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Free agent retrospective: Bernie Williams

With the Robinson Cano sweepstakes about to begin, let's look back at a bidding war for another Yankee farmhand turned superstar.

Picture "RED SOX" on that jacket and shudder.
Picture "RED SOX" on that jacket and shudder.
Andrew Burton

It's an annual tradition for other teams' fans to both fear and loathe the Yankee machine in anticipation of them throwing gobs of cash at their coveted free agents, plucking vital components to feed their desire for another World Series banner. Every once in a while, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Such is the case this year, as Robinson Cano and his advisers look to court the rest of baseball to garner a massive payday for the free agent. Another example of this relatively rare occasion was in the 1998-1999 offseason, when center fielder Bernie Williams was a highly coveted free agent that drew the attention of many organizations outside of the Bronx. Hopefully Cano's negotiations will prove a less tense and stressful affair, because on several occasions it seemed Williams was out the door.

Like Cano, Williams was an excellent offensive player at a premium defensive position. In his previous four seasons, Williams produced a .319/.402/.534 line with 94 homers. And while defensive metrics are not so kind to Williams' defensive prowess, he had won Gold Gloves in '97 and '98. So the reputation as a good center fielder was there. These factors coupled with being a member of the best teams of all time in '98 assured that Williams would be highly sought after in free agency. Also similar to Cano, the Yankees had reportedly tried to head off a bidding war by offering Williams an extension in '97 (5 years/$37.5 mil) and a 5 year/$60 million contract right at the outset of free agency. As is to be expected when your agent is Scott Boras, Williams opted to field offers from other teams.

As talks with the Yankees stalled, the Boston Red Sox swooped in and offered a 7 year/$90 million dollar deal. The Yankees, meanwhile, had shifted their attention to the always charming Albert Belle as a secondary option. Buster Olney reported that Williams was ready to sign the offer, but Boras gave the Yankees a chance to match first. The Yankees took the opportunity to up their proposal to 7 years/$87.5 million which Williams accepted, becoming the second highest paid player in baseball behind crosstown rival Mike Piazza. Whether the supposedly larger Red Sox offer was a product of incentives or some patented Boras embellishment, Williams spurned it for a return to the Bronx. It was close, but the Yankees kept their cleanup hitter out of their rivals' hands.

Williams would prove to be worth the investment as he produced a .298/.386/.480 with a 126 OPS+ and 149 home runs over the life of the deal. The Yankees were also fortunate to avoid Belle as a fallback, as he only managed 60 home runs over his five year deal with the Baltimore Orioles as he was beset by injuries and finished with MLB at age 33. The Red Sox, meanwhile, were unable to land another free agent the caliber of Williams. Considering they made the ALCS in 1999 without him it's scary to think what may have occurred had they had him in the middle of their order that season.

Thankfully, the Red Sox will not be one of the teams that throw their hat into the ring for acquiring Robinson Cano. But even without their meddling there is the potential for Cano's resigning to be as frightening an experience as Williams' was. Such is the excitement and peril of MLB free agency when you root for the New York Yankees, forever and always.

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