The Tampa Bay Rays are not known to break the bank to acquire the players for their team.
Throughout the team’s 25-year history, they have often sought to improve the team through trades or the draft, rather than fork up the cash to any prospective free agents. However, there have been a few times throughout the franchise's quarter century endeavors that they have ventured into the open market to obtain a marquee player via free agency.
A lot of these instances came during the franchise’s inception when Vince Naimoli gave Chuck LaMar a mandate to win some games and put some butts in seats, regardless of what is cost...until Naimoli realized it cost him too much, provided too few victories, and put too few butts in seats.
Those early free agent signings also seemed doomed by injury. Perhaps the most notorious: Juan Guzman’s disastrously pitched a grand total of 1 2⁄3 innings for $12.5M. He suffered an injury in his outing and that ended his baseball career.
After the team had been sufficiently burned during their first foray into free agency, they took it easy and only signed players to large deals that they thoroughly believed would improve the team’s chances at victory, such as Grant Balfour, Pat Burrell and James Loney. I know.
Only recently have the Rays marquee free agent signings paid dividends to the team’s overall success. Wilson Ramos produced solid results and then Charlie Morton effectively established himself as the best free agent signing in franchise history.
LARGEST FREE AGENT CONTRACTS IN TEAM HISTORY
Roberto Hernandez, RHP
Four years for $22.5M - $5.6M AAV
When compiling your first ever roster, one of the goals is bringing an established closer so your fledgling franchise is able to successfully close out their victories. Getting the team in a position to achieve those victories is secondary. That must have been the thinking when the Devil Rays pursued veteran reliever Roberto Hernandez during the winter of 1997.
Devil Rays Manager Larry Rothschild offered a succinct reason for the Hernandez signing,
“I think when you take a lead into the ninth inning and you have someone out there who can close it, it’s important to the team for a lot of reasons.”
[Tampa Bay Times]
It can be said that Roberto Hernandez provided the most the for the Devil Rays in terms of value for his contract in the early days of the franchise. He provided the team with a dependable late inning reliever for three seasons before being dealt to the Kansas City Royals prior to the 2001 season.
During those three seasons, Hernandez had the 14th highest fWAR among relievers and had the 10th lowest FIP among relievers with at least 200 innings pitched from 1998 to 2000. As a closer, Hernandez saved 101 games (impressive considering the Devil Rays only won 201 games in that span).
Charlie Morton, RHP
Two years for $30M - $15M AAV
The Rays shocked the baseball world when they signed veteran starting pitcher Chalie Morton during the winter meetings in 2018.
The 35-year-old Morton was coming off two dominant seasons with the Houston Astros and the Rays were making waves by adding him to a staff that already featured the 2018 AL Cy Young winner, Blake Snell.
Morton rewarded the Rays by providing one of the best pitching seasons in franchise history. He eviscerated Chris Archer’s 2015 fWAR mark (5.1), by generating 6.0 fWAR; Morton also had a 2.81 FIP, which was also the lowest in franchise history.
The 2020 follow-up campaign was overshadowed by the pandemic, but Morton still shined for the Rays as he helped guide the team deep into the playoffs. Unfortunately, the team lost in six games to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Following that, due to the ongoing unknowns of a world in a pandemic, the Rays declined Morton’s option for the 2021 season; he would sign a contract with the Atlanta Braves for the same amount as the option. Some of us might have thought about that decision as we watched the Rays get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs while Morton and the Braves went on to win the World Series.
Greg Vaughn, OF
Four years for $34M - $9M AAV
“Tropicana Field might be home-run heaven next season.”
This was the first line of the article written on ESPN after the Devil Rays signed Greg Vaughn and traded for Vinny Castilla on the same day in December, 1999.
During that winter, Vince Naimoli was tired of the team’s attempts thus far and figured maybe throwing money at the problem would solve everything. Thus, Chuck LaMar was let loose and agents of the baseball world rejoiced as the Devil Rays handed out contracts like they were stock in Enron.
The largest of these contracts given out was to the slugging Vaughn, one of the few players in baseball history that can lay claim to a 50-homerun season.
Vaughn was obviously enthused to be rewarded with such a large contract
“They want to win. They want to win now. They don’t want to wait. [...] You couldn’t ask for a better situation.
The most important thing to me is winning, and they made their commitment. That’s what made my decision pretty easy.”
For his part, Vaughn did provide the Devil Rays with some solid offensive seasons over the first two years of the contract. In 2000, he hit .254/.365/.499 with 28 HR over 127 games played, registering 2.2 fWAR and then followed that up with .233/.333/.433 and 24 HR over 136 games in 2001.
However, in 2002, he had finally passed from the twilight of his career to the end of it as he struggled. He hit a lowly .163/.286/.15 and posted the lowest HR total of his career since debuting in 1989.
He would be released the following spring with the Devil Rays paying him nearly $10M to not play for them and Chuck LaMar poignantly stating that “The direction of the club is youth.”
Wilson Alvarez, LHP
Five years for $35M - $7M AAV
“We have a plan to become a championship team.”
That’s a quote from Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli after signing veteran southpaw Wilson Alvarez.
The comments might have been a tad overzealous after signing a pitcher like Alvarez, but then again, Alvarez had been pretty solid from 1993 to 1997. Things looked really good for Alvarez in 1996 and 1997, when he put up the best years of his career, up to that point. So, why shouldn’t the Devil Rays have given him a huge five year contract.
Alvarez was immediately declared the team’s number one starting pitcher and when Opening Day came around, it was Alvarez that would throw the first pitch in team history.
It was a ball.
And things didn’t get better. Alvarez struggled with injuries during his five-year run with the franchise. He did manage to provide a couple of decent campaigns in a brutal division during the 1998 and 1999 seasons, accumulating a total of 3.1 fWAR over 302 2⁄3 innings pitched. However, he would miss the 2000 and 2001 seasons entirely and only pitched 23 games (mostly in relief) in 2002 before his contract expired. Alvarez did find some success after his Devil Rays tenure as he put up 4.7 fWAR with the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2003 to 2004.
If only that first pitch had been a strike.