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What would the baseball stars of the past have made in 2015?

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It's time again to look at baseball players from the past and count the money they would make in the present.

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Back in 1980, Nolan Ryan caused a ruckus when he became the first player paid more than $1 million annually. That's a lot of clams for us regular folk, even by today's standards, but it was OK. He was a five-time All-Star, a machine who could throw 100 mph and make 30-40 starts every year. He had won 167 games to that point, striking out 2,909 with a 3.16 ERA. If any pitcher was going to break the seven-figure barrier, it might as well be Ryan.

In 2014, Brett Anderson signed a one-year deal for $10 million. He's never thrown more than 200 innings, and he hasn't thrown more than 100 since 2010. He has the same career ERA+ that Ryan did when he signed that million-dollar contract, but he's still something of a gamble. And yet, there was no ruckus. Up there, when the All-Star and future Hall of Famer signed? A long, sustained ruckus. A left-hander who has been solid when healthy, which hasn't been often, on a $10 million flier? No ruckus.

It's not just inflation, either. When adjusting for inflation, Ryan's deal was worth about $3.6 million per season. When adjusting for inflation, Anderson's deal is worth about $10 million for next season. This brings us to our thesis.


Indeed. But they make a lot more money now than they used to, even compared to post-Messersmith players who were allowed to test the market. What would buy you three years of an ace in Ryan's time will buy you a solid pitcher with a checkered injury history today.

So how much money would players from the past have made today? We asked this last year, and there are so many interesting hypothetical cases, it makes sense to revisit it every offseason. Here, then, are what some players of yesteryear might have made today if they became free agents after their first six years of service time in the majors.

Don Drysdale

When would he have been a free agent?
After the 1962 season, when he was 25 and coming off a Cy Young season.

What kind of season did he just finish?
An excellent one. His 128 ERA+ and 2.83 ERA, while excellent, aren't exactly the stuff that unanimous Cy Youngs are made of, but Drysdale also led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts. He was a three-time All-Star, and he was almost as young as the typical prospect.

Max Scherzer signed for seven years and $170 million (in net present value), and he's been a good statistical comp for Drysdale over the last two seasons, but he's also four years older than Drysdale would have been. So you need to look for a younger pitcher.

Clayton Kershaw was even more impressive than Drysdale to begin his career, which is why he received a seven year, $215 million deal, but he never reached the open market. He didn't get a chance to find out that Jed Hoyer has a Clayton Kershaw Fathead in his office, and that they wouldn't be underbid. If Kershaw were on the open market this offseason, for example, do you think he would get only seven years? So he's also an imperfect comparison.

Contract today?
Nine years, $240 million. If the Nationals could have added Scherzer's previous four years to their cart for an extra $70 million, they would have. You don't see a lot of pitchers get more than seven years, but you don't see a lot of 25-year-olds entering free agency after winning a Cy Young.

Would it have been worth it?
It would have been a touch underwhelming, but it wouldn't have been anything like a Zito-esque flop. Drysdale pitched for seven more years, eventually succumbing to injuries after his age-32 season. He averaged four wins above replacement in those seven seasons, or three WAR per season if you include the phantom eighth and ninth seasons. Drysdale is known for having a truncated career compared to other Hall of Famers, but he was productive for longer than you might think. Even if you lop off the first six years of his career, he still had six more that any team would have been thrilled to have.

In a way, this is how every team expects a gigantic free agent deal to turn out: Some scintillating seasons, a couple of All-Star appearances, and a slow or sudden decline at the end that doesn't matter as much when you think about the value at the front of the deal. The trick is to sign the stars when they're 25, everyone. We've solved baseball!


Donie Bush

When would he have been a free agent?
After his age-26 season in 1914.

What kind of season did he just finish?
A typical Donie Bush season. He led the league in walks and at-bats, reportedly played a great defensive shortstop, and he had a low average, high OBP, and absolutely no power. It was good enough to finish third in the MVP voting.

Wait, who is this guy?
We're getting to that.

This is where, in the past, a co-worker like Rob Neyer or Steven Goldman would have interjected. "Oh, Donie Bush is the guy who had his ear bitten off in a bar fight by the guy who invented the sousaphone," because every baseball player from before 1920 had their ear bitten off in a bar fight. Here, though, I'm on my own. All I know is that Bush was a dead-ball shortstop. He might be the most dead-ball shortstop, a true marvel of singles, glove work, and general derring-do. When the Angels decided to create David Eckstein, they started with Bush's DNA.

Over at Baseball-Reference's Bullpen, this is how Bush is described:

He was consistently among the league leaders in all fielding categories, showing tremendous range. Still, he was underappreciated because, for all his times on base and runs scored, his best weapon was drawing walks, a skill that was not held in high regard, and his forte was scoring and not driving in runs.

That's why I picked him. C'mon, little buddy. Let me show you the future, where people give a damn about walks and defense. Let me show you the path to millions.

Take an Altuve-sized grain of salt and note that defensive records from that era are spotty, at best. Still, before he would have been a theoretical free agent, he was worth between four and five wins for each season except one. He would have caused something of a bidding war, especially with the dearth of shortstops on the open market.

Contract today?
Six years, $103 million. We're talking no power, remember, so he wouldn't have gotten Choo or Ellsbury money. He would have come up short of Andrus money, too, because that was probably factoring in a peak that hasn't shown up yet, whereas Bush wasn't projectable in the slightest. What you saw was what you were going to get. Slap slap slap, pick pick pick, slap slap slap.

Would it have been worth it
Sadly, no. Bush had a memorable baseball career -- he managed the Pirates team that lost to the '27 Yankees in the World Series, managed six other major league teams, owned a couple of minor league teams and was the president of the Cleveland Indians for more than 25 years. But he peaked in 1914 on both sides of the ball. He had two more four-win seasons, but averaged just a single WAR over his remaining 10 seasons, and 1.7 WAR over the life of this hypothetical contract.


Andruw Jones

When would he have been a free agent?
In 2002, after his age-25 season.

What kind of season did he just finish?
Another Gold Glove year, with 35 homers and plenty of walks. Using the newfangled WAR, he was worth about seven wins -- the fourth time in his career he had done that. (Again, he was 25.)

Ah, this is a special all-defense edition of What Would They Have Made?, apparently. Except Jones was more than a perennial Gold Glover and perhaps the best defensive center fielder since Willie Mays. He could sock some dingers, too. There were a couple of years there where he even hit for average. Can you imagine?

Jones just missed the right era for his talents. It's not like he got paid in dried noodles and scrip, like Donie Bush up there, so don't weep too hard, but if Jones was a young star back then, the defensive stats of today would have made him a mega-star. Here's what Ken Rosenthal wrote about him for the Sporting News in 2001:

Manager Bobby Cox estimates that Andruw Jones saves the Braves 100 runs a season, claiming that his center fielder has "RBIs in his glove." The exact number of Jones' RBIs is well-chronicled. His most obscure offensive statistics are reported widely. But good luck finding an accurate gauge of his defensive value.

And here's Scott Boras, ahead of the danged curve, as usual:

"I'm in arbitration with all these catchers and all these center fielders," Boras says. "Why? Because clubs believe we can't establish defensive value."

When he was 24, Jones had his worst season as a regular. The Braves, not being dummies, used the opportunity to swoop in with a generous contract extension, six years and $75 million, so we never got to see the bidding war that would have transpired.

It would have been bloody. Many Bothans would have died to get Jones on their team.

Contract today?
It helps to use the Baseball-Reference toy that gives us an idea of how Jones's stats would translate to today's hitting environment. The 30-homer seasons are still there, but the OBPs start to shrink to the .330 range. He's not a magic hitter, even if his numbers look more impressive through the lens of 2015.

But that defense, man. That defense. It's hard to explain, especially considering that we haven't seen it for over a decade. There aren't a lot of Andruw Jones videos showing his defensive greatest hits, and even if they were, it would be hard to appreciate them. They would show a player gliding back and going to where the ball was. You would need a Mario Kart ghost of another center fielder, diving helplessly for the ball, to appreciate Jones fully.

Andrelton Simmons got $58 million before he had two years of service time, and he's not exactly a threat to hit 30 dingers. He wasn't even close to the open market.

So double that, then. Triple that? No, Robinson Cano got $240 million, and while he's on a Hall of Fame track, he was 30. This would have been a chance to get a star in his prime, someone the same age as George Springer is now. There would have been a chance for Jones to set records and possibly require his new team to take his name. The Los Angeles Andruws. Everything acquired in The Louisiana Purchase would have been transferred to Curacao. This contract, man ...

Ten years, $300 million. It comes close to the Giancarlo Stanton contract, with a slight deduction for the low batting averages. He would have been introduced at a huge press conference, with a thrilled, beaming owner and general manager.

Would it have been worth it?
Yeah. Not so much, it turns out. Not so much.

It's better than you might think, though. Jones was an absolute star for four more years. He hit .266/.348/.527 with 157 homers -- including a 51-homer season -- and the defense was still outstanding. He averaged five wins over those seasons.

And then ... poof. He lost his defense in a poker match, and his contact went from sketchy to abysmal. The last time we saw him, he was a platooning DH, he was Jake LaMotta performing poetry and jokes. He was a first baseman in Japan, hitting .232 with copious dingers and strikeouts.

He wants to come back, you know. I implore teams to make this happen, just to give him a one-percent chance of helping his Hall of Fame case instead of hurt it. There's one thing going in his favor: He won't be remembered for one of the worst contracts in baseball history.


Randy Johnson

When would he have been a free agent?
After 1994, when he was 30. He got a slow start to his career, remember.

What kind of season did he just finish?
An excellent one, finishing third in the Cy Young voting in a strike-shortened season. He lead the league in strikeouts, complete games, and shutouts.

Ah, but he wasn't Randy Johnson yet. He kind of was, but he was still a confusing anomaly. He was still a threat to walk 100 batters every season, and 1994 was just the second time he walked fewer than four batters per nine innings (just barely).

And what about the body type? He was all elbows and humerus bone, Chris Sale in a funhouse mirror. There wasn't any evidence that he was going to break down, but just look at the guy. He was already 30, you know.

He was striking out 300 batters, though. That would have intrigued the teams of today, enough to ignore the Jonathan Sanchez-like seasons that came before 1993. He had a history of health, a penchant for missing bats and a newfound ability to prevent runs. He would have been amply compensated.

Contract today?
But would he have been in the Max Scherzer tier? Probably not. Certainly not if he were a free agent after the '93 season, when he had his first great year, but there was only a strike-shortened stack of evidence that Johnson was really a changed pitcher after that. Considering his age and hard-to-compare physical profile, I'll guess that he would have got the annual value, but not the years.

Six years, $152 million, then. Something closer to Jon Lester, with the new team making cartoonish GULP sounds every time they thought about the contract. Johnson was such an unknown.

Would it have been worth it?
Like few contracts in history. You know there were people in 2009 who were hemming and hawing over Apple at $20 a share. With a big enough transaction, it would have been a lot of money to lose. Now those people are absolutely appalled that they didn't buy more. So it would have been with Johnson, who would have two of his greatest years after the risky hypothetical contract. After his six-year deal, he probably would have gotten another one, possibly with even crazier money. That's how good he was.


Curt Flood

When would he have been a free agent?
1963, after his age-25 season.

What kind of season did he just finish?
A very good one, hitting .302/.345/.403 with sterling defense in center (and a Gold Glove).

We're inundated with millions this and millions that for five miserable, cold months, and the numbers turn into abstractions. These millions are fake dollars that baseball fans play with when they want to put a house on Yawkey Way or a hotel on West Addison Street. In this analogy, I guess minor league free agents come from the Community Chest? Still working that out. But they're real dollars we're talking about. Real wealth. And it would still be going to the owners without Flood's help, so it's only fair to include him in the green pastures of what-if.

Flood had a more typical start to his career than someone like Jones. He got regular time when he was 20, and hit like someone who probably would have been in Class-A today. When he was 21, he hit like someone who probably would have been in Double-A. He had his breakout season in 1961 when he was 23, and he was a perennial Gold Glover after that.

Like Jones, he would have been even more appreciated now. The difference isn't quite as extreme, though, considering he was still hitting for average, which was more appreciated back then. Here's what he was: a superlative defender, excellent baserunner and high-average hitter. Denard Span with a higher batting average and even better glove? Carlos Gomez without the power? Lorenzo Cain, but quicker to develop? I'm not sure there's a perfect present-day comp for Flood, but he was an electric player who would have been very much in demand.

Contract today?
Six years, $90 million. B.J. Upton got five years after his age-27 season, so we'll give Flood another year because of his age. It's possible that a team would go seven or eight years, counting on a slow decline in the early 30s, but the offensive profile wasn't that dynamic, probably not enough to get a nine-figure deal.

Would it have been worth it?
Every penny, and then some. He hit .301/.346/.384 over his next six seasons, good for a 106 OPS+. His defense remained valuable, and he picked up six consecutive Gold Gloves, finishing with MVP votes in five consecutive years. He was worth about four wins, on average, for those seasons, and he missed more than two weeks in just one of his remaining seasons. Then he sat out for year, challenging the reserve clause and suing Major League Baseball. He lost the case and his career. He returned to play for the Senators and manager Ted Williams, but he retired after just 13 games, suffering from serious alcohol problems.

In our scenario, he makes millions, plays well, then comes back to make more millions.

In real life, his photography business went bankrupt and the IRS almost took his mother's apartment building. He hopped around the Mediterranean, broke, sick and occasionally homeless before returning to the U.S. and eventually getting sober shortly before his death in 1997.

I like our scenario better.

Flood deserved better, and we get to play our silly what-ifs and pretend GM in the hot stove league because of him. Heck, six years, $120 million. Just because.