Jeff Bagwell is now an official member of the Hall of Fame. He is inarguably a top-five first baseman of the live-ball era, having hit .297/.408/.540 with 449 HR while playing in the very hitter-unfriendly Astrodome. He was an all-around player who added 41 runs on the basepaths and 54 fielding runs, both of which contributed to almost 80 bWAR. It took Bagwell seven years to get into the Hall of Fame, which was six years too long.
In perhaps one of the most lopsided trades of all time, the Red Sox traded Jeff Bagwell to the Astros for a reliever named Larry Andersen. He had been an excellent reliever since the 1989 season, and had a slider for the ages, but he was a reliever nonetheless. What also needs to be mentioned is that the Red Sox traded Bagwell for one month of Andersen. One. Month. He would go on to leave in free agency and sign with the Padres. Even going by what we knew at the time, this was an incredibly lopsided deal.
Bagwell was originally drafted by the Red Sox in 1989 out of the fourth round as a third baseman. Believe it or not, he was actually quite skinny when he was drafted, so there were questions about his power. There were also questions about his third base defense. Only one of those concerns proved to be well founded.
At the time Bagwell was traded, he was having an excellent season in Double-A New Britain, hitting .333/.422/.457. He was the 32nd overall prospect ranked by Baseball America after the 1990 season. Bagwell was walking a ton and had an excellent OBP, although nobody understood the value of OBP in 1990. He was not hitting for much power, but there is an explanation for that. As Minor League Ball’s Jeff Sickels explained, New Britain was brutal when it came to hitting for power, and the other parks in the Eastern League were not much better.
It is also important to remember that Bagwell was still a third baseman, and he was blocked at the major league level by someone you might have heard of: Wade Boggs. The Red Sox had him under contract through 1992, so it was not as if the team was going to be without a third baseman any time soon. Furthermore, the Red Sox had another third base prospect named Scott Cooper whom the team seemed to prefer.
So why not do what the Astros did and move Bagwell to first base? Well, the Red Sox were set there, too. They had a decent first baseman named Carlos Quintana. He was not a great hitter, but he did have a good glove. He had 2 bWAR in 1990 and 2.9 bWAR in 1991. That still sounds like the Red Sox should have benched him favor of Bagwell, but they had another first baseman coming up through the system whom they were really excited about named
David Ortiz Mo Vaughn. He disappointed in his first two seasons and was below replacement level. Vaughn then raked the following six seasons, hitting .315/.405/.569 with 213 HR, which was good for 25.3 bWAR. (In case you were curious, Bagwell had about 40 bWAR during that same time period.)
As for the outfield, the Red Sox were pretty good there, too. They had Tom Brunansky, Ellis Burks, and Mike Greenwell. Burks’s offense would drip precipitously during the next couple of seasons, but there was no way to predict that at the time. I can only speculate as to whether Bagwell could have played the outfield. My guesses are either that the Red Sox would have put him there if they believed he could, or they did not believe enough in his power to move him further down the defensive spectrum. We might never know. It is a great question for those working in the front office at the time.
What we do know is that the 1990 Red Sox had one of the worst bullpens in baseball. Their combined 5.08 RA9 was the worst in the AL. The good news was that Boston looked to have a strong chance to win the AL East at the time of the trade with a 6.5-game lead in the AL East. Trading for Andersen was akin to Cleveland trading for Andrew Miller or the Cubs trading for Aroldis Chapman. The Sox overpaid because Andersen was one of the best relievers in baseball and they were looking toward the postseason. Their main competition was the Oakland A’s, who were a juggernaut back then. They had Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, José Canseco, Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, and Dennis Eckersley, just to name a few.
Andersen was excellent in his one month with the Red Sox. He pitched 22 innings in 15 appearances, struck out 29 percent of hitters against a walk rate of only 3.5 percent, and had a 1.23 RA9. Ironically, he struggled in the playoffs, allowing two runs over three appearances. The Red Sox ended up getting swept by the A’s in the ALCS. As mentioned before, Andersen went on to free agency and signed with the Padres.
A great what-if is what would have happened had the Red Sox traded Scott Cooper to Houston and kept Bagwell instead. They would have had to move Quintana in order to put Bagwell at first base, and then have Vaughn be the full-time DH when he got called up. Best case scenario is that this could have added several wins a year for the Red Sox. Bagwell would have been a significant upgrade at first over Vaughn, and Vaughn would have been a big upgrade at DH. The Red Sox got mostly replacement level play from the designated hitter position during Vaughn’s time there.
One could argue that the Red Sox got unlucky and called the wrong side of a coin flip. Knowing what we knew about Bagwell and Cooper at the time of the trade, that is a difficult statement to defend. Cooper never ranked higher than 68th by Baseball America, and was ranked 86th before his first full season in the majors in 1992. The Red Sox likely chose to keep Cooper because he was more advanced at the time, but he appeared to be a clearly inferior hitter to Bagwell. In 1990, Cooper hit .266/.334/.393 in hitter-friendly Pawtucket.
Even for someone such as myself who is not a prospect expert, based on Bagwell’s and Cooper’s stat lines and what I could gather about their hit tools, it is hard to conclude anything other than that Bagwell having a much better hit tool than Cooper should have been easy to project. Having concerns about Bagwell’s power was fair, but it seems that even the most optimistic scouting projections should have his hit tool more than make up for any power advantage that Cooper might have.
Cooper was never more than an average hitter, but he fielded his position very well. Unfortunately, his offense fell off a cliff in his fourth full season and he could not find a job in the majors after that. He spent a year in Japan, and then he got another chance with the Royals in 1997. He hit only .201/.283/.308 in 75 games and was a sub-replacement level player in only half a season. His career was over after that.
Going back to what we knew at the time, the Red Sox either screwed up in holding on to Cooper, or the Astros absolutely demanded Bagwell instead. We will never know unless somebody interviews the people involved.
To be fair, our current understanding of player value dwarfs what we knew in 1990. That being said, it is still hard not to criticize the process involved from Boston’s perspective, even had it decided to trade Cooper instead. Somebody who could be projected to be even just an everyday regular is a big overpay for one month of an elite reliever. The playoff value was also diminished in 1990 because there was no Wild Card round. To put it another way, if the internet existed in 1990, and we had the same understanding of player value then as we do now, this trade would have been largely panned by analysts. The Red Sox wasted a lot of excess value in the trade.
Obviously, nobody could have predicted that Jeff Bagwell would have become an all-time great first baseman. However, that does not excuse trading a top-40 prospect for one month of a reliever, no matter how good that reliever is. It is awful when sports hurt you, but there is no honest way to soften this painful trade for Red Sox fans. Even going by what we knew at the time, this is a difficult trade to defend.
Regrettably, the Killer B’s were never able to win a World Series. Hopefully all the great memories that Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell left their fans continue to help with that.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.