former gold glove and silver slugger award winner. The fact that he is a Canadian playing for the only Canadian team certainly made him even more attractive, and he hasn’t disappointed. Signed in large part to handle the pitching staff and provide leadership, he brought with him a pedigree of winning, as his teams always seem to make the postseason. These characteristics are all unquantifiable, but as the Jays have made the postseason the two years he’s been here, it’s safe to say the team is happy with the signing. He has also been an above average hitter while here, and made the all star team in 2015.
Fun Fact: Martin has a tattoo on his chest that states “World Citizen.” While fans of the Blue Jays are proud to call Martin one of their own, Martin is proud to have been part of many cultures. Biracial and bilingual, Martin spent most of his school days with his Mom in Paris, France and most of his summers in Montreal, Canada with his Dad. He attended college in the United States (at the same college and same time as Jose Bautista) and played the majority of his career thus far in the USA. He calls himself, and is, a Canadian, but is proud of his globetrotting life.
7. Scott Downs, minor league contract, Dec 16, 2004
Scott was an unheralded signing in the offseason of 2004. After failing as starter, he was soon moved to the bullpen, where he spent the better part of a decade dominating batters in the late innings. He even had seasons with ERAs as low as 1.78 and 2.17. Initially used as a LOOGY in the pen, he eventually made his way later into the game, and even took over for a time as the team’s closer for a time. He excelled in every bullpen role the team gave him, and finished with a 3.13 ERA over six years as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. His high 80s fastball and slow curve gave hitters fits for a long time. Not bad for a guy signed to a minor league contract with only an invite to spring training.
Fun Fact: For a long time it was believed that Downs would scribble “Jesus Mary Joseph” in the dirt before his first pitch out of the pen each outing, but Downs stated this was false. He was actually writing the initials of his two children, Katherine and Harrison, whose mother (and Downs’ wife) was his high school sweetheart.
6. Jose Canseco, 1 year/2 million, on December 4, 1998
Injury prone, old, and eight years removed from his last all star appearance, former MVP Jose Canseco signed his name to an incredibly affordable contract and was given a shot at being the team’s regular DH heading into the 1998 season. He grabbed the shot and ran with it, playing in 151 games, which was only the fourth time he had ever managed that number in the past. As a 35 years old, he finished with the second most stolen bases of his career, with 29, and in the midst of league-wide home-run explosion finished with the most of his career, and a team high 46. Only on the team for one year, he nonetheless had a great season by any standard, and left an indelible mark on the organization and the city as a whole
Fun Fact: I’ve heard rumours of a book, and a boxing career, and that he might have a social media presence, but I frankly can’t think of a single fun fact about Jose Canseco, the guy has just been too low profile.
5. Dave Stewart, 2 years/8.5 millions, December 8, 1992
The old adage goes that if you can’t beat them, join them. In the Blue Jays case with Dave Stewart, they decided that they couldn’t beat him, so they asked him to join them. Stewart had dominated the Blue Jays in the postseason in both 1989 and 1992, and had famously no-hit them in 1990. He was, along with Rickey Henderson, public enemy number 1 in a lot of fan’s eyes. Offering the ALCS and World Series MVP a contract much larger than the A’s were willing to, the defending World Series champions made themselves even stronger heading into the 1993 season. He would have an injury prone first season with the team, and a rather pedestrian 4.44 ERA in 1993 (which was still good for 3rd on the team) and would be even worse in 1994, but he’s on this list because he ended up dominating in the ALCS. He won both games two and six, and took home ALCS MVP honours. This was exactly why they signed him. He would also go on to be the starting pitcher in the World Series clinching game six against the Phillies. Dave Stewart, by playing a significant role in helping the Jays repeat as World Series champions, deserves to make this list.
Fun Fact: Dave Stewart’s success was heralded by coaches, players and the media alike due to two factors: he had a devastating forkball, and something dubbed “The Death Stare” that was said to have hitters beat before he even threw a pitch. Glaring in to take the sign, Stewart would then lift his glove up to cover all of his face save his menacing eyes. Staring witheringly at hitters, he would then go into his wind-up. It was widely accepted at the time that Stewart’s stare made him the scariest pitcher in all of baseball. It is unlikely this sentiment would be so widely shared in today’s advanced metric era.
4. Jack Morris, 2 years/10.85 million, on Dec 18, 1991
Less than two months after one of the greatest pitching performances in history, a 10 inning complete game shut-out win in Game 7 of the World Series, the Toronto Blue Jays signed the winningest pitcher of the 1980s to the largest contract ever given at that time to a pitcher, prying him and his World Series MVP award away from the Minnesota Twins. Morris would proceed to start opening day, win 21 games and finish fifth in Cy Young voting for the division winning and eventual World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays. Morris was the second big name signing the Blue Jays had ever had in their entire history up to that point (Ken Dayley was the first, in 1990, but would only appear in 10 games over an injury riddled Blue Jay career) and his signing (and one other performed a day after that features later on this list) would go a long way to putting the Blue Jays over the hump and on their way to World Series victory.
Fun Fact: Jack Morris started opening days for three different teams. He was the highest paid pitcher in baseball for all three of those teams. He won World Series with all three of these teams. And finally, post-career, he worked as a broadcaster for all three of those teams as well (including, remarkably, working for two major league teams, the Tigers and the Twins, at the same time). It’s safe to say his impact in Detroit, Minnesota and Toronto will not soon be forgotten.
3. Dave Winfield, 1 year/2.3 million on Dec 19, 1991
A day after the Blue Jays made history by signing Jack Morris, they went out and signed future hall of famer Dave Winfield to be the team’s everyday DH. Formerly an elite all around player, the team thought Winfield could still hit, even at 41 years old. And hit, he did, to the tune of .290/26/100. He would end up finishing fifth in MVP voting at the end of the year, and would cap off a great season by hitting the most famous double in Blue Jays history, cashing in both Devon White and Roberto Alomar to give the Blue Jays a lead they would not relinquish in the deciding game 6 of the 1992 World Series. Curiously, the Blue Jays didn’t offer him a contract at season’s end, but for his great season, and for that one, big, huge, significant hit, Winfield makes this list.
Fun Fact: Unlike stadium patrons of the recent Blue Jays, the fans in 1992 were very quiet and respectful. Too much so, in Winfield’s eyes. After telling the Toronto Star’s Jim Proudfoot that he would be happy if the fans would start cheering a bit more for their own team, signs emblazoned with “Winfield wants noise” became the norm at Blue Jays games, as did a loud fan base.
2. Paul Molitor, 3 yrs/13 million on Dec 7, 1992
After winning the World Series, the Blue Jays decided to re-sign one power hitter, Joe Carter, to a 3 year/19.5 million dollar contract, while electing to let the older power threat, Dave Winfield walk. To fill his place, they turned to another future Hall of Famer in the later stages of his career, Paul Molitor. Still an elite bat, the Jays allegedly offered Molitor more than two million dollars per season more than any other team, and were able to bring his talents north of border. Molitor would not disappoint. He hit .332, with 21 home-runs, and finish second in MVP voting at season’s end. He would follow it up by hitting .341 during the next, strike-shortened, season. Even more significant in many fan’s eyes is that he would hit .500 in the 1993 World Series with two triples and two home runs on route to winning World Series MVP honours. A great free agent sign, indeed.
Fun Fact: As a Blue Jay, Molitor played 28 games at first base, and the rest as a designated hitter (and then actually played third base in the World Series). Over his long career, he played almost half his games without picking up a glove and was the first person to enter the hall of fame as a primary DH. Interestingly, while never really known as a great fielder, Molitor actually started multiple games at every single position other than catcher or pitcher throughout his career. It’s hard for early 90s Jays fans to imagine him as a shortstop or centre fielder, but he started more than 40 games at each spot during his storied career.
1.Roger Clemens, 4 years/40 million on Dec 13, 1996
The 1994, 1995 and 1996 Blue Jays were huge disappointments. Wanting to improve, the team added a multitude of players in the 1996-1997 offseason, including Orlando Merced, Benito Santiago, Carlos Garcia, Otis Nixon, and Roger Clemens. All but the latter turned out to be huge flops. Clemens, however, signed the richest pitching contract in history at the time to join a staff that already included 1996 Cy Young winner Pat Hengten and 1996 ERA leader Juan Guzman. All Clemens did in his two seasons as a Jay was win the pitching triple crown (wins, ERA and strikeouts) both years and take home back-to-back Cy Young awards. He put in probably the two best pitching years by any Blue Jay pitcher in history, in the height of the steroid era. He is the best free agent the Blue Jays ever signed.
Fun Fact: At the conclusion of Clemens’ first season as a Blue Jay, Cito Gaston was fired as the manager. To this day, Cito claims that Roger was very influential in his departure. Since Clemens was very good friends with Tim Johnson from their time together in Boston, Gaston believed that Roger led to both his own dismissal and Johnson’s hiring.
There you have it. A similar list could be made featuring the worst free agent signings, as for every Dave Winfield there’s a Frank Thomas, and for every Roger Clemens exists an Erik Hanson. Current Blue Jay J.A. Happ would love to make his way up this list, and could very well do it in the coming seasons. It’s the hope of every Jays that this offseason is one that will still be remembered 30 years from now for the positive additions made.
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