Prospect Retro: Jeff Bagwell
Per reader request from some masochistic Red Sox fans, a Prospect Retro for Jeff Bagwell.
Jeff Bagwell was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the fourth round of the 1989 draft, out of college at the University of Hartford, as a third baseman. He was considered a very promising hitter, though it was unclear how much power he would develop, and there were questions about his defense. He went to Winter Haven in the Florida State League after signing and did well, hitting .310 in 64 games. He hit just two homers and slugged .419, but he showed solid plate discipline (22 walks, 25 strikeouts in 210 at-bats), and held his own in a tough league for hitters in his first pro exposure. I think I would have rated him as a Grade B prospect at this point, considering his draft status and contact skills, but lack of evident power would have prevented him from a higher grade.
The Sox moved Bagwell up to New Britain in the Eastern League in 1990. He had an excellent season, hitting .333 and finishing second in the league batting hunt (behind the immortal Luis Mercedes). He hit 34 doubles, and drew 73 walks against just 57 strikeouts in 481 at-bats. He hit just four home runs. But New Britain was an extremely tough park for power, and the Eastern League in general was difficult for home run hitters that season. Only one player (Rico Brogna) hit more than 20 homers that year in the EL. Bagwell's tremendous plate discipline, high walk rate, and low strikeout rate really stood out, and I would probably have raised his grade to at least B+.
Looking for bullpen help for the September stretch run, the Red Sox traded Bagwell to the Houston Astros for Larry Andersen on August 30. Larry Andersen was a very good pitcher, and he posted a 1.23 ERA in 15 games for the Sox after the trade, helping them win the division with 88 wins. But Andersen's contributions came at a heavy long-term price.
Bagwell won a job as the Houston first baseman in spring training of 1991. He hit .294 with 15 homers and 75 walks on the season, winning the NL Rookie of the Year award and eventually developing into one of the most devastating hitters of the 1990s. Comparable Players to Bagwell include Eddie Murray, Reggie Jackson, Duke Snider, Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson, Willy Stargell, and Orlando Cepeda. Among actives, Frank Thomas and Gary Sheffield are good comps.
So, the Red Sox essentially traded a Hall of Fame hitter for a single month of September relief work from Andersen. This has stuck in the craw of Sox fans for 16 years. But how predictable was it that Bagwell would develop like this?
Based on his minor league numbers, it was predictable that Bagwell would be an excellent hitter in terms of batting average and OBP. His BB/K/AB ratio was outstanding, and he almost won an Eastern League batting title while playing in a tough park. Was it predictable that he would develop into a home run slugger? I don't think it was particularly surprising, given his physical strength, bat speed, and strike zone judgment, that he developed into a 20-30 homer hitter. I do think, from the perspective of 1990-1991, that was somewhat surprising that he developed into a 35-40+ home run hitter. But remember that the offensive context of the years from about 1996 through 2002 was different than when Bagwell began his career.