We all enjoy it when our favorite team dispenses with the subtle tactics and simply signs a highly sought-after free agent. It becomes even more memorable when the player not only delivers with great individual performances, but plays a big role in turning the team into a championship-winning one. As a Yankee fan, it’s more than likely that either Reggie Jackson or CC Sabathia came to mind immediately (probably depending upon your age) when reading that last sentence.
Yet sometimes free agents are signed that aren’t metaphorical big splashes, and instead come with modest expectations. When those types of players become key contributors to World Series-winning teams, it doesn’t generate as much attention (and as time passes, folklore) as the big stars in their primes, but it certainly can be as gratifying. To that end, let’s look at three Yankees free agent signings that came with more tempered expectations, but ended up being valuable additions to title-winning teams.
Pitching for Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, Don Gullett was one of the best pitchers in the National League in the early and mid-70s. Despite battling numerous injuries throughout his young career, over 1974-1975 Gullett averaged 28 starts with a 127 ERA+ and finished in the top seven in the NL Cy Young voting both seasons. After chronic shoulder and neck pain limited him to only 126 innings in 1976, the Yankees rolled the dice on him and signed him as a free agent. This wasn’t as big of a move as the Yankees signing Catfish Hunter two years prior, and it wasn’t nearly as newsworthy as Jackson joining Gullett in the Bronx that offseason, but the signing of Gullett would turn out to be a crucial one.
With Catfish less than 100 percent healthy himself in 1977, Gullett - despite still being riddled with shoulder and neck pain - stepped up to make 22 starts, including seven complete games. By season’s end, he had posted the second-best FIP on the Yankees’ staff while tying for the second-best ERA+ (trailing only ace Ron Guidry in both categories.) The Yankees won an AL East in which the top three teams finished within two games of each other in the loss column, so Gullett’s contributions turned out to be vital.
After a poor start in the ALDS, Gullett was in so much pain, Yankees’ manager Billy Martin said it was unlikely Gullett would pitch again. Yet Gullett not only returned to start Game 1 of the World Series, but threw 8.1 innings of two-run ball (seven scoreless at one point) and turned the game over with a one-run lead to AL Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle. Although Lyle uncharacteristically allowed an inherited runner to score, the Yankees went on to win both Game 1 and the Series.
Gullett’s career came to an end in 1978, when it was revealed he had a double tear of the rotator cuff. Yet, what may have become of a promising career shouldn’t overshadow his key contributions to the 1977 Championship Yankees team.
Speaking of promising careers, prime Dwight Gooden was one of the most electrifying players of his generation, but struggles with largely self-imposed health and disciplinary issues derailed what appeared to be a certain Hall of Fame career. By February of 1996, the then 31-year-old Gooden hadn’t been on a big-league mound in just short of two calendar years, so his signing with the Yankees flew under the radar (in part due to so many other high profile changes in the organization that winter.)
After Gooden surrendered 17 earned runs in his first 14.1 innings, the mid-1980s version of Doc didn’t quite show up, but a pretty darn good pitcher did. From April 27 through August 23 of 1996, Gooden made 21 starts, averaging almost seven innings per start while posting a 3.51 ERA over that span - pretty good when the league average ERA stood at 4.99.
Gooden’s performance over that stretch was especially significant, as that timeline almost exactly coincided with David Cone’s absence, who was out of action recovering from an aneurysm in his shoulder. By season’s end, Gooden finished third on the team in innings pitched, allowed less than a hit per nine innings, and produced 2.6 WAR for a team that won its division by only four games.
Of course, we have to mention not only did he throw a no-hitter on May 14 of that year, but he did it against a lineup that featured Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Edgar Martinez, and that averaged 6.17 runs per game that season. Not only was Doc a key contributor on a World Series-winning team, he still had a few more electrifying moments to share with us.
In December of 1997, Chili Davis, who would be 38-years-old by Opening Day of 1998, signed a two-year free-agent contract with the Yankees to be a part-time DH and to provide a veteran, switch-hitting bat off the bench. Not many things went wrong for the Yankees in 1998, but Chili tearing an ankle tendon while sliding into second base in early April was one of them.
When Davis did return in August, he certainly didn’t hit like a 38-year-old who just missed four months, posting a 116 OPS+ down the stretch in 118 PA. Then, in a postseason that had many memorable moments for the team, Davis was a strong contributor posting a .364 OBP with a home run and seven RBI in 33 PA during the 1998 postseason. Similar to Gooden, Davis's performance was even more important as he was filling in for Daryl Strawberry, who had a monster 1998 season but missed the postseason due to a battle with colon cancer.
Then, in 1999 with Strawberry still out for most of the season, Davis was the Yankees’ primary DH, playing in 146 games for another championship team. His .366/.445 OBP/SLG with 19 home runs and 78 RBI didn’t stand out on a team with so many powerhouse bats, but it was a solid season from a 39-year-old who wasn’t signed to be an everyday player.
Of course, in today’s news cycle, we’re all hoping to see one of the big-name free agents join the Yankees, and in doing so, to become a part of Yankees’ lore like Reggie, CC, and a few others before them. Let’s not let that fully distract us from smaller signings that may not end up with as much attention as the star signings, might surprise us, and give a good push in that championship direction again.