Top 5 Free Agent Acquisitions

LeBron received a chorus of boos upon his return to Cleveland.

This week’s big event in sports was the return of LeBron James to Cleveland. Going to Miami via free agency has made him a pariah- a rare reaction to an act that has become commonplace in sports today. One reason for the boos he came home to is that the fans feel he is the difference between a playoff team and a non-playoff team. This frustration is felt whenever a hometown star leaves for $greener$ pastures. Would Cavs fans be as upset with LeBron if they were the best in the NBA even without him? Would they be upset if the Cavs with Lebron would still fall short of the playoffs? Bringing this idea back to baseball (as I always do), it got me thinking about some of the bigger moves free agency has brought us. A major difference between the NBA and MLB, though, makes it an apples-and-oranges situation: one player can make a huge impact on a basketball team’s record, but in baseball no one player is as important to his team’s success or failure. Right?

Well, there’s a way to test this (at least approximately). Using baseball-reference.com, we have tabulations for how many wins above replacement (WAR) a player was each season. Meaning, how many more games did a team win because it had this player instead of a bottom-barrel replacement player. Even if you don’t understand “replacement level,” the important thing is that it is constant for every player in a given year. That allows us to compare two players, seeing how many more wins one player added to his team compared to the other.

Using this, I considered the top 5 big-time free agent acquisitions in recent memory. I looked at who the team signed to fill the void left by the free agent, and noted how many wins that player was good for. Then, I compared this to the amount of wins the free agent contributed to his new team. Calculating the difference, I adjusted the original team’s record, imagining that the free agent was still playing for them. Then, I looked to see where in the division the team would’ve finished with the new, adjusted record. How much better would this team have been? Would it make the difference between a playoff berth and sitting home in October?

My criteria for selecting players were:

(a) the player played for just one team before free agency (so the city became attached to its young star)

(b) the player played at least 3 seasons with the team he went to

5. Jason Giambi goes to New York

Average season with A’s: .308/.412/.545, 32 HR, 115 RBI

Average season with Yankees: .260/.404/.521, 38 HR, 110 RBI

2002 A’s with Scott Hatteberg: (103-59, first place)

2002 A’s with Jason Giambi: (108-54, first place)

2003 A’s with Scott Hatteberg: (96-66, first place)

2003 A’s with Jason Giambi: (100-62, first place)

2004 A’s with Scott Hatteberg: (91-71, second place)

2004 A’s with Jason Giambi: (89-73, second place)

4. Greg Maddux goes to Atlanta

Average season with Cubs: (16-13), 3.35 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 234 IP, 152 K

Average season with Braves: (19-9), 2.63 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 238 IP, 172 K

1993 Cubs with Frank Castillo: (84-78, fourth place)

1993 Cubs with Greg Maddux: (92-70, third place)

1994 Cubs with Mike Morgan: (49-64, fifth place)

1994 Cubs with Greg Maddux: (58-55, third place)

1995 Cubs with Jim Bullinger: (73-71, third place)

1995 Cubs with Greg Maddux: (81-63, second place, NL Wild Card)

3. Manny Ramirez goes to Boston

Average season with Indians: .313/.407/.592, 40 HR, 136 RBI

Average season with Red Sox: .313/.412/.594, 42 HR, 132 RBI

2001 Indians with Marty Cordova: (91-71, first place)

2001 Indians with Manny Ramirez: (94-68, first place)

2002 Indians with Russell Branyan/Karim Garcia: (74-88, third place)

2002 Indians with Manny Ramirez: (79-83, third place)

2003 Indians with Matt Lawton: (68-94, fourth place)

2003 Indians with Manny Ramirez: (72-90, fourth place)

2. Alex Rodriguez goes to Texas

Average season with Mariners: .309/.374/.561, 39 HR, 122 RBI

Average season with Rangers: .305/.395/.615, 53 HR, 132 RBI

2001 Mariners with Carlos Guillen: (116-46, first place)

2001 Mariners with Alex Rodriguez: (121-41, first place)

2002 Mariners with Carlos Guillen: (93-69, third place)

2002 Mariners with Alex Rodriguez: (99-63, second place, AL Wild Card)

2003 Mariners with Carlos Guillen: (93-69, second place)

2003 Mariners with Alex Rodriguez: (100-62, first place)

1. Barry Bonds goes to San Francisco

Average season with Pirates: .275/.380/.503, 29 HR, 89 RBI

Average season with Giants: .312/.477/.666, 49 HR, 119 RBI

1993 Pirates with Orlando Merced: (75-87, fifth place)

1993 Pirates with Barry Bonds: (83-79, fifth place)

1994 Pirates with Orlando Merced: (53-61, third place)

1994 Pirates with Barry Bonds: (59-55, third place)

1995 Pirates with Orlando Merced: (58-86, fifth place)

1995 Pirates with Barry Bonds: (63-81, fourth place)

Only in two years did a team miss the playoffs without the player, but by my calculation would’ve made the playoffs had they had the player (the 1995 Cubs with Greg Maddux and the 2002 Mariners with Alex Rodriguez). And for one team (the 2004 A’s), Scott Hatteberg actually outplayed the injured Jason Giambi he replaced. There seems to be plenty of resentment in the abandoned city regardless of its impact on its team’s playoff situation. So, to answer the initial question about if Cavs fans would be upset with LeBron even if his presence or absence didn’t impact their championship hopes… yes, the bitterness is more personal than team-related, apparently.

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