ARLINGTON -- Rangers president Nolan Ryan is now the head of an organization, but there were times when he was a free agent looking for a job. The Hall of Fame pitcher has turned his energies toward the management side of the game in recent years, and so it has been with keen interest he has watched the free agent market develop this winter. Ryan has been as blindsided as anybody at how slowly things have moved. "I was really surprised at the Winter Meetings," Ryan said. "I went there expecting things might happen and there was absolutely nothing. I thought it was a big waste of money and time."
Certainly, Ryan isn't alone in wondering about what didn't happen in Las Vegas in December, and what hasn't happened as the final days of January tick away. He represents dozens of baseball executives trying to get a gauge on a free agent market like none other before it, affected by economic uncertainties not seen in decades. Some players have received big contracts, most notably Yankees pitchers A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia and first baseman Mark Teixeira. But, there are some significant players that are still available, including pitchers Ben Sheets, Oliver Perez and Jon Garland, outfielders Manny Ramirez, Bobby Abreu, Garret Anderson and Adam Dunn, infielders Orlando Cabrera, Ray Durham and Orlando Hudson and catcher Ivan Rodriguez. "You can see players out there that most people would like to have," Ryan said. "But I don't think the players have adjusted their requests to what the market seems to be." Ryan said it comes down to the overall economy. It's not good right now by any measure and it seems to have impacted baseball as well. "I think it really has," Ryan said. "So many ballclubs truly don't know what the total impact will be. There are so many unknowns and it's hard. You have to budget off last year but you don't know if it's accurate enough because of the economy. You don't know the time frame of the [economic slump] or the magnitude of it." The owners were briefed on the economy in their last two ownership meetings. Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker met with the owners in November, and nationally syndicated columnist George Will met with them earlier this month in Arizona. The message was not good. "I was very concerned with what both of them had to say," Ryan said. "They brought it to a magnitude that on a personal basis, living down here in Texas, I didn't anticipate, both in the severity and the length." It's hard to imagine a better touchstone than Ryan when it comes to free agency. He was one of the players who early on benefitted from free agency, and now that he's running a club he has a unique perspective on what is clearly a winter of uncharted waters when it comes to free agency. Ryan was a free agent twice during his 27-year career. Both were significant moments in the process. He left the Angels at the end of the 1979 season and signed with the Astros at an annual salary of $1 million. He was the first Major League player ever to be paid $1 million in a season. Ryan again became a free agent after the 1988 season, after going 12-11 with a 3.52 ERA in 33 starts for the Astros. He was 41 at the time and the Astros asked him to take a pay cut from his $1 million salary. Ryan was offended by the request and opted for free agency. The Angels and Giants both went after him hard but the Rangers ended up signing him for $1.8 million with a $1.4 million option for 1990. Ryan wasn't interested in a pay cut back then but he realizes it might be different in this current economic climate. He admitted he wouldn't want to be a 41-year-old pitcher with a 12-11 record looking for a job right now. "I'm thankful I was never in that situation, with the economy the way it is," Ryan said. "There is so much unrest and the timing is bad. That's unfortunate but that's where we are."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.