How They Got There: The 1990-1999 AL MVPs

Last week, I revisited how the National League MVPs of the 1990s were acquired. Six were either signed as free agents or acquired via trade, which is in stark contrast to the American League list. Of the eight different AL MVPs, six were homegrown and one of the other two had been re-acquired by his original team at the time he won. Only one of those six homegrown players, however, remained with their respective team throughout their entire career, as Chipper Jones and Barry Larkin did on the NL side.

Here’s a look back at how the AL MVPs of the 1990s were acquired.

1990 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Rickey Henderson OAK 31 Trade (NYY) Jun’89 594 28 65 1.016 190 10.2
2nd Cecil Fielder DET 26 Free Agent (JPN) Jan’90 673 51 0 0.969 165 6.5
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP FIP ERA WAR
3rd Roger Clemens BOS 27 Drafted 1st Rd (19) ’83 21 6 228.1 2.18 1.93 6.5

Rickey Henderson won his lone MVP award during his second of four stints with the A’s; the team originally drafted him out of Oakland Technical High School in the fourth Round of the 1976 amateur draft. Traded to the New York Yankees in December 1984 after six stellar seasons to begin his big league career, the A’s brought their former leadoff man back home four-and-a-half-years later.

In mid-June 1989, the A’s were at the top of a heated AL West battle, with the Kansas City Royals and California Angels nipping at their heels. The 30-year-old Henderson, who was in the final year of his contract with the Yankees, had made it clear that he would invoke his no-trade clause to block a trade to any team aside from Oakland. With that in mind, the two teams struck a deal on June 21, sending Henderson to Oakland for outfielder Luis Polonia and pitchers Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk.

Not only did the move work out in the short-term — Henderson was the ALCS MVP for the eventual World Champions — the future Hall of Famer was re-signed after the season to a four-year, $12 million contract to become the highest paid player in the game. And he earned every bit of it: In 1990, he set career highs in several categories, including homers (28), doubles (33), batting average (.325), on-base percentage (.439), and slugging percentage (.577).

1991 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Cal Ripken Jr. BAL 30 Drafted 2nd Rd (48) ’78 717 34 6 .940 154 10.6
2nd Cecil Fielder DET 27 Free Agent (JPN) Jan’90 712 44 0 .860 132 3.8
3rd Frank Thomas CHW 23 Drafted 1st Rd (7) ’89 700 32 1 1.006 179 7.2

The year after longtime Orioles’ star Brooks Robinson announced his retirement, the team drafted a pair of high schoolers capable of playing on the left side of the infield — third baseman Robert Boyce with the 22nd pick overall and shortstop/pitcher Cal Ripken Jr. at pick 48. One would never make it past A-ball. The other, who was the team’s third of four second round selections, would become a Baltimore legend.

When Ripken was born in Havre de Grace, Maryland in 1960, his father, Cal Sr., was a catcher/outfielder for the Fox Cities Foxes, a minor league affiliate of the Orioles. He would soon end his playing career in favor of coaching, although it would take more than a decade before he was in the big leagues. By the time Cal Jr. reached the majors at the end of the 1981 season, his father had been on the Orioles’ coaching staff for more than five seasons. Therefore, Cal Sr. had a front row seat to watch his son become Rookie of the Year in 1982, AL MVP and World Series Champion in 1983, and AL MVP again in 1991 when he was still over 1,000 games short of breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak.

1992 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP FIP ERA WAR
MVP Dennis Eckersley OAK 37 Trade (CHC) Apr’87 7 51 80 1.72 1.91 3.1
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
2nd Kirby Puckett MIN 32 Drafted 1st Rd (3) ’82 696 19 17 .864 136 5.9
3rd Joe Carter TOR 32 Trade (SDP) Dec’90 683 34 12 .808 120 2.9

On an A’s team with superstars Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Dave Stewart, it was 37-year-old closer Dennis Eckersley who won the AL MVP award in 1992 after becoming the second pitcher ever to save at least 50 games in a single season.

Eckersley was the premier closer in baseball by 1992, but still relatively new to the role. Following the 1986 season, the 32-year-old appeared to be on the decline after a long, 12-season career that included 359 starts and 151 wins. He also had an alcohol problem, which he acknowledged after the season when he checked into rehab. While he was done as a starting pitcher, chapter two of his big league career was about to begin.

Days before the start of the 1987 season, A’s general manager Sandy Alderson acquired Eckersley from the Chicago Cubs for minor leaguers Brian Guinn, Mark Leonette, and Dave Wilder, none of whom would reached the majors. His first appearance with the team came in relief when he pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings to hand off a 4-2 lead to closer Jay Howell, who blew the save in the ninth. Manager Tony La Russa continued to take advantage of Eckersley’s ability to pitch multiple innings — he pitched at least four innings in 10 appearances, including two starts — but it was clear by season’s end that his job would be to close out the last inning or two of each win. He was one of the best in the game at that job for the next decade.

1993 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Frank Thomas CHW 25 Drafted 1st Rd (7) ’89 676 41 4 1.033 170 6.3
2nd Paul Molitor TOR 36 Free Agent (MIL) Dec’92 725 22 22 .911 144 4.8
3rd John Olerud TOR 24 Drafted 3rd Rd (79) ’89 679 24 0 1.072 179 8.1


1994 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Frank Thomas CHW 26 Drafted 1st Rd (7) ’89 517 38 2 1.217 205 7.0
2nd Ken Griffey Jr. SEA 24 Drafted 1st Rd (1) ’87 493 40 11 1.076 163 6.8
3rd Albert Belle CLE 27 Drafted 2nd Rd (47) ’87 480 36 9 1.152 186 5.3

Considering how Hall of Famer Frank Thomas’ career went and how quickly he asserted himself as one of the best hitters in the game, it’s amazing that he lasted until the seventh pick in the 1989 draft.

Known more for his skills as an All-State tight end, Thomas went to the University of Auburn on a football scholarship. His arrival followed the exit of another multi-sport star at Auburn named Bo Jackson, who was the first overall pick in the 1986 NFL draft and a fourth round pick in the 1986 MLB draft. Injuries quickly derailed Thomas’ football career, but not before he had made a strong enough impression as a baseball player that Auburn allowed him to keep his scholarship. Things couldn’t have turned out much better.

Pitcher Ben McDonald was an easy choice for the Orioles at No. 1, but five other teams had to pass on Thomas for him to land with the White Sox. The only team ahead of them to opt for a college position player was the Texas Rangers, who went with a local product in Texas Tech outfielder Donald Harris. Had they not acquired first baseman Rafael Palmeiro during the previous offseason, it’s possible they could’ve had more interest in Thomas. Instead, he ended up in Chicago, where he quickly became a star and was dubbed “The Big Hurt” by White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson.

1995 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Mo Vaughn BOS 27 Drafted 1st Rd (23) ’89 636 39 11 .963 139 5.1
2nd Albert Belle CLE 28 Drafted 2nd Rd (47) ’87 629 50 5 1.091 173 7.2
3rd Edgar Martinez SEA 32 Amateur FA (PR) Dec’82 639 29 4 1.107 182 7.0

Mo Vaughn was the other first baseman taken in the first round of the 1989 draft, the 23rd overall pick out of Seton Hall. He was also the Red Sox’s “First Baseman of the Future” when they traded away prospect Jeff Bagwell in August 1990. At the time, Bagwell was a poor-fielding third baseman who could potentially move across the diamond. Thus, Vaughn’s presence likely played at least some role in the team’s willingness to trade away Bagwell, who flourished in Houston in 1991 and 1992 while Vaughn was struggling to establish himself against major league pitching.

But if there was a time when the Bagwell trade stung much less, or maybe not at all, for the Red Sox, it was from 1993-1998 when “The Hit Dog” Vaughn emerged as one of the most-feared sluggers in the game. While the team had just two winning seasons and one playoff appearance over that span, they were an entertaining bunch with Vaughn being the most recognizable player not named Roger Clemens.

1996 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Juan Gonzalez TEX 26 Amateur FA (PR) May’86 592 47 2 1.011 141 3.5
2nd Alex Rodriguez SEA 20 Drafted 1st Rd (1) ’93 677 36 15 1.045 159 9.2
3rd Albert Belle CLE 29 Drafted 2nd Rd (47) ’87 715 48 11 1.033 150 5.2

It’s difficult enough to project how good the best 21- and 22-year-old college baseball players will be in the major leagues, and how quickly they can make an impact. That task is even harder on the international market, where players as young as 16 are eligible to sign. Only a small percentage of those players ever reach the big leagues. An even smaller percentage become impact big leaguers. And only a handful of those that do will become superstars on the team that originally signed them. It’s not quite a crapshoot, but scouts can only tell you so much about players who are so far from reaching their potential.

For example, a 16-year-old Rangers’ prospect named Juan Gonzalez, signed out of Puerto Rico in 1986, had just five extra-base hits with no home runs in 259 plate appearances during his first rookie-ball stint in the Gulf Coast League. While there was still plenty of upside — Baseball America ranked him as the sixth best prospect in the organization — how could anyone know that Gonzalez would be an AL MVP 10 years later while leading the Rangers to their first ever playoff appearance? Or that the kid who had 51 singles, four doubles, one triple, and zero homers in the GCL would win his second MVP in 1998 after becoming the 20th player all-time to have at least 97 extra-base hits in a season?

The Rangers could only have hoped, but they made the investment and got the rare “best-case scenario” return.

1997 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Ken Griffey Jr. SEA 27 Drafted 1st Rd (1) ’87 704 56 15 1.028 154 9.0
2nd Tino Martinez NYY 29 Trade (SEA) Dec’95 685 44 3 .948 141 5.3
3rd Frank Thomas CHW 29 Drafted 1st Rd (7) ’89 649 35 1 1.067 179 7.2

It wasn’t a surprise that Ken Griffey Jr. was the No. 1 overall draft pick out of high school — Kevin Appier, Craig Biggio, Delino DeShields, Travis Fryman, and Jack McDowell were other notable major leaguers taken after Griffey in the first round — and it wasn’t even a surprise that he was in the big leagues at age 19 or that he was a Hall of Famer. But it is a surprise that he won only one MVP award over his 22-year career.

While “The Kid” did receive MVP votes in 10 different seasons, including five Top-5 votes between 1994-1998, it took a 56-homer, 147-RBI season on a first place Mariners’ team for him to finally win the award. For generational players like Barry Bonds, who had seven MVPs, and Mike Trout, who has three and counting, it can sometimes feel like voters occasionally go in another direction just because it’s boring to keep voting for the guy who is clearly better than everyone else. This may have been the case with Griffey, who appeared so effortlessly talented that his string of MVP-caliber seasons may have seemed underwhelming to many.

1998 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Juan Gonzalez TEX 28 Amateur FA (PR) May ’86 669 45 2 .997 145 4.9
2nd Nomar Garciaparra BOS 24 Drafted 1st Rd (12) ’94 652 35 12 .946 139 7.3
3rd Derek Jeter NYY 24 Drafted 1st Rd (6) ’92 694 19 30 .864 128 6.2

Gonzalez’s season was a bit overshadowed by a home run race involving his former minor league teammate Sammy Sosa, the eventual NL MVP. But the buzz surrounding his own pursuit of a single-season record — he was on a 192-RBI pace after 81 games, just enough to eclipse Hack Wilson’s record of 191 RBI — likely contributed to the voters giving him the edge over two of the league’s most recognizable young stars, Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter, as well as Griffey, the previous season’s winner.

While Gonzalez would fall well shy of Wilson’s total, his 157 RBI in a season currently sits at 27th all-time with only Manny Ramirez (165 RBI in 1999) and Sosa (158 RBI in 1998; 160 RBI in 2001) able to surpass that total since.

1999 AL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Ivan Rodriguez TEX 27 Amateur FA (PR) Jul’88 630 35 25 .914 125 6.8
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP FIP ERA WAR
2nd Pedro Martinez BOS 27 Trade (MON) Nov’97 23 4 213.1 1.39 2.07 11.6
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
3rd-T Roberto Alomar CLE 31 Free Agent (BAL) Dec’98 694 24 37 .955 142 7.3
3rd-T Manny Ramirez CLE 27 Drafted 1st Rd (13) ’91 640 44 2 1.105 172 7.5

When the Rangers signed a 5-foot-7, 165-pound catcher out of Puerto Rico named Ivan Rodriguez, there was another “Pudge” in the game. At age 40, future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk was still going strong and not close to hanging ’em up. By the time he retired in 1993, however, there was a different “Pudge” in the big leagues — now listed at 5-foot-9 and closer to 200 pounds — who was a superstar on the rise.

Six years later, Rodriguez would do something that Fisk never accomplished during a 24-year career that spanned four decades: he won the AL MVP. In a season during which he became the first catcher ever to have at least 20 homers and 20 stolen bases, the 27-year-old Rodriguez set career-highs in hits (199), homers (35), RBI (113), and stolen bases (25). It was his lone MVP award, although there were plenty of accolades over the years, including 14 All-Star selections, 13 Gold Glove awards, and an induction into the Hall of Fame.

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2 years ago

Small but comical typo: Cecil Fielder with 163.0 WAR in 1991! Now that’s an impressive season!

2 years ago
Reply to  jensox

It’s the only time a team went 163-0.