In 2005, Steve Jobs famously told Stanford’s graduating class that you can not connect the dots of your life as they are happening. Upon Jeff Bagwell’s induction into the Hall of Fame last month, Red Sox fans find themselves doing the same dot-connecting. In the dog days of the 1990 season, the Red Sox gambled and lost out on a future Hall of Famer. But why would they do such a thing?
The Red Sox were neck and neck with Toronto for the AL East race in 1990 before they discovered a problem in the bullpen. Like the 2016 team, Boston needed a reliable, late-inning reliever. Even with Jeff Reardon closing out games, they were struggling with getting him to save situations. Since Lee Smith was traded that May, the Sox needed to look to the trading block to wipe their face for the mess they made. When Lou Gorman flooded the phone lines, the Houston Astros picked up. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Astros agreed to send their 37-year old journeyman reliever, Larry Andersen, to Boston. Andersen had plenty of experience closing out games, so it seemed like a perfect fit for the Red Sox. Since they only had to give up a prospect, it seemed a match made in heaven. Andersen was a quirky, quizzical Bill Lee/Bill Walton wannabe. He brought his philosophical crises to every plane, locker room, or field he had ever been to. Even a positive man like him could have seen the signs that Boston was not the place for him.
Upon landing at Logan Airport for the first time, Andersen’s luggage was lost. On TV, the great Peter Gammons was seemingly the only one ripping the Red Sox for trading away such a bright prospect. Andersen came in and appeared in 15 games for the Red Sox with just one save. Even with those numbers, the Red Sox clinched the division, but were swept out of the playoffs. That off-season, fans could have seen the trade purely as a success. This, however, was the Red Sox, so the optimism didn’t last long.
Bagwell’s Storied Career
In August 1990, Jeff Bagwell was just a third baseman in Double-A, log-jammed behind Tim Naehring and a guy named Wade Boggs. The 22-year old Bagwell, a Connecticut native, was a ways away from playing for his childhood team. Gorman agreed to send Bagwell to Houston without a second thought. Bagwell’s manager, Butch Hobson, was the only one in the organization publicly against the trade. Houston already had Ken Caminiti at third, so they moved Bagwell across the diamond to first base.
In 1991, Bagwell took the league by storm, winning National League Rookie of the Year honors. Three years later, he won league MVP. Over the course of his career, Bagwell left his Boston doubters gasping for air. He retired in 2006 with 449 home runs, 1,529 RBIs, and his own plaque in Cooperstown come July. The Astros, in return, were one of the league’s best teams in the 90’s, while the Sox struggled to find their footing after the trade.
How Did the Bagwell Trade Hurt the Red Sox?
Larry Andersen was a Padre in 1991, and only had 15 more career saves in just two more seasons in the big leagues. Hobson, Bagwell’s minor league manager, was hired to manage the big club in 1992. He was right about Bagwell, but not much else. In three years as manager, Hobson’s Red Sox won just 207 games. The mediocrity earned them the nickname “The Sons of Butches.” 1992 was also Boggs’ last season in Boston. Had the trade never happened, Red Sox fans of the late 90’s could have seen Bagwell, Nomar Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn all patrolling the same infield. If Bagwell had not been traded, however, the Red Sox may have never had use for the duties of one David Ortiz.
Over a quarter-century later, it is no argument as to whose franchise has seen more success since then. The Red Sox have won three titles while the Astros still search for their first. What is indisputable, though, is that the trade for Larry Andersen wrecked the Red Sox for the next several years. On the flip side, it propelled the Astros to four division titles in five seasons from 1997-2001. In 2005, Bagwell even led the Astros to the World Series. If we look purely at the players in the transaction, there is no doubt: Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell is the worst trade the Red Sox ever made.