Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Case for Jeff Bagwell

Bagwell, Astros Nearing Crossroads
Just about every TV show has done an episode about premature retirement. And now Jeff Bagwell is living it. There is speculation that the Astros are trying to nudge the slugger into retirement, so that they can collect a hefty insurance policy on his $17 million contract.

This irks me to no end. Maybe it’s because I have a particular attachment to Bagwell. Back in fourth and fifth grades, I was huge into baseball cards, as were a few buddies of mine. We bought packs, went to collector stores, traded, and even used our crap cards as poker chips. It was during this time that Bagwell was beginning his career. Lo and behold, I had pulled two of his rookie cards (Topps and Donruss) out of packs.

Ever since then, I’ve been a fan of Bagwell. I was ecstatic when I heard he would be on the World Series roster to act as a DH in Chicago. And my heart sunk when he was schooled by rookie Bobby Jenks (you all remember that strikeout, right?).

A few weeks ago, the Astros signed Preston Wilson, and I speculated that it did not bode well for Bagwell. The ‘Stros already had three outfielders in Lance Berkman, Wily Tavares, and Jason Lane. Wilson provides no upgrade over any of these guys, and it’s doubtful that he was signed as a bench player. The likely scenario: Wilson to left, Berkman back to first, Bagwell’s future up in the air.

I understand the Astros motive behind this orchestration. They obviously want an efficient team, and getting Bagwell’s salary off the books is a priority. Should Bagwell decide in Spring Training that he can’t go on, the Astros can still collect on their insurance policy (covers all but $1.5 million of Bagwell’s 2006 salary). But they want to get this issue resolved now so they can pursue other transactions that will benefit the club.

Problem is, Bagwell is in no way ready to hang it up. "Nothing is going to keep me from attempting to play baseball next season," he said. "Nothing."

"There's no question in my mind I can hit," he said. "It's whether or not I can throw for a full season. Everything has gone exactly the way I thought it should. I'm getting stronger. Am I able to throw 120 feet? No. Am I making progress? Very much so."

First off, let me note that I love it when athletes and celebrities ask themselves questions and immediately give the answers. It’s like Donald Rumsfeld: “Do we have full armor on our humvees? No. Have we taken steps to insure that armor will be on there in the future? No. Have we thought about the issue heavily? Yes.”

I digress.

My initial reaction to the situation was that the ‘Stros should look into dealing Bagwell to an American League team, where he can serve as a full-time DH and a part-time first baseman. Problem is, there isn’t a team out there that will take on Bagwell’s contract. Plus, the $15.5 million insurance policy expires at the end of this month.

Still, the Astros could eat $10 million and dish him elsewhere, freeing up $7 million in flexibility. And, if the Astros truly intend to nudge Bagwell into retirement, they would probably accept a package of mid-level prospects, considering Bag’s injury and age.

I’m no GM, so I have no idea how Tim Purpura is going to handle this situation. But, if I was in that situation, I’d certainly move towards a trade. It appears that the Astros have no intention of using Bagwell this season, so moving $7 million of his contract for a few prospects isn’t a terrible idea, considering the three possible outcomes.

Outcome No. 1: Bagwell stays healthy, plays the season, and contributes to the Astros, costs them $17 million.
Outcome No. 2: Bagwell decides he can’t hack it during Spring Training or early in the season, team does not collect insurance policy.
Outcome No. 3: Bagwell is traded along with $10 million to an AL team. Astros have an immediate $7 million to help solidify the team.

Of course, there is a fourth option, and that’s Bagwell retiring within the next few weeks. I just don’t see that happening, unless the Astros bribe Dr. James Andrews to exaggerate Bagwell’s condition. I don’t know much about bribes, but I would consider it illogical for the top doctor in his field to compromise his position by taking a bribe. Aren’t bribes usually taken by second and third-rate fellows, like Richie Cunningham (the Congresman, not the character from Happy Days)? Then again, more absurd things have happened.

Houston needs to get moving on this situation. Either they’re sticking with Bags or they’re dishing him. You can’t just force a guy with a resolve like Bagwell’s into retirement. He’s obviously amped to get out there and prove he can hit, if at least for one more season. So you either make the decision to stick to him, or you cut your losses and see if anyone else wants him.

And quite honestly, the Yankees should. No, this isn’t me playing the typical Yankees guy, wishing for every superstar in Major League Baseball to make his way to the Bronx. I bolded a few statements up there for a reason. Imagine the Yanks adding Bagwell’s bat to their lineup at DH. Imagine him being able to spell Giambi twice a week. Take a gander:

Damon
Jeter
Giambi
A-Rod
Sheffield
Matsui
Bagwell
Posada
Cano

Obviously, the price would be the determining factor, but I really can’t see the Astros asking for much. How valuable is a 38-year-old first baseman with a degenerative shoulder? Certainly the Yankees can put together an adequate compensation package (read: 25-year-olds playing Advanced-A ball).

Even if he’s not traded to the Yankees, I want to see Bagwell around for 2006. He’s working harder than ever to just play out that last year of his contract and deserves better treatment than this. You all sided with the grandfather in TV Show X when he was being forced into retirement by his company, and now it’s time to side with Bagwell.