By Jason Shetler
Here now is a list of the ten best free agent signings in Pirates history that ended up becoming a real bargain. The criteria of this list is not only the value of the contract, but also that player making an impact in the process.
10. Kenny Lofton: Throughout most of the 90’s, Kenny Lofton was one of the best center fielders in all of baseball. The Pirates signed the six-time All-Star in Spring Training of 2003 for $1.025 million to be a veteran stopgap following the huge disappointment of former top prospect Chad Hermansen. Lofton put up good numbers as the Bucs leadoff hitter, batting .277 with a .770 OPS. In late July that year, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs as part of the horrible Aramis Ramirez deal.
9. Jeff Suppan: Looking to add a veteran starting pitcher prior to the 2003 season, the Pirates brought in Jeff Suppan on a one-year contract for just $500,000. Suppan did very good work, as he posted a 3.57 ERA along with a 123 ERA+ in 21 starts. At the 2003 trade deadline, he was dealt to the Boston Red Sox, a deal in which the Pirates received Freddy Sanchez.
8. Ed Sprague: In the 1988 MLB Draft, Ed Sprague was a first round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays. He signed with the Pirates a decade later for $1.3 million to be the everyday third baseman. Sprague put up an OPS of .817 in 137 games, and was the Pirates All-Star representative in 1999.
7. Matt Stairs: Matt Stairs signed with the Bucs for $900,000 in December of 2002 to serve as a veteran bat off the bench. He played both first base and right field, but was used mostly in a pinch-hitting role. Stairs was very productive, posting a .950 OPS with an OPS+ of 142.
6. Reggie Sanders: Just like Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders signed on with the Pirates during the Spring of 2003. It was a one-year deal worth $1 million to be the regular right fielder. Sanders hit 31 home runs that year, which was the second highest single season total of his career, while he put up a .913 OPS and a 131 OPS+ in 130 games played.
5. Garrett Jones: In December of 2008, Garrett Jones signed with the Pirates on a minor league deal, which at the time was considered a depth move. After a strong showing in both Spring Training and AAA, Jones was called up to Pittsburgh in July of 2009, and was extremely impressive, as he posted a .938 OPS, a 146 OPS+ and a 2.7 WAR. He wound up finishing seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year voting that season. Jones was used mainly as platoon player during his five seasons with the Pirates, but was still performed decent with a 113 OPS+.
4. A.J. Burnett: The Pirates couldn’t have asked for more out of A.J. Burnett when they acquired him from the New York Yankees in 2012. After two very good seasons, Burnett announced that he would either re-sign with the Bucs or retire. In a surprise move, he inked a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. Following a subpar year in 2014, Burnett returned to the Steel City last season on a one-year deal worth $8.5 million, which was less than the $12 million option he declined with the Phillies. He posted an ERA of 3.18 along with a 121 ERA+ and a 2.8 WAR in 26 starts while being named an All-Star for the first time in his 17 year Major League career.
3. Edinson Volquez: Following the departure of A.J. Burnett prior to 2014, the Pirates took on Edinson Volquez as a reclamation project for $5 million. Pitching coach Ray Searage worked his magical powers with Volquez, as he put up a career best 3.04 ERA with an ERA+ of 118 in 192.2 innings. The ERA was the lowest by a Pirates right-hander with at least 30 starts since Doug Drabek in 1991.
2. Russell Martin: One of the Pirates biggest needs in the offseason prior to 2013 was at catcher. The Bucs were aggressive and signed Russell Martin, who was the top free agent backstop on the open market. The contract was quite a bargain at two years and $17 million total. Martin was certainly a big part in helping the Pirates reach the postseason in 2013 and 2014. During those two seasons, he posted a .362 on base percentage. Behind the plate, Martin was an absolute force, throwing out runners 39% of the time, which was 11% above the league average.
1. Francisco Liriano: The Pirates best bargain signing goes to Francisco Liriano. After originally agreeing to a two-year deal for $14 million in December of 2012, Liriano injured his non-throwing arm. A revised deal was worked out a couple months later, which had Liriano making just $1 million for 2013 with a club option. He was superb that season, posting a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts, and was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year. The Pirates to no surprise at all exercised Liriano’s option, which was worth $6 million. In 2014, he put up 3.38 ERA in 29 starts. Prior to 2015, the Bucs re-signed him to a three-year deal at $39 million. Liriano has a 9.6 K/9 ratio since 2013, which is third best among NL starters behind only Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg.