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What would the free agent stars of yesterday make today?

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Would Fernando Valenzuela make $300 million as a free agent today? What about Tim Raines?

Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago Cubs

We’ve known since March that this wasn’t going to be a very good free agent class. It’s still stunning to think that there was only one nine-figure contract handed out all offseason, a $110 million deal to Yoenis Cespedes that was almost something of a hometown discount. Where’s all the big money? Where are all the gargantuan contracts?

Somewhere, at this moment, a retired player is spitting on the ground in disgust, thinking about these pampered players and their stupid money. Andrew Cashner will make $10 million next year, even though he was awful last season. The price of a backup catcher is somewhere between $2 million and $3 million.

The retired player spits on the ground again. Don’t talk to them about the slow offseason and the lack of nine-figure contracts. They wish they had a chance at the riches of today.

So let’s give them that chance! Let’s figure out what the stars of yesteryear would have made if they were free agents today, just like we did here and here, which will point out both how unlucky they were to be born when they were, and how advantageous or perilous the modern contract can be for a team that chooses wisely or poorly.

What if these stars were free agents right now?

Fernando Valenzuela

When would he have been a free agent?
After the 1986 season.

What kind of season did he just finish?
He finished second in the Cy Young voting, leading the league with 21 wins and posting a 3.14 ERA. He led the National League in batters faced for the second time in three seasons, and he led all of baseball in complete games.

These were not red flags. These were the fires churning in the belly of Fernandomania. He was 25. He was a golden god of pitching. He was baseball’s best.

Total money made in his career?
$17.3 million, or about $33.5 million in today’s money.

Contract today?
Six straight All-Star Games. Four top-five Cy Young finishes, with one win. Heck, throw the two Silver Sluggers and a Gold Glove on there, just because you can. This was one of baseball’s biggest stars, and he was so very young.

Ten years, $270 million, with an opt-out after year three. So it was basically a front-loaded three-year deal, because what were the chances going to be that he was going to opt out?

Would it have been worth it?
No. Oh, man, no. Valenzuela was one of the ‘80s saddest tales, even as he was also one of the decade’s most triumphant. He was overworked, at least in retrospect. At the time, he was a horse. A reliable, indestructible horse.

Prior to six years of service time: 99 wins, 2.94 ERA, 119 ERA+, 28 WAR
Rest of his career (11 seasons): 74 wins, 4.23 ERA, 92 ERA+, 9.5 WAR

He would have been paid like an MVP, but he pitched like a sixth starter. The human body is, we must remind you, a total jerk.


Tim Raines

When would he have been a free agent?
We know that! He was a free agent after the 1986 season.

What kind of season did he just finish?
He led the league in batting average and on-base percentage, with a .334/.413/.476 line. Oh, and 70 stolen bases. He was going to be 27.

Notes
Every team in baseball pretended like they couldn’t use him. “What, Tim Raines? Eh, doesn’t really fit our plans.”

Not only that, but he had to wait until May to rejoin his original team because of silly rules. Real subtle, owners. If you’re going to collude, maybe start small and work your way up. This was like them starting a boxing career by challenging Manny Pacquiao in a bar.

Total money made in his career?
He made about $35.7 million, which is roughly equivalent to about $75 million today.

Contract today?
Keep in mind that his defense wasn’t as good as you would expect from a speedster, and there was a reason he was limited to left field. But a 27-year-old superstar with 461 career stolen bases already, coming off an MVP-caliber season? If you figure that Robinson Cano got $240 million when he was going to be 31, it’s not outlandish to go for $300 million or more.

Ten years, $325 million.

Would it have been worth it?
Not quite, but it’s closer than you might think. From his age-27 season through his age-36 season, Raines was worth about three to four wins above replacement, on average, with a 121 OPS+ and a .382 OBP. There were a couple seasons where he didn’t miss 30 games or more because of injury, but those were the exceptions, not the rule, and that dinged his overall value.

But, remember, the owners of all 30 teams said, “Eh, this guy isn’t worth $3 million to us [winkwinkwink],” and thought the MLBPA wouldn’t notice. Bulletproof strategy, guys.


Hoyt Wilhelm

When would he have been a free agent?
After the 1957 season, when he was 34.

What kind of season did he just finish?
A pretty mediocre one. The knuckleballer threw just 58 innings, with a middling 4.14 ERA (96 ERA+). The Cardinals actually put him on waivers because their catchers were sick of catching the damned knuckleball.

Wilhelm had one of the more fascinating careers in baseball, not debuting in the majors until he was 29, then pitching for 21 seasons, retiring when he was 49. He was an All-Star when he was 47, which is just about the greatest tidbit in the history of baseball tidbits. He pitched 1,103 innings in the ‘60s, with an ERA of 2.16 (160 ERA+), even though he was 37 when the decade started.

Science should create another Hoyt Wilhelm for us.

Total money made in his career?
A cool $402,000, which would be worth roughly $3.2 million today.

Contract today?
Probably a one-year deal? A two-year deal for about $10 million, maybe? He wasn’t exactly dominant the two seasons before that, either (3.88 ERA, 102 ERA+), so there wasn’t a chance of a long-term deal. He would have been for a team willing to take a rubber-armed chance at the back of the bullpen.

Would it have been worth it?
Of course. Just imagine if he signed the Tim Wakefield contract, where the team had an eternal $4 million option. He would have been one of the greatest bargains of his generation, even though he was a part of the previous generation, technically.

While his first free-agent contract would have been a steal, he would have made up for it in the decades that followed. But his age would have scared teams away from long-term deals. Remember that when your team signs Bartolo Colon to a five-year deal next winter.


Robin Yount

When would he have been a free agent?
As far as I can tell, he was on the roster from the beginning of the 1974 season, which means he would have accumulated six years of service time after the 1979 season. This distinction is kind of a big deal, as waiting an extra year might have made him an additional $100 million.

What kind of season did he just finish?
Not a great one, at least offensively. He hit .267/.308/.371, good for an 83 OPS+. The defensive stats loved him, though, as did the scouts, so even that kind of line was worth about three wins. He was a career .270/.308/.364 hitter, and he averaged about six homers a year.

Most importantly, though: He was going to be 24 the next season.

Total money made in his career?
The salary data is incomplete on Baseball-Reference, so we’ll estimate about $25 million, which is roughly $57.8 million in today’s money.

Contract today?
Yount was chosen for this exercise because of his unique situation. He was brought up when he was 18 after just 64 games in Class-A. He was raw when he arrived, and his numbers reflected that, but there was no denying his athleticism and talent.

At the same time, there were no guarantees that he would ever hit better than the league average, so he wasn’t going to be paid like a star. Consider:

Elvis Andrus, through age-23 season: .275/.342/.353, 84 OPS+
Robin Yount, through age-23 season: .270/.308/.364, 89 OPS+

There were reasons to be more optimistic about Andrus, considering the patience, which is why he got an eight year, $118 million extension before he was that close to a free agency.

This is about Yount on the open market, though. Someone would have bit. Someone would have paid him like an All-Star because he was an above-average shortstop at the same age as the typical prospect, and they would have crossed their fingers.

Eight years, $150 million. He would have been the Jason Heyward of his time, with a floor that was high enough to help a team pay for the ceiling. Uh, Heyward crossed with Elvis Andrus. And a sprinkle of Edgar Renteria while you’re at it.

Would it have been worth it?
Oh, baby. Even ignoring the value of the badass mustache — and I’m not sure why you would ignore that — Yount was instantly one of the best players in baseball for the next decade. He would have hit .303/.362/.484 over the life of that hypothetical deal (133 OPS+), which would have been swell for a first baseman. For a Gold Glove shortstop (and later center fielder), he was a monster.

The other good question is what he would have gotten with his second try at free agency after an 11th-place MVP finish in his age-32 season. Probably over $100 million again. That contract probably wouldn’t have provided quite the same value, but there was an MVP season mixed in.


Alvin Davis

When would he have been a free agent?
After 1989, when he was going to be 29.

What kind of season did he just finish?
The best one of his career, as Davis hit .305/.424/.496, with 20 homers. His defense was on the Trumbo side of things, which would have hurt. But there weren’t a lot of red flags. He was generally healthy. He was remarkably consistent. He had one of baseball’s best eyes and approaches (101 walks to just 49 strikeouts in 611 plate appearances).

What could possibly go wrong?

Total money made in his career?
$6.9 million, or about $13.3 million in today’s money.

Contract today?
Take away some money for the defense. Davis was a late bloomer, too, so he wasn’t exactly a young free agent. But while he had a little less power than the typical first base star, his exceptional eye and bat control suggested that he would age like a fine wine.

Seven years, $140 million. It’ll always cost you if you want some walks and doubles, but Davis was roughly the Joey Votto of his era. Until he wasn’t.

Would it have been worth it?
Davis had just one more good season left in him, finishing with a 129 OPS+ in 1990. He played in just 185 major league games in two seasons after that, completely losing the ability to play baseball at a high level after he turned 30.

If it was injuries that did Davis in, they must have been nagging ones, as he played 145 games in his final season with the Mariners, which was the first down season of his career. He wasn’t offered arbitration, and he signed with the Angels, who were looking for Lee Stevens insurance. Davis was released in June, finishing up his season and career with the Kintetsu Buffaloes.

I’ve looked and looked, but I can’t find a definitive reason for his decline, possibly because there wasn’t a good explanation. He just ... stopped being good. Far younger than one would expect, at that. It’s possible that the big hypothetical contract would have given him more chances, and that he would have found the cure for what ailed him.

As is, Davis had one of the oddest careers of the ‘80s, and he deserved to rob an owner.

(An aside: I very much enjoyed this quote from Whitey Herzog in the Los Angeles Times after Davis signed with the Angels:)

"I've never seen Davis play, and you worry that his stats may have been inflated by the Seattle ballpark, but I've talked to a number of managers and other baseball people and they all say he's a professional hitter, the type hitter who gets the runner in from third base."

The moral of the story? Always be born in the future. Although the players of today won’t have a lot of good ways to spend their money in 20 years, when solar radiation is peeling back their skin and dried beans are a widely accepted form of currency, so maybe we shouldn’t feel too badly for them.

Just think of all the money they could have had, though. Just think of all those clams.