When Yu Darvish’s intentions became known Saturday, many observers — including this one — declared the Cubs legitimate World Series contenders.
Free agency tends to bring out the bold in everybody. The right free agent can put a team over the top. The wrong one can become a symbol of failure. In today’s sports landscape, no middle ground likely exists for Darvish, who will report to spring training as one of the most ballyhooed free agents in Chicago sports history.
How does Darvish rank with the city’s 25 most notable free agent signings of the 21st century? Glad you asked.
1. Marian Hossa: Former general manager Dale Tallon celebrated signing Hossa to a 12-year, $62.8 million contract in July 2009 as the Blackhawks getting “one of the best players in the game.’’ The Hawks added Hossa for his two-way production but also for professionalism that would serve as an example for a young core that had yet to win anything. Almost nine years later, nobody would argue with Tallon’s assessment. Hossa will go down as one of the franchise’s most dependable players during its golden age, winning three Stanley Cups and inestimable respect. People get caught up in the contract length, but Hossa’s value can be seen in how much the inconsistent Hawks miss him after he was forced into retirement by a skin condition.
2. Jon Lester: The Cubs lured Lester to Chicago with a six-year, $155 million contract in December 2014 with hopes he would legitimize the pitching staff. Mission accomplished. Lester struggled to an 11-12 record in 2015, but he will go down as the most significant signing of Theo Epstein’s tenure. It announced the Cubs were for real, presaging their success. Lester went 19-5 in 2016 as the Cubs won the World Series, making the size of his contract irrelevant.
3. A.J. Pierzynski: The one-year, $2.25 million contract the catcher signed before the 2005 World Series season goes down as one of White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s shrewdest investments.
4. Thomas Jones: A leader on the Bears’ 2006 NFC championship team, Jones earned every penny of the four-year, $10 million deal he signed in March 2004. Few players from that era merited more respect.
5. Jermaine Dye: The 2005 World Series MVP made more history than money with the Sox, making his two-year, $10.5 million deal in December 2004 one of the biggest bargains in Chicago sports.
6. Julius Peppers: The Bears were desperate to improve their defense in March 2010, so former coach Lovie Smith showed up at Peppers’ house in the first hour of free agency. When it worked and the future Hall of Fame pass rusher signed a six-year, $91 million contract, the Bears believed they were as good as any team in the NFC. Peppers made an immediate impact as a first-team All-Pro, helping the Bears return to the playoffs that 2010 season, which ended in the NFC championship game for reasons that had little to do with the defense.
7. Yu Darvish: If he helps the Cubs win another World Series, he will move up.
8. Artemi Panarin: In two seasons with the Hawks, the Russian forward won the Calder Trophy and scored 151 points playing alongside Patrick Kane before he was traded for Brandon Saad last summer. Miss him yet?
9. Jose Abreu: When the Sox announced they had signed the Cuban first baseman to a six-year, $68 million contract in October 2013, mystery prevailed. In four seasons, Abreu has established himself as a clubhouse leader and offensive threat the Sox value on and off the field in the organizational rebuild.
10. Moises Alou: You have to give Alou a hand for the way he backed up what was a big-money deal at the time — a three-year, $27 million contract before the 2002 season. In three seasons with the Cubs, the outfielder hit 76 home runs and drove in 258 runs.
11. Nate Robinson and Rajon Rondo: Two Bulls point guards share this spot. Playing for the veteran’s minimum in 2012-13, Robinson saved the season without Derrick Rose, averaging 13.1 points and leading the Bulls to a playoff series victory over the Nets. When the Bulls signed the moody Rondo in the summer of 2016, nobody thought he would evolve into the difference between winning and losing a first-round playoff series, yet Rondo’s injury against the Celtics, more than anything, shortened the playoff run.
12. Jason Heyward: The eight-year, $184 million contract seems like an exorbitant speaking fee, but Cubs fans forever will consider Heyward’s Game 7 rain-delay speech priceless. Now, it would be nice for everyone if the Gold Glove outfielder rediscovered his hitting stroke.
13. Bastian Schweinsteiger: The Fire made international headlines last winter by signing the German midfielder to a $4.5 million contract and never regretted it during a season in which Schweinsteiger became an MLS All-Star and local draw.
14. Alfonso Soriano: Based on numbers, Soriano never lived up to the eight-year, $136 million contract the Cubs overpaid for him in 2007 during the previous ownership’s period of win-now impulsiveness. But Soriano made a lasting impression with teammates with his professionalism, the tool most overlooked on a guy who, in his prime, could do it all.
15. Muhsin Muhammad: Before Muhammad dubbed Chicago the place “where wide receivers go to die,” he injected life into the Bears offense when he signed a $30 million free-agent deal in February 2005 that made a passing game more credible.
16. Adam Dunn: Getting Dunn to agree to a four-year, $56 million deal in December 2010 was the Sox’s way of making a statement about the 2011 season. Dunn had hit at least 38 home runs every season since 2004 and driven in 100 or more runs in all but one of those years. About 10 months later, in what turned out to be manager Ozzie Guillen’s tumultuous final season, the Sox had underachieved with a 79-83 record. Dunn’s summer-long slump resulted in 11 home runs, 42 RBIs and a .159 batting average. He bounced back by making the All-Star team in 2012, but overall his time on the South Side was forgettable.
17. Ben Wallace: Bulls executive John Paxson supplied the fireworks July 4, 2006, with the surprise signing of Wallace for $60 million over four years, a major move many thought would catapult a promising young team into the Eastern Conference finals. But Wallace proved to be a dud, looking even older than 31 and averaging 5.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in two disappointing seasons with the Bulls.
18. Edwin Jackson. Epstein hasn’t made many mistakes since taking over in 2011, but Jackson is among his biggest. Signed to a four-year, $52 million deal in January 2013, the right-hander became a model of inconsistency and an albatross for the Cubs regime who went 14-33 in 2013-14.
19. Richard Hamilton: When the Bulls signed the veteran shooting guard before the compressed 2011-12 season, they had the reigning MVP in Derrick Rose and a 62-win team coming off an Eastern Conference finals appearance. Signing Hamilton to a modest three-year, $15 million deal convinced many that coach Tom Thibodeau’s team could compete with the Heat. But at 33, Hamilton too often looked his age in two injury-plagued seasons for the Bulls, and Rose tearing his ACL in April 2012 deprived everyone of seeing the tandem play together. It was Hamilton’s last NBA stop.
20. LaTroy Hawkins: Hopes were high when the Cubs welcomed the closer from Gary back near his hometown with a three-year, $11 million contract after the division-winning 2003 season. But Hawkins left his best stuff in Minnesota, failing miserably as he blew 13 save chances in 98 appearances — including two in the final week of the 2004 Cubbie collapse — before being traded May 28, 2005.
21. Nikolai Khabibulin: The Hawks made Khabibulin the NHL’s highest-paid goalie in 2005 with a four-year, $27 million deal, but the “Bulin Wall” showed some cracks in Chicago. In his first season wearing an Indian head sweater, Khabibulin posted his highest goals-against average (3.35) since his rookie year.
22. Mike Glennon: The Bears guaranteed $18 million last offseason to Glennon, who promised 2017 was his year. It wasn’t, and the bridge quarterback for Mitch Trubisky collapsed under the weight of expectations after four games.
23. Dwyane Wade: In an expensive homecoming, the Bulls brought Wade back for one tumultuous season last year and bought him out when they went young — costing them roughly $41 million for Wade’s 60 games as a Bull.
24. Kordell Stewart: With the Bears, the player nicknamed “Slash” for his versatility was a bust/mistake/disappointment. The two-year, $5 million contract Stewart signed in March 2003 marked the beginning of the end for coach Dick Jauron.
25. Milton Bradley: Former general manager Jim Hendry made many good decisions running the Cubs, but signing the temperamental outfielder to a three-year, $30 million contract in January 2009 was among the worst. Bradley lasted only one combustible, controversial season in Chicago — but it seemed longer.