By Andrew Simon
Thus far, Max Scherzer's record-breaking free-agent contract hardly could be going any better.
OK, so Scherzer still is in the first half of the first season of a seven-year, $210 million deal. The Nationals can't claim they got their money's worth just yet.
But Scherzer's recent hot streak, including a no-hitter, has left him with a 1.79 ERA, 2.03 FIP and 9.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio through his first 15 starts in a Washington uniform. He leads all pitchers in wins above replacement (WAR), already clearing the 4.0 mark, whether you go by Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs, and according to the latter's ZiPS projections, he is on track to finish the season at about 7.7.
Setting aside the question of Scherzer's long-term success, where could the first season of his new deal rank, going back to the birth of free agency in 1976? Quite favorably, it seems. Here are the top 10 debut seasons by free agents, including only those who signed with a new team. To compile this list, an average of the two WAR metrics was used as a rough guide.
1. Roger Clemens, SP, 1997 Blue Jays: This isn't just the top season on this list, but also one of the best by any pitcher in baseball history. Clemens was 34 when he left Boston for Toronto, but immediately gave his new club the most impressive performance of his 24-year career. For the first of two consecutive years north of the border, he captured the American League Cy Young Award, as well as pitching's Triple Crown (21 wins, 2.05 ERA, 292 strikeouts). Clemens dominated, racking up 264 innings, nine complete games (three shutouts) and a .213 opponents' batting average. Avg. WAR: 11.35
2. Barry Bonds, LF, 1993 Giants: Bonds took National League MVP honors in two of his last three seasons in Pittsburgh but raised his game even higher after San Francisco made him baseball's highest-paid player with a six-year, $43.75 million deal. In 1993, Bonds was a batting title short of a Triple Crown despite hitting .336. He led the league in OBP (.458) and slugging (.677) along with homers (46) and RBIs (123). His OPS+ of 206, more than twice league average, was a career-high for his pre-2001 days, and Bonds was MVP again. Avg. WAR: 10.2
3. Randy Johnson, SP, 1999 D-backs: Arizona hit the jackpot in December 1998 by landing Johnson on a four-year contract with a fifth-year option. In '99, the Big Unit captured the first of four consecutive NL Cy Young Awards and four consecutive strikeout titles (364) while also leading the league in ERA (2.48), FIP (2.76), innings (271 2/3) and complete games (12). In only their second year of existence, the D-backs jumped from 65 to 100 victories and won the NL West, two seasons before Johnson helped lead them to a World Series title. Avg. WAR: 9.4
4. Bret Boone, 2B, 2001 Mariners: It might be surprising to find this name so high up on this list, but Boone produced a career season -- by far -- after inking what must be one of the best one-year contracts ($3.25 million plus incentives) in baseball history. Boone had been drafted by the Mariners and played for the club in 1992-93 before he was dealt to Cincinnati. He returned to Seattle with a career 88 OPS+, then posted a 153 in '01 by hitting .331/.372/.578 with 37 homers and a league-leading 141 RBIs. Boone also played solid defense and finished third in MVP voting for a club that went a ridiculous 116-46 (more on that later). Avg. WAR: 8.3
5. Alex Rodriguez, SS, 2001 Rangers: The Boone signing was huge for the Mariners in part because it came during the same offseason in which they lost A-Rod to a division foe. Texas handed Rodriguez a 10-year, $252 million contract, and while that money didn't buy any team success, the Rangers' new superstar held up his end of the bargain. In his first year, Rodriguez started all 162 games and put up basically the same offensive numbers that he had in Seattle in 2000. He hit .318/.399/.622 (160 OPS+) with a league-leading 52 homers to go with 135 RBIs, plus 18 steals. Avg. WAR: 8.05
6. Cliff Lee, SP, 2011 Phillies: Lee wasn't a stranger to the Phillies, who acquired him ahead of the 2009 Trade Deadline before sending him to Seattle that winter. After another trade, to Texas in July 2010, Lee returned to Philly on a five-year, $120 million deal that will expire at the end of this season when the club exercises a $12.5 million buyout. As with many long-term contracts for players in their 30s, this one isn't ending well, with an injured Lee unlikely to throw a pitch in 2015. In '11, however, the lefty was terrific, posting a 2.40 ERA, 2.60 FIP and 5.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 32 starts, helping the Phillies to 102 wins. Avg. WAR: 7.7
7. Roberto Alomar, 2B, 1999 Indians: When Alomar left Baltimore to sign with Cleveland at age 31, he already owned a tremendous track record, with nine straight All-Star selections, seven Gold Gloves and well above-average offensive production. But he got even better after joining the Tribe on a four-year deal. In '99, Alomar became one of two second basemen in history to top a 130 OPS+, 20 homers, 100 RBIs and 30 steals in a season, an achievement he matched in 2001. He won another Gold Glove, plus a Silver Slugger, and finished third in MVP voting for the AL Central champs. Avg. WAR: 7.3
8. Kevin Brown, SP, 1996 Marlins: Brown came the closest to cracking this list twice, as he also performed well in his first season after signing a seven-year, $105 million contract with the Dodgers in December 1998. However, we'll give the nod to his '96 campaign, in which he notched a 1.89 ERA and 0.944 WHIP across 233 innings. Brown became one of only six qualified pitchers in the past 80 years to record an ERA+ of at least 215 in a season. Avg. WAR: 7.3
9. Ichiro Suzuki, RF, 2001 Mariners: If any team were going to have two players on this list, it makes sense that it would be one that set an AL record for wins. Pretty much everything went right for Seattle in '01 -- until the postseason, that is -- and acquiring Ichiro, along with Boone, ranks at the top. The Major League community wasn't sure what to expect when the Mariners won the rights to negotiate with Ichiro, then signed him to a three-year, $14 million deal. But Ichiro made an immediate impression and turned out to be an enormous bargain, leading the league with 242 hits, a .350 average and 56 steals. He became only the second player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the same season and also took home a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger. Avg. WAR: 6.85
10. Greg Maddux, SP, 1993 Braves: With the Cubs in 1992, Maddux won 20 games, led the league in innings pitched (268), ERA+ (166) and FIP (2.58) and won the NL Cy Young. He then signed a five-year, $28 million deal with the Braves. In his first season in Atlanta, Maddux won 20 games, led the league in innings pitched (267), ERA+ (170) and FIP (2.85) and won the Cy Young, for the second of four straight years. That kicked off Maddux's amazing 11-year run with the Braves, who won their division in each (non-strike-shortened) season. Avg. WAR: 6.8
Honorable mentions: Adrian Beltre, 3B, 2010 Red Sox; Mike Mussina, SP, 2001 Yankees; Robin Ventura, 3B, 1999 Mets; Jason Giambi, 1B, 2002 Yankees; Lance Johnson, CF, 1996 Mets; Miguel Tejada, SS, 2004 Orioles; Carlos Pena, 1B, 2007 Devil Rays; Pedro Martinez, SP, 2005 Mets; Kirk Gibson, LF, 1988 Dodgers; Dave Henderson, CF, 1988 A's.
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Andrew Simon is a Sports on Earth contributor and a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.