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