The Five Best Free Agent Pitchers Ever Signed by the Yankees

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The Yankees have steamrolled to an 8-1 start, and Gerrit Cole has fit in the deck as the ace quite quickly. The man who commanded $324 million from the Bombers' bottomless pockets has dashed out to a 3-0 start and has done so admittedly sans his best stuff. Still, he's on a 19-0 run dating back to last year's regular season, and we see no reason why Cole can't finally bag a Cy Young this year.

In honor of Cole, we list five of the most vital free agent starting pitchers in the Yankees' fertile history. 

5. Mike Mussina, 2001Maybe the greatest Yankees pitcher never to win a World Series, Mussina spent eight bejeweled seasons in the Bronx, starting in 2001, right after the club had won four titles in five years. Still, the Yanks reached the '01 and '03 Fall Classics and were upset both times. Known for his low-key regularity on and off the mound, Mussina was so good he won 20 games in his final season in pinstripes, going 20-9 with a 3.37 ERA at age 39. He finished his Big Apple career with a 123-72 record and impressive 3.88 ERA. It was good enough to stamp a ticket to the Hall of Fame, where Mike Mussina will live forever as a legend. And the fact that the Bombers didn't bag a World Series certainly was not his fault.  

4. David Cone, 1996It's a bit slippery here because Cone originally migrated to the Bronx via trade in July 1995. But the former Met and Cy Young winner dashed into free agency a few months later and the Yankees pounced, signing the righty to a three-year, $19.5 million deal. Cone earned all that money in one year, 1998, winning 20 games for the first time in a decade and placing fourth in the AL Cy Young vote, right behind teammate David Wells. Cone ended his Yankees career with a sublime 64-40 record and 3.91 ERA, and his winning percentage with the Yanks (.615) was almost exactly the same as it was with the Mets (.614).

The five-time All-Star also won five World Series (four in NYC), and was one of the first real mercenaries, both clutch and rich, which explains how someone with his talent wore five uniforms in 17 MLB seasons. Though he pitched in Queens more than anywhere else, Cone has made his broadcast bones in the TV booth at Yankee Stadium, opining on pitching with Paul O'Neal and pals. Some recall him as a Met, or a Royal, or a Blue Jay. But David Cone won four World Series as a Yankee, and is forever adored for hurling a perfect game at Yankee Stadium...on Yogi Berra Day. 

3. David Wells, 1998 Baseball became our pastime on a cadre of characters. It's hard to believe now, with today's game featuring marble-hard athletes who haven't consumed a carb in 20 years, but David Wells, like many before him, was rotund yet ready to go. With a rubber left arm and a body like Mr. Potato Head, Wells thrilled us with his pitching acumen, tossed a perfect game in pinstripes, and not only respected the Yankees' sprawling history, but also embraced it.  Wells so adored the Bombers' legacy he bought a hat worn by Babe Ruth, and wore it during a game until an umpire ordered him to take it off. 

The slick throwing southpaw - who lived harder off the mound than he threw on it – made his way to the Bronx in 1997 and fit in with the team much more easily than he fit into his uniform. Wells won 16 games in '97 then had his best season in '98, going 18-4 with a slim 3.49 ERA, finishing third in the Cy Young voting. Ever the character, Wells conceded he was "hung over" when he hurled the perfect game in '98. Wells had two memorable stints with the Bombers, combining for an astonishing 68-28 mark, and perhaps the best arm on the '98 staff that rolled to 114 wins and then the World Series title. 

2. Orlando Hernandez, 1998Does anyone even know who he is? We only recall El Duque - as clutch as any pitcher during the Joe Torre dynasty. The Cuban sensation was already 32 years old during his rookie season. He was mature between the ears with a dynamic delivery and pitching persona that made him a star his first few months in America. El Duque went 12-4 in his maiden MLB season, and was an essential member of the uncanny 1998 Yankees. 

El Duque ended his Yankees career with a muscular 61-40 record and 3.96 ERA, winning three World Series along the way. He left after the 2004 season, when he headed to Chicago to become an essential member of the first White Sox club to win their first Fall Classic since they were the Black Sox, in 1919. El Duque, like Catfish and a number of pitchers the Yanks poached, has to be measured by more than numbers. There's no algorithm for the clutch gene, for predicting who will bask in Broadway's glow or burn in its glare. El Duque knew he was the former the first time he pitched in pinstripes. 

1. Catfish Hunter, 1975The Yanks were toiling in a decade-long baseball dungeon when The Boss caught himself a Catfish. After bagging 14 pennants between 1949 and 1964, the Yankees won none between '65 and '75, but George Steinbrenner bought the club in 1973, and as soon as he had the chance to toss out his line for a free agent, he landed Catfish Hunter. On Jan. 1, 1975, Murray Chass of The New York Times wrote a piece about Hunter's huge five-year, $3.75 million deal, a sum many of today’s players make per month.  

Fresh off three World Series titles with the Athletics, Hunter moved to the Bronx in '75 and won 23 games, finished second in the AL Cy Young vote, and showed his teammates how winners inspire and endure. He won 17 games in '76 as the Yanks won their first pennant since 1964, and stuck around until 1979 – grabbing two more titles with the Bronx Zoo Bombers and finishing his Yankees career with 63 wins and a 3.58 ERA. Hunter wasn't an immortal Yankee in the orbit of Mantle and DiMaggio and all the deities, and doesn't have a Liberace set of World Series rings, but he, more than any pitcher of the time, turned the Yankees’ tanker around. Catfish Hunter is the most important free agent pitcher the Yankees ever signed, if not the most important free agent, at any position, the Yankees ever signed.

Just don't tell Reggie Jackson.

Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel 

 

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