Mariners’ Nelson Cruz, Seahawks’ Michael Bennett among best free agents in Seattle sports history

Jun 10, 2016, 11:31 AM
After a day off Wednesday, Nelson Cruz is back in the lineup for the M's they try to avoid a four-g...
After a day off Wednesday, Nelson Cruz is back in the lineup for the M's they try to avoid a four-game sweep. (AP)

The draft is a crap shoot.

That’s a refrain for the annual talent grab in the NFL and the NBA and certainly in MLB, where the top selections are generally years from making major-league impact.

But free agency offers no guarantees, either, even though the players purchased on the open market are usually more expensive and have a proven track record.

Drafting a player is like betting on the upside. It’s a decision based on the belief that the best is yet to come. Signing a free agent is betting against the downside, a decision based on the belief that the inevitable decline won’t occur before the player’s production has paid for itself.

And when it comes to signing free agents, Seattle sports teams have so often come up on the short side of the gamble whether it was guys like Chone Figgins and Richie Sexson becoming absolute albatrosses (is that the proper plural term?) for the Mariners or T.J. Houshmandzadeh being paid $7 million to not be member of the Seahawks a year after coming to town.

That’s what makes Nelson Cruz so remarkable. Here was a player in his 30s who was signed to a four-year contract and has been better than anyone could have hoped for. Signed in 2015, he clubbed a career-high 44 home runs after moving into a park considered to be kryptonite for a right-handed power hitter. He’s hit 15 homers through 59 games this season, and it’s worth considering whether he’s the best free agent in Seattle sports history.

Here are the candidates (note that we did not consider baseball players signed under international rules like Felix Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki or Edgar Martinez):

Mariners OF/DH Nelson Cruz

Signed in 2015 | 4 years, $57 million

The Mariners might have goofed on not acquiring him in 2014. He went to Baltimore for $8 million and hit 40 homers there. When he signed with the Mariners last year, most fans would have been happy if he hit 30 home runs while playing 81 home games in a park considered to generate allergic reactions among right-handed hitters. Well, not only did he hit 44 homers in his first year as a Mariner, but he’s clobbered 15 already this season. Throw in the fact that he’s become a clubhouse cornerstone and this late-blooming hitter has pretty much paid for himself.

Mariners 2B Bret Boone

Signed in 2001 | 1 year, $3.25 million

Statistically speaking, no free-agent signee by a Seattle team has ever produced like Boone. Coming off an injury with Atlanta in 2000, Boone opted for a one-year audition deal in Seattle and arrived looking like Tarzan. In 2001, he hit .331 with 37 home runs and drove in 141 runs. He did that as a second baseman. In Safeco Field. He also did it in an era we now know was now packed with additives and preservatives among the hitters, and while Boone has always maintained he took nothing illicit to fuel that production, the suspicions will undoubtedly linger. He re-signed with the Mariners the next offseason and hit more than 20 home runs in each of the next three seasons.

Seahawks DL Michael Bennett

Signed in 2013 | 1 year, $5 million

He shouldn’t have been acquired a free agent. After all, he made the Seahawks as an undrafted rookie in 2009 only to be waived three games into the regular season because Seattle needed a left tackle. Well, he was re-signed to a one-year contract in 2013 and quickly became a versatile, high-energy impact player. He had 8.5 sacks in that first year in Seattle only to get re-signed to a four-year deal. In three seasons, he has 25.5 sacks for the Seahawks and last season was chosen to the Pro Bowl for the first time.

Sonics G Gus Williams

Signed in 1977 | 3 years, $510,000

Williams once sat out an entire season in a contract spat, which tends to obscured just how remarkable a bargain he was when he came to Seattle. Signed after playing two years in Golden State, Williams joined the Sonics on a three-year deal that averaged $170,000. All he did was average 18.3 points during his first year in Seattle, when the Sonics corrected an early-season nose dive and made it all the way to the NBA Finals. He led the team with 19.2 points per game in 1978-79, a season in which the Sonics won the league championship. In other words: Gus Williams was the exact opposite of Jim McIlvaine.

Honorable mention: Mariners 1B John Olerud, Seahawks DE Cliff Avril, Seahawks WR Joe Jurevicius, Mariners 2B Robinson Cano.

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Mariners’ Nelson Cruz, Seahawks’ Michael Bennett among best free agents in Seattle sports history