The Time the Free-Spending Brewers Drafted Nolan Ryan: The Brewers and the Free Agent Reentry Draft

Apr. 10, 2017
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The Brewers once considered themselves players for Nolan Ryan, seen here at County Stadium in 1990.

The Free Agent Reentry Draft is a mostly-forgotten relic from the earliest days of freedom for Major League baseball players. Between 1976 and 1980, an early-November “draft” of free agent players determined which clubs could negotiation with which players. Teams chose in the reserve-order of their win-loss records and were permitted to “draft” any player that had declared themselves as a free agent. A player could be drafted by as many as 13 teams (half the league) and teams were allowed up to 12 draft picks. The draft was a device designed to prevent rich teams from hoarding all the most expensive players and, indirectly, to keep down player salaries.

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This weird period of the free agent draft was a time when the young Brewers franchise was surprisingly aggressive in the market. The first-ever draft was held following the 1976 season. The prize of that year was Orioles slugger Reggie Jackson, who ended up with the Yankees. But just below Jackson’s level was A’s third baseman Sal Bando. The Brewers tagged Bando with their first pick, and also put claims on his Oakland teammates Gene Tenace and Joe Rudi, as well as Don Baylor, Gary Matthews, and Bob Grich. The Brewers set their sights on Bando and Tenace as their main targets, but narrowly lost out on Tenace to the Padres. Moving on, Bud Selig met personally with Bando’s lawyer to work out a deal. “Moneywise, the Brewers are highly positive,” Bando’s lawyer said after the meeting. “However, the fact that the Brewers have not performed at the high level Sal has been playing with has to be a negative factor.”

Selig’s persistence, and a $1.4 million offer over five years, turned Bando around and sent a minor shock across the baseball world. “I don’t think we worked this hard getting the franchise,” Selig joked after the signing.

Sal Bando’s decision to sign with the Brewers paid off for him and the franchise.

In 1977, after their second-straight 95-loss season, the Brewers again pulled a coup with their top pick. Drafting the Twins’ Larry Hisle – as well as Lyman Bostock, Oscar Gamble, and Goose Gossage – the Brewers made another hard play at a top free agent. The team actually invited Hisle to Milwaukee before the draft and the slugger was very impressed with the city and organization. Despite higher-dollar offers elsewhere, Hisle chose Milwaukee and inked a $2 million, six-year contract. The Brewers also made a strong play for Bostock, an 26-year old outfielder with a career .318 batting average. Bostock ultimately signed with the California Angels and was tragically shot to death with a week remaining in the 1978 season.

The addition of Hisle was vital to the Brewers’ emergence as a contender in 1978. Their high-powered offense led them to 93 wins, but the club was somewhat thin in the starting rotation. The Brewers went heavy on pitching in the ’78 draft, picking Tommy John, Larry Gura, Elias Sosa, Wilbur Wood and others. They went hard after John and Sosa, but couldn’t land either. They did manage to sign Jim Slaton, a right hander who was with the Brewers from 1971 to 1977. The team had dealt Slaton to Detroit for young outfielder Ben Olgivie after the pitcher had declared he was sick of playing for a losing club. The Crew’s turn-around, and the $1.1 million over five years they offered him, changed his mind on matters.

The million-dollar signing of Jim Slaton marked the third time in three years the Brewers made a splash in the off-season.

The 1979 free agent class was topped by the Angels’ Nolan Ryan. The Brewers drafted Ryan and said they were serious about signing him, but Ryan wanted to play in Texas and never seriously considered Milwaukee. His name did surface, however, in trade rumors during the home stretch of the 1982 season, when the Brewers were looking to add a starting pitcher. The Brewers did swap with Houston, but got Don Sutton instead.

Speaking of Don Sutton, he was the Brewers final first round reentry pick, with the Crew tabbing him in 1980. They liked Sutton, but after spending big three out of the last four years, couldn’t afford to bid for him. The Brewers did add former Blue Jays third baseman Roy Howell, who went on to spend four undistinguished years in Milwaukee as a part-time player. After the 1981 mid-season players strike, the reentry draft was scrapped. The Brewers did not sign another major league free agent until they inked Dave Parker after the 1989 season.


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