Looking for the Next Bagwell and Biggio: Players With One-Team Careers

Yadier Molina might have the best chance of ending his career with one team. (via John Maxmena)

Being a baseball fan sometimes feel like just rooting for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld once derisively put it. The routine heartbreak of watching your favorite players leave your favorite team and wear alien uniforms is an agonizing rite of passage. Even in the days before free agency, teams regularly sent their best players packing, often for no nobler reason than cost savings. (Like how Cleveland got cursed for chucking away Rocky Colavito.)

In the history of baseball, just 50 Hall of Famers played their whole careers with one team. (That link lists the 47 who were in the Hall as of 2010. Since then, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Barry Larkin have joined their ranks.)

In the old days, before the dawn of free agency in 1975-76, a player had no control over where he played. When his team tendered him a contract, he had three options: he could accept it, he could hold out for more money, or he could retire. Baseball’s reserve clause prohibited a player from going to another team without his current team’s permission, and Major League Baseball’s monopoly meant that there was no other league worth playing in.

Many great players, like Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio, spent their whole careers in one place. But they had scarcely more say over their fates than Billy Williams,  still revered by fans of the Cubs — who traded him to Oakland after 15 years of a Hall of Fame career.  Or Dizzy Trout, who spent 14 years in Detroit before being traded to the Red Sox for a package including Walt Dropo and Johnny Pesky.

But as rare as it is for a player to remain in a single place from his first summer to his last, the practice has not quite disappeared. Just as with magic marks like the 3,000-hit club and the 300-win club, every naysayer who has clucked that the list will never grow longer has been proven wrong. There are almost certainly a few players in the majors right now who will retire before ever darkening a rival club’s doorstep. One may be Yadier Molina, who just signed a three-year, $60-million contact extension that will take him through his 38th birthday in 2020.

Who might join him?

First, for comparison, I looked at now-inactive players from 1980 to 2016 to see who had appeared in 1,500 games or pitched 1,500 innings with a single team. Just 21 hitters and five pitchers reached those marks.

Before I show you what I found, three caveats:
1) All I was interested in was their major league team; if they were traded before reaching the majors and then played all their major league games with one team, like Jeff Bagwell or Elvis Andrus, they were counted. But if they had even a brief swan song with another team, like Geoff Jenkins or Ron Santo, I left them out.

2) Two of them, Ryan Howard and John Danks, signed minor league contracts with the Braves this year; both have since been released. If either ever again appears in the major leagues with any team other than his original one, he will be removed from the list. (If they miraculously were to resurface with the Phillies and White Sox, though, they would stay on.)

3) The cutoffs that I used obviously restricted the list to starting players, so relievers like Mariano Rivera were excluded. But no one other than Rivera is even worth including. Relievers generally don’t stay healthy for two decades, much less remain in the same city the whole time. Since 1980, Rivera’s the only reliever with 10 seasons of at least 50 innings pitched to have stayed in one place his whole career.

That having been said, here are the inactive and retired players who stayed in one city for their whole career:

Player G Tm
Cal Ripken 3001 BAL
Craig Biggio 2850 HOU
Derek Jeter 2747 NYY
Chipper Jones 2499 ATL
Tony Gwynn 2440 SDP
Todd Helton 2247 COL
Barry Larkin 2180 CIN
Jeff Bagwell 2150 HOU
Lou Whitaker 2113 DET
Bernie Williams 2076 NYY
Edgar Martinez 2055 SEA
Robin Yount 2011 MIL
Alan Trammell 1993 DET
Jorge Posada 1829 NYY
George Brett 1822 KCR
Don Mattingly 1785 NYY
Kirby Puckett 1783 MIN
Kent Hrbek 1747 MIN
Ryan Howard 1572 PHI
Jason Varitek 1546 BOS
Jim Gantner 1648 MIL
Player IP Tm
Brad Radke   2451 MIN
John Danks 1503.1 CHW
Ron Guidry 1639.2 NYY
Mario Soto 1614.1 CIN
Scott McGregor 1604.1 BAL

(Several of those players began their careers before 1980, like Brett in 1973; Yount in 1974; Guidry in 1975; Gantner and McGregor in 1976; and Trammell, Whitaker, and Soto in 1977. But all played their whole careers with the same team and played at least 1,500 games after 1980, so they met my arbitrary threshold for players in the recent past.)

So, over the past four decades or so, there are a couple of dozen players who had prominent careers spent entirely in one place.

I then looked at the active pitchers and hitters in baseball this year, and restricted my list to the men who have been with a single team and have played at least a thousand games or thrown a thousand innings.

These are they:

Player G Tm Signed thru Age at contract end
Yadier Molina 1611 STL 2020 38 years, 121 days
Joe Mauer 1593 MIN 2018 35 years, 205 days
David Wright 1583 NYM 2020 37 years, 326 days
Andre Ethier 1433 LAD 2017 35 years, 214 days
Ryan Zimmerman 1408 WSN 2019  35 years, 42 days
Dustin Pedroia 1405 BOS 2021  38 years, 86 days
Ryan Braun 1354 MIL 2020 36 years, 359 days
Evan Longoria 1279 TBR 2022  37 years, 34 days
Joey Votto 1271 CIN 2023  40 years, 62 days
Alex Gordon 1268 KCR 2019 35 years, 273 days
Elvis Andrus 1222 TEX 2022  34 years, 75 days
Andrew McCutchen 1192 PIT 2017  31 years, 30 days
Brett Gardner 1070 NYY 2018  35 years, 78 days
Player IP Tm Signed thru Age at contract end
Felix Hernandez 2426.7 SEA 2019 33 years, 215 days
Justin Verlander 2352.3 DET 2019 36 years, 263 days
Matt Cain 1965.7 SFG 2017  33 years, 39 days
Adam Wainwright 1777.3 STL 2018  37 years, 72 days
Clayton Kershaw   1773 LAD 2018
(may opt out)
30 years, 234 days
Homer Bailey   1033 CIN 2019 33 years, 190 days
Madison Bumgarner 1412.7 SFG 2017  28 years, 99 days
Chris Tillman 1025.3 BAL 2017 29 years, 207 days

That’s 13 hitters and eight pitchers. A few of them are so young that it’s impossible to reasonably predict how the rest of their careers will go, like Bumgarner and Tillman. Bumgarner will expect and earn a king’s ransom this offseason, and it’s anybody’s guess whether his windfall will keep him by the Bay. Most of the rest will require at least one more late-career extension to see them through to the end of their careers, like Molina just received. Two possible exceptions are Joey Votto, who will turn 40 shortly before his current contract expires, and David Wright, whose spinal stenosis and chronic health struggles have made his future an open question.

Looking down the list of recent retirees who stayed with a single team, there appear to be a few basic models. One could be considered the “star” model, and that’s the track that Yadier Molina appears to be on. That’s for beloved players who received a lucrative contract extension late in their career that was explicitly designed to keep them in town until they hung up their cleats. That definitely applies to Chipper Jones and Jorge Posada, and slightly to Todd Helton (his extension was only two years, not all that rich). The Yankees gave a more lucrative two-year extension to Mariano Rivera, so this category would apply to him, too. This could make sense for the Rays and Longoria, or the Tigers and Verlander.

There’s much more common variant on that, which we could call the “one more year” model, where a team re-signs a star to a one-year deal for what will be understood to be his final campaign. That was the approach the Astros took with Craig Biggio, the Yankees with Derek Jeter, the Padres took with Tony Gwynn, the Red Sox with Jason Varitek, the Orioles with Cal Ripken, and the Reds with Barry Larkin. If Joey Votto has another year in him after he turns 40, that might be the approach the Reds take with him. Likewise with the Red Sox and Pedroia, or the Cardinals and Wainwright.

Of course, there are the tragic cases of players whose careers are ended too soon by injury. That happened to Kirby Puckett and Jeff Bagwell, and it may happen to David Wright.

Finally, there are the players whose careers just sort of ended — they had a lot of success, but the well ran dry. It happened to Bernie Williams, who chose to leave baseball after the Yankees refused to tender him a guaranteed contract — he likely could have at least signed a minor league contract somewhere else and played his way into a backup role, but he didn’t want to have to audition for a job. It happened to Jim Gantner, whose career ended just a year after he lost an arbitration case. And it is possible that could happen to Danks, Howard or Ethier.

The trouble is that the timing rarely works out just right. For players like this, who have starred for a team for a long time as their skills have gradually eroded, their hometown name recognition typically means that they’re more valuable in that city than they would be elsewhere.

But depending on how old they are when their previous contract expires, they’re likely in line for a massive pay cut anyway, and their team may simply decide to move on. In that respect, players are just as helpless as fans: they don’t control the makeup of the team. The suits do.

In the end, it’s fairly certain that some of these players will stay where they are until they retire, though it’s certain that some will be cut adrift before their swan song. Some of the latter may even manage to find their way back to the city where they started, like Henry Aaron and Tom Glavine did.

By then, a new crop of young talent is likely to have emerged from the farm, and young fans will have moved on, and older fans will be so inured to the pain of watching players go that they will be less moved by the joy of watching them return, particularly when the 40-year old who happens to show up with the same last name on his uniform is just a gray-haired shadow of his former self. But they’ll get an ovation all the same. And there will be a flickering glimpse of a beautiful memory.

For all of the players who spent their whole careers in one place, the farewell contains a lifetime of memories: two decades of their youth, and nearly the whole of ours.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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7 years ago

I don’t know if it’s my browser, but the article starts with “for no nobler reason than cost savings” for me. The first paragraph is mostly gone?

Paul Swydanmember
7 years ago
Reply to  aweb

Hi everyone. Thank you for the comments. The intro did get cut off. It is fixed now. For the record, the missing portion was:

“Being a baseball fan sometimes feel like just rooting for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld once derisively put it. The routine heartbreak of watching your favorite players leave your favorite team and wear alien uniforms is an agonizing rite of passage. Even in the days before free agency, teams regularly sent their best players packing, often … ”

My apologies for the error.

7 years ago

Paul, Alex,

Looks like the beginning of this really great article was cut off. Please reload.

Paul Swydanmember
7 years ago
Reply to  Carl

Thanks, it is fixed now.

7 years ago

“Bumgarner will expect and earn a king’s ransom this offseason, and it’s anybody’s guess whether his windfall will keep him by the Bay.” Fortunately for the Giants and unfortunately for Bumgarner the team holds 2 team-options for 2018 and 2019 so unless his shoulder injury has really messed him up long-term Bumgarner isn’t going to be on the open market this offseason.

7 years ago

My 1st thought was Posey and Bumgarner – Posey just misses the games minimum with only 924 at this point. Posey is signed through 2021 at which point he will be 34 yo and probably a 1B by then with I’m going to guess a decent but not great bat. He seems like a good bet to be a Giant for life to me.

You stated Bumgarner will get a king’s ransom this off-season. The Giants have 2 more option years on Bumgarner at $12M each so MadBum isn’t a FA until the 2019-20 offseason. I could see him leaving, but I could see him staying too if he gets paid.

As to the rest of the list – Molina and Wright seem like locks to finish with the same team. Pedroia also seems like a really strong bet. I would agree on Votto but I’m going to guess that he’s still a productive bat at age 40, or at least only a year removed from being one, and someone will want to give him one more chance. Kershaw is a maybe but the end of his career is so far off in the future that it’s hard to say. Nobody else on the list seems like a strong bet to me. The list of guys who wanted to get in one more year but their old team didn’t want them is long and they always end up signing with some other team.

7 years ago

I wonder about Joe Mauer. He grew up in St. Paul and is one of the best and most popular players in team history. Will the Twins want him after his contract expires? Will he think he can play if they don’t?

7 years ago

Small note- for your 1980 onward list of retired players, I think you’re missing Tim Salmon. Though he played with three different “iterations” of the Angels (California, Anaheim, Los Angeles) he was still with the same franchise in the same stadium for all 1672 games of his major league career.

Paul G.
7 years ago

Nice article.

Another phenomenon here is also-ran teams will often trade away beloved veterans to playoff teams so the veterans get a chance to play in the postseason. This is especially true if the also-ran is not likely to contend for some time and the veteran has little or no playoff experience. It helps if the team remains in contention or at least threatens to do so.

In that vein, I doubt Longoria will stay in Tampa unless his skills diminish to the point that other teams do not want to pick him up and Tampa has nothing better to play at third (or first or DH).

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

This may sound cold-hearted, but I’ve always thought of fandom as rooting for the laundry. I don’t quite get the “heartbreak” over a guy you don’t know going to play baseball for another team. I don’t get emotionally attached to players. Having said that, when I was a kid back in the sixties, I was distraught when the Braves traded Eddie Mathews to Houston after the 1966 season. As I’ve gotten older, I just see it as that’s life. But, let’s face it, the reason a lot of these players leave is they want to keep playing and making big money long after they have become worth it.

7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

You’re right, that’s cold-hearted.

RJ Button
7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Shut up.

87 Cards
7 years ago

Two guys:

Jimmy Gantner, Brewers, pinch-ran for Hank Aaron in the Hammer’s last game, seventeen years in Milwaukee at second-base, 22.3 WAR, never an All-Star; a very serviceable player for his home-state team.

Ron Hodges: eleven years a Met catcher; 6.3 WAR; career-high 305 PAs in ’83; .214/19 HRs/147 RBIs; played for six Met managers including two guys named Joe and one named Yogi.

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6 years ago

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