Free Agent: Tony Phillips, 1989, 8.0 Points
3 seasons, 3 above-average seasons, 5.0 WAR/yr
Tony Phillips had the great misfortune of playing Major League Baseball about 20 years too soon. After eight mostly average years in Oakland, the Detroit Tigers signed Phillips to a 3-year, $4-million deal and he promptly became one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball. In his first three seasons with the Tigers he hit .270/.375/.392 while playing above-average defense in 170 games at third base, 140 games at second base, 133 games in the outfield, and 25 games at shortstop. Phillips led all of baseball with 114 runs scored in 1992, but he averaged just 12 home runs and 14 stolen bases per season, so he was overshadowed by boppers like Cecil Fielder and Mickey Tettleton.
Phillips’ ability to get on base and score was certainly appreciated at the time, but it’s fun to imagine what kind of contract a player with his elite on-base skills and defensive versatility would command in today’s game. He accumulated 15.1 WAR from 1990-1992, and he was heading into his age-34 season when he re-signed with the Tigers in 1993. The closest modern comparison is probably Ben Zobrist, who accumulated 12.1 WAR from 2013-2015 and was heading into his age-35 season when the Chicago Cubs signed him to a 4-year, $56-million deal in 2016. Phillips landed a 3-year, $10.6 million deal when he re-upped with the Tigers, which was obviously good money, but adjusted for inflation it’s only about 31% as much as Zobrist received. Tony Phillips is simply one of the most underrated baseball players ever — his 50.9 career WAR is the most, by far, of any player who never made an All-Star game — and he is well deserving of the title of best Detroit Tigers free agent signing.