Going into the offseason, the free agent class of 2006 certainly looked relatively weak. There was no Miguel Tejada or Vladimir Guerrero, no superstars at the peak of their productivity reaching the market at 26 or 27. The top of the market–Johnny Damon, Paul Konerko, A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan simply couldn’t measure up to the top players available in recent offseasons.

Now that everyone of any significant value has signed or rejected a lifeline, we can look back at the past winter and put this crop of free agents into context. When we do, we find that it was, indeed, the least accomplished free-agent class since the 1994-95 strike, with more money buying less accomplishment than in any other offseason in that time.

The comparison includes the ten free agents with the highest contract value in each offseason from 1995-96 through 2005-06. The unit of comparison is career WARP3 at the time the contract was signed, on both a cumulative and yearly-average basis. Although players do get paid going forward, we know that their salaries are primarily set by their work in the years leading up to free agency. This fact, actually, is one of the reasons why most free agents are disappointments for their new teams. By evaluating the players based on their careers at the time of free agency, we can better evaluate the caliber of the crop as it seemed at the time, rather than in retrospect.

Here are the top 10 free agents from this offseason, as ranked by total contract value:

Player             Tot    AVG    Tm   Yrs   $Mil
Paul Konerko      34.7   4.34   CHA     5   60.0
Kevin Millwood    39.0   4.33   TEX     5   60.0
A.J. Burnett      21.3   3.04   TOR     5   55.0
Hideki Matsui     20.7   6.90   NYA     4   52.0
Johnny Damon      61.3   5.57   NYA     4   52.0
B.J. Ryan         16.4   2.34   TOR     5   47.0
Billy Wagner      50.2   5.02   NYN     4   43.0
Rafael Furcal     35.1   5.85   LAN     3   39.0
Jarrod Washburn   34.0   4.25   SEA     4   37.5
Brian Giles       76.0   6.91   SDN     3   30.0

Brian Giles is the best player in this group by either measure. His price was held down in part by his age, but mostly because he took a “hometown discount” to stay in San Diego. Overall, this is not a stellar group. Burnett and Ryan stick out right away, as both are among the least accomplished players in this study:

10 Least Accomplished Top 10 Players, ranked by AVG WARP3
Player                Yr1    Tot    AVG    Tm   Yrs   $Mil
Arthur Rhodes        2000   16.1   1.79   SEA     4   13.0
Jason Schmidt        2002   16.3   2.33   SFN     4   30.0
B.J. Ryan            2006   16.4   2.34   TOR     5   47.0
Darren Dreifort      2001   15.7   2.62   LAN     5   55.0
David Bell           2003   21.3   2.66   PHI     4   17.0
Steve Karsay         2002   18.9   2.70   NYA     4   22.3
Jason Isringhausen   2002   16.9   2.82   SLN     4   27.0
A.J. Burnett         2006   21.3   3.04   TOR     5   55.0
Todd Hundley         2001   33.6   3.05   CHN     4   23.5
Darryl Kile          1998   21.9   3.13   COL     3   21.4

Ryan and Burnett share the traits of the majority of this group in that they are both pitchers who signed contracts of four years or longer. Ryan, in particular, is worrisome; his AVG WARP3 of 2.34 is barely within two standard deviations of the mean of the 110 players in the study. If you want to be really frightened–J.P., you might want to skip this part–consider what the eight players in the above list not signed by the Blue Jays last December did in the seasons around their payday:

Year            WARP3

WY-2             22.9
WY-1             27.8
Walk Year        35.3
WY+1             23.6
WY+2             24.6
WY+3             30.9

This group lost nearly a third of its walk-year value–the year that set the price–over the next two seasons, bouncing back in Year Three thanks largely to Jason Schmidt and Darryl Kile. It’s the peril of large investments in players based on short runs of success, rather than the track record of a star; essentially, the core of the argument against the Burnett and Ryan signings.

While Toronto’s first big contracts since Roger Clemens and Randy Myers are not in great company, the free-agent class of 2006 is actually not the worst of the past 11 years. Whether evaluating by cumulative or average WARP3, the class of 2002 is slightly more infamous by both measures. Surely you remember the class of 2002. It was the one with Jason Giambi, Chan Ho Park and, as shown above, Schmidt, Jason Isringhausen and Steve Karsay. Interestingly enough, it also featured the Rock Star. That Johnny Damon has been a key part of the two worst free-agent classes in the last 11 years is probably a small factor in why he’s perceived to be a superstar.

Let’s look at the 2006 class from an economic perspective. An inflation calculator allows us to adjust dollars spent in previous off-seasons to reflect 2006 values. By doing so, we can put this offseason in a better light:

Year          Tot $    Tot '06 $$     TOT    AVG   '06 $$/WARP3
1996    211,950,015   270,151,489   477.2   5.61        566,118
1997    233,485,428   288,821,474   472.1   5.76        611,780
1998    258,333,943   314,599,076   468.7   4.93        671,216
1999    568,799,718   681,308,302   575.5   6.06      1,183,855
2000    190,493,821   222,096,746   550.2   4.87        403,665
2001    795,743,084   894,335,652   457.0   5.13      1,956,971
2002    398,557,412   442,876,996   377.5   4.66      1,173,184
2003    272,825,291   295,497,073   713.3   5.99        414,268
2004    386,565,152   410,764,131   652.8   6.53        629,234
2005    632,000,000   652,224,000   491.0   5.58      1,328,358
2006    475,500,000   475,500,000   388.7   4.86      1,223,308

One thing is clear: it will be a long time before we see an offseason like 2001. The sum of the contracts for Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez alone is greater than the top ten totals for every year outside of 1999, 2005 and 2006. Add in Mike Hampton, and it was the only offseason that featured three $100-million contracts. Unsurprisingly, it’s the most expensive of the 11 classes, at nearly $2 million per point of WARP3.

The free-agent class of 2006 has two large problems. First, its players have been one of the more overpaid classes in recent history, third only to 2001 and 2005. Second, it is suffering in the retrospective glow of the 2003 and 2004 classes. The class of 2003 (Jim Thome, Tom Glavine, Cliff Floyd) was the best by cumulative WARP3, third best by AVG WARP3, and second best by ’06 $$/WARP3, whereas the class of 2004 ranked second, first, and fourth in those respective categories. By comparison, the class of 2006 ranks tenth, tenth, and ninth. This reflects the caliber of the players involved, but also the trends within the industry; the Collective Bargaining Agreement put in place in ’02 impeded the market for a couple of years, tamping down free-agent bidding for two years in which high-value players hit the market. Some of the contracts signed in this period, including ones by Guerrero and Tejada, look like bargains.

Since then, however, new money flooding into the industry, as well as the rules that shelter some teams from the luxury tax as we reach the end of the current CBA, have served to heat demand again just as the quality of the supply drops. The two forces yield the results above: $1.2 million per point of WARP3.

Looking strictly at this from a historical performance and economic perspective, this has been a very weak free agent class. In the end, though, it is neither the worst class performance-wise, nor the most-overpaid class monetarily. But it’s close.