August 30, 1990: Bagwell for Andersen

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders" by Rob Neyer. Copyright (c) 2006 by Rob Neyer. Reprinted by permission of Fireside Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

"You never know exactly how good a young player will be, but with some luck (for Bagwell) Lou Gorman will hear about the Bagwell trade until the day he dies. It could be one of those deals, like Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi and Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, that haunts the man who made it."
-- Bill James, The Baseball Book 1991

On August 30, 1990, with the Boston Red Sox holding a six-and-a-half game lead over the second-place Blue Jays in the American League East, Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman traded minor-league first baseman Jeff Bagwell to the Houston Astros for relief pitcher Larry Andersen. Andersen pitched twenty-two innings for the Red Sox. Bagwell went to the Hall of Fame for the Astros.

In Gorman's autobiography, he offers a spirited defense of the trade. For one thing, "reports indicated that Bagwell would have to move from third base to first base, because his basic fielding skills were not suited for playing third base." Also, "none of the reports projected that he would have above-average major league power." And finally, "We could not ... hold onto our lead in the division unless I could find a way to strengthen our bullpen."

I called Bob Watson and made the trade, Bagwell for Andersen. Andersen would strengthen our bullpen and help us win the Eastern Division title, and we'd go on to face the A's. Andersen worked mostly as a setup man, pitching in 22 innings, walking only three and striking out 25 with a 1.23 ERA. He was exactly what we needed to bolster the pen at a critical juncture in our run at the division title.1

Uh, okay. Remember, the Red Sox owned a six-and-a-half-game lead when Gorman got Andersen. I don't care how well you pitch -- and Andersen did pitch well -- it's very difficult for a relief pitcher to make a real difference to a team with a big lead and just one month to play. True, the Red Sox wound up winning the division by just two games; they could have blown it.

But they didn't not blow it because of Andersen. After the trade, the Red Sox won eight games by three or fewer runs. In four of those games, Andersen did not pitch. In two of them, he pitched both briefly and ineffectively. So the case for Andersen's difference-making really comes down to two games. On September 7, he pitched three innings of scoreless relief in a game the Red Sox eventually won with a run in the bottom of the eleventh. And on September 21, he earned a save -- his first and last with the Red Sox -- with two scoreless innings in a 3–0 game.

The Red Sox wound up getting just one month of Larry Andersen in exchange for Jeff Bagwell's career, but that's not what Gorman expected.

There were some questions about whether Andersen would become a free agent as a result of the collusion ruling against baseball ownership. There were supposedly twelve or thirteen players who could be declared free agents as a result of some legalities resulting from the original collusion case. I called our player relations committee in the commissioner's office in New York to determine Andersen's status. The committee indicated to me that they were certain that Andersen would not be one of those players given his free agency. I was confident therefore, that if we traded for him, we'd have him in our bullpen for the foreseeable future.2

Okay, fair enough; Gorman got some bad information from the boys in New York. (Considering that Andersen would soon turn thirty-eight, it's not clear what Gorman means by "foreseeable future," but we'll let that one slide.)

Even if we assume that Bagwell couldn't have played third base in the majors, though, there's this thing in the American League called "Designated Hitter." Let's assume for the moment that if Bagwell hadn't been traded, he'd have spent most of 1991 tearing up the International League. The Red Sox would have retained his rights from 1992 through 1997. In each of those seasons the Sox had Mo Vaughn -- a lousy fielder, by the way -- at first base, while the DH slot was held by Jack Clark, Andre Dawson, Jose Canseco, and Reggie Jefferson. Canseco was pretty good, but Bagwell was just as good and would have been a lot cheaper. (Clark, Dawson, and Jefferson were not pretty good.)

And I haven't even mentioned the corner outfield slots; Bagwell was an athletic sort of fellow, and probably could have done all right in right or (especially) left field. Considering that Bob Zupcic and Lee Tinsley got plenty of playing time in this period, I suspect the skipper could have found a spot in the lineup for the .400 OBP guy with power.

The real problem with Gorman's defense -- which runs for more than three pages -- is that he tries to fool the jury into thinking that the choice was Bagwell for Andersen or nothing.
According to Garry Brown in the Springfield Republican, "The Astros asked for Mo Vaughn. They asked for Scott Cooper. Phil Plantier. Kevin Morton. David Owen. Gorman held his ground. He said no to every name until Jeff Bagwell's came up."

Cooper was slated to eventually replace Wade Boggs at third base. Phil Plantier batted .300 with twenty-seven home runs in the Carolina League that summer. Kevin Morton and David Owen were solid pitching prospects.

Morton was the twenty-ninth player taken in the 1989 draft. That summer he'd blown through three levels of the Red Sox farm system, then spent 1990 with Bagwell in New Britain. Thirty pitchers qualified for the Eastern League ERA title that season. Morton's was twenty-fifth. On the other hand, he was barely twenty-two and his 131 strikeouts were good for second in the league. Dave Owen, a seventh-round draft pick in 1988, also spent most of the 1990 season with New Britain, and went 7–9 with a 2.93 ERA. Like Morton, he certainly qualified as a prospect.

But these guys were pitchers. Didn't Gorman know there's no such thing as a pitching prospect? TNSTAAPP. Tinztap.

More to the point, did Gorman have any idea how good Bagwell was? Could Gorman possibly have guessed that Jeff Bagwell would someday become a fantastic player? Yes, he could have.

In the STATS 1991 Major League Handbook -- published shortly after the 1990 season -- Bill James published projections for 413 major-league hitters. Among the National Leaguers, Tony Gwynn's .317 was the highest projected batting average. But there was another set of projections: fifteen minor-leaguers included under the heading, "These Guys Can Play Too And Might Get A Shot." And among those fifteen minor leaguers was Jeff Bagwell, with a .318 batting average. Better than Tony Gwynn's.

Nobody meant to predict that Bagwell would win a batting title in 1991, and if Bill had noticed, he would have knocked Bagwell down a few points, just to avoid the appearance of such a prediction. But the underlying causes of the nonprediction were simple: the Eastern League was a pitcher's league, and New Britain's Willow Brook Park was a pitcher's ballpark. Bagwell was twenty-two in 1990, and he'd batted .333 with thirty-four doubles (tops in the league) and seventy-three walks (fourth in the league).

Gorman simply didn't know how good Bagwell was. Near the end of spring training in 1991, with Bagwell having won the job as Houston's regular first baseman, Gorman said he would be "greatly astonished" if Bagwell hit .300 in the majors.3 He just didn't know.

In 1997, Kevin Morton pitched professionally for the last time, going 2–1 with a 6.84 ERA for the Mexico City Tigers. He retired with a winning record (6–5) in the major leagues, but a losing record (34–57) in the minor leagues. Also in 1997, Jeff Bagwell played in 162 games for the Astros, scored 109 runs, drove home 135, and finished third in the Most Valuable Player voting.

1. Lou Gorman, One Pitch from Glory: A Decade of Running the Red Sox (Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing, 2005).
2. Ibid.
3. Phil O'Neil, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Oct. 31, 1991.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes for Insider two or three times per week. To offer criticism, praise or anything in between, send an e-mail to rob.neyer@dig.com.