Going all the way back to the beginning of free agency, Wayne Garland was both a free market success story and a cautionary tale. In 1976, the right-hander from Nashville, TN emerged from bullpen and spot starting duty for the Orioles to post an ace-like 20-7 season over 232 1/3 innings with 14 complete games.
That year the Players’ Association won a court ruling that got rid of the Reserve Clause and allowed players at the end of their contracts to shop their skills on the open market. Garland was one of the early beneficiaries and promptly signed a 10-year/$2.3 million contract with the Indians.
10 years with an AAV of over $200K sounded like Monopoly money at the time. Even with fellow trailblazer Andy Messersmith pulling down $300,000 a year from the Braves.
But the workhorse 20-win season of 1976 was not to be duplicated and the Indians only got five disappointing seasons from Garland. 1977 saw Garland post a 13-19 record with a whopping 282 2/3 IP and 21 CG. Maybe he tried too hard to earn all that money.
Over the offseason, Garland tried to rest his tired arm and showed up to Spring Training feeling fine, but he injured himself in the first exhibition game.
“I tried to throw too hard too soon,” he later said. “It never got better.”
On May 5, 1978 he had surgery for a torn rotator cuff. At the time, it was a career-ending injury.
Garland went 27-18 with Baltimore and left with so much promise as a front-of-the-rotation starter. In five seasons with Cleveland, no longer an anonymous contributor but a big-name free agent, he went 28-48. 1981 was his last year and yielded a 3-7 record in 12 appearances. The final line for Wayne Garland is 55-66, 3.89 ERA and 43 CG. Definitely not what the lowly Indians were trying to acquire with all that money.
Garland was released in January of 1982 and later tried a comeback while using the knuckleball that didn’t pan out. His name will always be attached to the history of free agency and he will show up in the bust column.
But it is hard to appreciate today what a seismic shift it was when players were allowed to shop their wares and teams started offering the big money. Surely, Garland pushed himself too hard under the pressure of the big contract and nobody was there to shut him down. Players weren’t protected as assets back then like they are today. Pitch counts? Not in 1977.
If Wayne Garland had had his breakout season any time in the last decade or so, he’d have stood a much better chance of succeeding with all the oversight and medical improvements. And if he didn’t pan out after all that, he’d hardly stand out from the rest of the crowd. High-priced free agents wash out all the time these days. It’s not the big deal now that it was back then.