Bagwell, Astros relationship coming to a bitter end

The Astros this week took another step toward complicating the team’s relationship with Jeff Bagwell, long the face of the organization.

After weeks of speculation and attempted negotiations between the first baseman and the only Major League team he has ever known, the Astros filed an insurance claim on Bagwell’s contract. This claim, according to numerous media reports, allows the Astros to recoup $15.6 million of the $17 million they owe Bagwell.

Meanwhile, Bagwell has stated his intentions to play this season. While team doctors think otherwise, he believes himself to be healthy enough to come back from a debilitating shoulder injury that limited him to just 100 at-bats and his worst offensive season.

During the complex media dance over the last few weeks, Bagwell seems to have come out the enemy and in the process has supposedly alienated fans while publicly battling his bosses.

For all that Bagwell has meant to the Astros organization and for all that he has done for the team, I find it hard to believe the two sides could not reach an agreement that allowed both sides to retain their dignity and respect for each other. Instead, the Astros, in my opinion, have shown an utter disregard for one of their franchise players.

Since 1991, just a few months after a trade that sent Larry Anderson to the Red Sox in exchange for a 22-year-old prospect, Jeff Bagwell has been the face of the Houston Astros. He has earned a Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP award, and four trips to the Midsummer Classic. In 15 seasons, he has hit .297/.408/.540 and holds Astros organizational records with 449 home runs and 1529 RBIs. He and Craig Biggio have been the stalwarts of Houston’s Killer Bees.

But Bagwell at age 37 is not the same player as Bagwell in his prime. He missed most of the 2005 campaign following surgery on his right shoulder that had ailed him for the better part of four seasons. Doctors are unsure if he will ever be able to recover enough to play baseball, but Bagwell, a gritty, determined athlete, wants to give it a try. Meanwhile, like most things baseball-related during the off-season, this conflict comes down to dollar signs.

The Astros, it seems, have a unique insurance policy on Bagwell’s contract. They had to decide by January 31 whether or not to file a claim on the $17 million. If Bagwell is determined medically unable to play, he would still get his guaranteed millions, but the Astros would recoup $15.8 million.

Now, on the surface, it makes sense for the Astros to protect themselves in this insurance process. After all, if Bagwell cannot play, they could use his millions to find a suitable replacement by the trade deadline. Plus, 37-year-old hitters shouldn’t really be earning $17 million in the first place. For all but the most exceptional and age-defying of hitters, a 37-year-old slugger should not be among the highest paid players in the game.

But Bagwell’s contract is as much a circumstance of Bagwell’s willingness to compromise as it is of the Astros’ desire to win. When Bagwell signed his five-year, $85 million contract extension in 2000, Bagwell agreed to a backloaded payment structure. He would earn more money as the contract matured, thus allowing the Astros to free up money to build a competitive foundation. Based on last year’s World Series appearance, it seems that the economics of the deal worked for the Astros.

At the time of the deal, Drayton McLane, the Astros’ owner, had to search high and low for an insurance policy. And the one he found stipulated the January 31 filing deadline. It makes sense for a team to protect its investments, but this saga is showing the downside of allowing insurance companies to dictate the terms of policies. In 2000, the insurance companies were witnessing the declines of the likes of Mo Vaughn and Albert Belle. These injuries led to large insurance payments, and since then, companies have been loathe to insure multi-million-dollar, multi-year contracts for aging players.

Jeff Bagwell wants to play. He thinks he can do it, and he has served the Astros long enough and hard enough to at least deserve the chance to show he can be a healthy contributor to a team looking to defends its first-ever NL Championships. The Astros, though, may not even want Bagwell to show up for Spring Training if the insurance company determines that would ruin their claim.

It is a sad ending to the saga of the man who will long be the face (and beard) of the Houston Astros and who, in the age of free agency, has given his entire career to one organization.

Further Reading

For more on the Astros’ insurance claim on Jeff Bagwell’s contract, check out the Houston Chronicle’s coverage of this rare insurance policy.

Lisa Gray, MVN’s Astros blogger, chimes in with an Astros fan’s take on the Bagwell saga.

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5 Responses to “Bagwell, Astros relationship coming to a bitter end”


  1. 1 Terry February 3, 2006 at 11:48 am

    It is true that two reasonable sides should be able to come to an agreement on this issue beween Bagwell and the Astros. However, most seem to blame the Astros for not being willing to take a risk. What if Bagwell agreed to share the risk? Perhaps they could agree on a number of games (or at bats) that would be a fair expectation and if Bagwell cannot play, he would accept a lesser figure than the agreed upon $17 million (perhaps $1 or $2 million). If can really play as he says, then let him earn the entire amount. In order for this to be resolved, both parties are going to have to share the risk.

  2. 2 lisa gray February 3, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    terry,

    richard justice suggested exactly that uin his last column in the houston chronicle

  3. 3 Taylor February 7, 2006 at 2:11 pm

    I’m an Astro fan, and I’d obviously like to see them do well this year. That almost requires that they get the 17 mil from the insurance policy and cut Bags loose.

    That said, I disagree that Bagwell should have to “work together” with the Astros and “share the risk.” As the post says, when both sides were contracting in 2000, Bagwell compromised then–less pay upfront for more money later. To cut into his pay now would effectively force him to compromise twice. The Astros made their bargain, and while it worked out to the tune of a trip to the WS, it’s got a pricetag attached.

    So in the conflicted mind of an Astros fan, I want them to do well (claim the insurance) and to do the right thing (not claim the insurance). I come down on the side of honoring the contract. I’m in the minority, but I think baseball (and sports in general) is about more than just what’s on the field.


  1. 1 Most Valuable Network - Off the Facade - A New York Yankees column Trackback on February 6, 2006 at 10:45 pm
  2. 2 Talking Baseball » Blog Archive » Lusting for Clemens, Pettitte brings back old Yankee memories Trackback on February 7, 2006 at 9:57 am
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