Query: which free agents are we rightfully overpaying? While you ponder that, here’s Nolan Ryan’s reaction to the Cliff Lee deal:
Well, you know, every year you think you’ve seen this thing take on a life of its own and you think it’s got to top out here pretty quick, and it just keeps escalating. Obviously, the premier free agents…they’re just so few of them, they just keep going up and so what you have is a high-ish amount of people getting an unbelievable amount of money and it impacts everything else and so we’re overpaying some free agents that probably shouldn’t be getting paid what they are.
That answer, combined with some others in the interview imply that Ryan is not at all displeased that the Rangers missed out on Lee. He’d prefer to go 3-4 years with free agents. It seemed at the time that the push for Lee in Texas came from Chuck Greenberg, not Ryan and Jon Daniels. This seems to bolster that notion.
By the way, the question that elicited that quote also asked Ryan what he thought he’d command if he had been a free agent pitcher in today’s market. Ryan dodged it, but Walt Davis, a commenter over at Baseball Think Factory attacked this question over in this comment thread (comment #10), and he knocked it out of the park.
The upshot: you figure that, under today’s setup, Ryan would have first hit free agency following th 1973 season. At that point, coming off his first two 300-strikeout seasons, he would have commanded a six or seven year deal in the $20 million+ range. Based on what he did in 1974-80, however, most teams probably would have considered that an overpay. His walk rate was pretty bad, even by his standards. He had three sub-100 ERA+ seasons and a couple more average ones.
It would only be later in the 80s — and here is where Davis’ analysis really shines — that Ryan would have earned his keep. And depending on how ownership set up his age-40+ contracts (e.g. year-to-year? Roger Clemens-type incentive-laden deals?) he could have made out like a bandit.