How They Got There: The 1990-1999 NL MVPs

Where in the player ranks do MVPs come from? As unpredictable as baseball can be, this particular question has a very simple answer for the most part. If we go back through the years, there aren’t too many award winners whose origins deviate too much from a few common paths. MVPs largely are who we thought they were: established superstars, former top prospects, former first round draft picks. In some cases, all of the above are true.

But the stories of how those MVPs ended up with their particular teams can still be intriguing. Some were drafted by the team with which they won the award, including a few, like Bryce Harper and Joe Mauer, who were drafted first overall. Others were traded away only to find success (and some shiny hardware) on another squad.

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

1990 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Barry Bonds PIT 25 Drafted 1st Rd (6) ’85 621 33 52 .970 165 9.9
2nd Bobby Bonilla PIT 27 Trade (CHW) Jul’86 686 32 4 .841 127 3.8
3rd Darryl Strawberry NYM 28 Drafted 1st Rd (1) ’80 621 37 15 .879 141 6.5

Barry Bonds was just one several college baseball stars being considered for the first overall pick in the 1985 draft. Despite his obvious talent, there were some questions about his makeup — his reputation for being cantankerous didn’t begin when he arrived in the major leagues — which may have contributed to him slipping to the Pirates, who held the sixth pick in the draft.

And while the San Francisco Giants likely have no regrets about taking Will Clark with the second overall pick, and the Cincinnati Reds, who took hometown star Barry Larkin with the fourth selection, are no doubt content with their choice, there were three other teams — the Milwaukee Brewers (B.J. Surhoff, No. 1), the Texas Rangers (Bobby Witt, No. 3), and the Chicago White Sox (Kurt Brown, No. 5) — that mistakenly passed on the guy who would go on to win the first of his seven MVPs in 1990.

Surhoff and Witt were serviceable players throughout their long major league careers — both played in three separate decades — while Brown, a catcher out of Glendora High School in California, never reached the big leagues and was out of baseball after the 1991 season.

1991 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Terry Pendleton ATL 30 Free Agent (STL) Dec’90 644 22 10 .880 141 6.3
2nd Barry Bonds PIT 26 Drafted 1st Rd (6) ’85 634 25 43 .924 155 7.8
3rd Bobby Bonilla PIT 28 Trade (CHW) Jul’86 680 18 2 .883 150 4.7

In seven seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pendleton was an integral part of some very good teams. He had more bad seasons at the plate than good, though, especially in 1990 when he slashed .230/.277/.324 with six homers in 484 plate appearances. By September, the team had decided to move rookie catcher Todd Zeile to third base, a strong indication that Pendleton’s days in St. Louis were coming to an end.

When Pendleton became a free agent after the season, it surprised some that one of new Braves general manager John Schuerholz’s first big moves was signing the 30-year-old to a four-year, $10.2 million contract. Pendleton’s best days appeared to behind him. But Schuerholz clearly did not believe this. He was proven right. Pendleton would go on to have his two best seasons as a major leaguer in 1991 and 1992, helping to lead the Braves to their first World Series appearances since 1958.

1992 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Barry Bonds PIT 27 Drafted 1st Rd (6) ’85 612 34 39 1.080 198 9.6
2nd Terry Pendleton ATL 31 Free Agent (STL) Dec’90 689 21 5 .818 127 5.1
3rd Gary Sheffield SDP 23 Trade (MIL) Mar’92 618 33 5 .965 172 6.5

Heading into his final season before free agency, Bonds was reportedly almost traded to the Braves, only to have the deal nixed by Pirates’ manager Jim Leyland. Instead, Bonds finished his seven-year career in Pittsburgh with another MVP award and a third consecutive loss in the NLCS.

1993 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Barry Bonds SFG 28 Free Agent (PIT) Dec’92 674 46 29 1.136 193 10.5
2nd Lenny Dykstra PHI 30 Trade (NYM) Jun’89 773 19 37 .902 143 6.8
3rd David Justice ATL 27 Drafted 4th Rd (94) ’85 670 40 3 .871 126 5.1

It was Bobby Bonds, father of the younger Barry, who began his career with the San Francisco Giants, compiling 186 homers, 263 stolen bases, and two All-Star selections in seven seasons with the team. Less than a decade later, Barry would be selected by the Giants in the second Round of the 1982 draft. Despite the history — Barry was three-years-old when his father made his major league debut and 10 when he was traded to the Yankees — he opted to go to Arizona State when the Giants wouldn’t meet his asking price.

More than a decade later, the Giants would sign Bonds to a record-breaking six-year, $43.75 million free agent contract. The 28-year-old, widely considered to be the best player in the game at the time, joined a team that had lost 90 games the previous season. Led by Bonds and new manager Dusty Baker, the 1993 Giants went on to win 103 games, although they fell short of the playoffs and would not have another winning season until 1997.

1994 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Jeff Bagwell HOU 26 Trade (BOS) Aug’90 479 39 15 1.201 205 7.8
2nd Matt Williams SFG 28 Drafted 1st Rd (3) ’86 483 43 1 .926 133 4.5
3rd Moises Alou MON 27 Trade (PIT) Aug’90 471 22 7 .989 150 4.7

Despite having a six-game division lead with just over a month to go in the season, the Boston Red Sox determined that their bullpen could use a boost down the stretch and, if they could hold on to the AL East, into the playoffs. Their target was Houston Astros pitcher Larry Andersen, one of the better setup men in baseball, who was still going strong at age 37.

With third baseman Wade Boggs still in his prime and a pair of top prospects, Mo Vaughn and Scott Cooper, waiting in the wings for the corner infield spots, the Red Sox felt comfortable enough to part with a third base prospect named Jeff Bagwell in the deal to acquire Andersen. At the time, the 22-year-old was batting .333 with 34 doubles for Double-A New Britain, although he had only six homers in 831 minor league plate appearances.

The trade did not work out so well for the Red Sox, who lost in the ALCS to the Oakland Athletics. Anderson had a 1.23 ERA in 22 innings after the trade, but he became a free agent a year earlier than expected after the players and owners signed a collusion agreement in December. Bagwell didn’t spend another day in the minors. He was the NL Rookie of the Year with the Astros in 1991 and one of the most feared hitters in the game by the end of the 1994 season.

1995 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Barry Larkin CIN 31 Drafted 1st Rd (4) ’85 567 15 51 0.886 136 5.3
2nd Dante Bichette COL 31 Trade (MIL) Nov’92 612 40 13 0.984 131 1.8
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP FIP ERA WAR
3rd Greg Maddux ATL 29 Free Agent (CHC) Dec’92 19 2 209.2 2.26 1.63 7.9

Just your classic baseball fairy tale. Larkin was a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team, a first Round draft pick by his hometown team, a World Series Champion, an NL MVP, and a 12-time All-Star selection. He played his entire career, consisting of 19 major league seasons, with the Cincinnati Reds before being inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2012.

Larkin’s best offensive season actually came in 1996 when he hit 33 homers, stole 36 bases, and finished 12th in MVP voting, but his team ended up in third place with 81 wins. The 1995 team, which had two other MVP candidates in Reggie Sanders (154 wRC+) and Ron Gant (144 wRC+), won the division. It would be the 31-year-old Larkin’s last postseason appearance.

1996 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Ken Caminiti SDP 33 Trade (HOU) Dec’94 639 40 11 1.028 169 7.5
2nd Mike Piazza LAD 27 Drafted 62nd Rd ’88 631 36 0 .985 165 6.6
3rd Ellis Burks COL 31 Free Agent (CHW) Nov’93 685 40 32 1.047 151 7.2

The Padres, under new ownership and looking to turn the page on a dismal period when they unloaded most of their major league talent for prospects, completed a 12-player trade with the Houston Astros on December 28, 1994. The biggest name in the deal was Ken Caminiti, who had just made his first All-Star team during his age-31-year-old season.

By the end of the 1996 season, Caminiti had become a fan favorite with his ability to make unbelievable plays at third base, seemingly without any concern for his health, and his willingness to play through injuries or even food poisoning. He also led the Padres to the postseason for the first time in 12 years.

1997 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Larry Walker COL 30 Free Agent (MON) Apr’95 664 49 33 1.172 177 9.1
2nd Mike Piazza LAD 28 Drafted 62nd Rd ’88 633 40 5 1.070 183 9.1
3rd Jeff Bagwell HOU 29 Trade (BOS) Aug’90 717 43 31 1.017 163 8.0

Barring a World Series victory that might have persuaded ownership to pay increase their payroll, the small-market Montreal Expos had almost no chance of locking up one of their star players, Larry Walker, prior to him reaching free agency after the 1994 season. Trading him likely would have been an option if the Expos hadn’t been possibly the best team in baseball heading into that season and leading up to the trade deadline.

When the players’ strike ended the season in August, so did the Expos’ chances of winning a championship and keeping their talented team together. Walker signed a four-year, $22 million contract with the Colorado Rockies prior to the start of the 1995 season, and continued to put up numbers that would eventually make him deserving of the Hall of Fame.

1998 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Sammy Sosa CHC 29 Trade (CHW) Mar’92 722 66 18 1.024 159 7.1
2nd Mark McGwire STL 34 Trade (OAK) Jul’97 681 70 1 1.222 205 8.5
3rd Moises Alou HOU 31 Trade (FLA) Nov’97 679 38 11 .981 158 6.8

Sammy Sosa was originally signed as an amateur free agent by the Texas Rangers and later made his MLB debut with the team at age 20, leading off and starting in center field at Yankee Stadium on June 16, 1989. Despite a two-hit effort in his debut, the young prospect still had a ways to go. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox in a deal for Harold Baines the following month. Less than three years later, Sosa was on the move again. This time, the toolsy, yet still unpolished, outfielder went to the Chicago Cubs for slugger George Bell prior to the 1993 season.

While Sosa wasn’t an immediate difference-maker with the Cubs, it didn’t take long before he would become the “Face of the Franchise.” He had 30-30 seasons in 1993 and 1995 and his first 40-homer season in 1996. Two years later, he’d find himself at center stage of the baseball world as he and Mark McGwire were racing to become the single-season home run leader. McGwire won that battle, but Sosa was the runaway pick for MVP as he led the Cubs to their first playoff appearance since 1989.

1999 NL MVP
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired PA HR SB OPS wRC+ WAR
MVP Chipper Jones ATL 27 Drafted 1st Rd (1) ’90 701 45 25 1.074 165 7.3
2nd Jeff Bagwell HOU 31 Trade (BOS) Aug’90 729 42 30 1.045 166 7.8
3rd Matt Williams ARI 33 Trade (CLE) Dec’97 678 35 2 .880 112 4.0

While not quite his hometown team, the Atlanta Braves were at least geographically closest to Larry “Chipper” Jones, who was born in DeLand, Florida and went to high school in Jacksonville. So when he was taken with the first pick in the 1990 draft, I’m sure it was a special day for the Jones family, who wouldn’t have to travel too far — most of the Braves’ farm teams were also nearby — to watch Chipper play.

It almost didn’t happen, though. The top high school pitcher in the draft, Todd Van Poppel, had reportedly indicated that he would not sign with the Braves if they were to select him, meaning Atlanta would have to “settle” for the switch-hitting shortstop out of Florida.

It took a little while for Jones’ major league career to get off the ground — he suffered a season-ending knee injury in spring training prior to what would’ve been his rookie season in 1994 — but he posted an .803 OPS in 1995. It would be the lowest OPS of a 19-year career in which he became a World Series Champion, the NL MVP, and an eight-time All-Star selection. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2018.

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3 years ago

Fun look back. Bonds got robbed in 1991, though I know there is no sympathy for him now. He should have won four in a row, which is bonkers.

3 years ago
Reply to  tomerafan

I was wondering how on earth Pendleton received more votes than Bonds that year and assumed it must have been because of the RBIs. Then, I went to look into it and discovered that Bonds had 30 more RBIs in than Pendleton, which makes it even more bonkers because RBIs were all the rage back then.

3 years ago
Reply to  Jason Martinez

This is the correct answer. The NBA does it too where a narrative takes form and that’s it — Karl Malone won a ludicrous mvp over Jordan in 97 or 98.

Runaway Toastermember
3 years ago
Reply to  mookie28

There is definitely an MVP-fatigue factor. We’re almost seeing it now with Trout, and James has had for years in the NBA.

Johnnie T
3 years ago
Reply to  Jason Martinez

Exactly right. The Braves came out of nowhere to win the division and that change coincided with Pendleton’s arrival. He had the narrative. And while Bonds was probably more deserving, it was not exactly robbery. Pendleton was pretty excellent and not dramatically behind Bonds in WAR or anything. Pendleton was also known as a team leader and got credit for that and Bonds, well, not so much. So it was not one of those Juan Gonzalez MVP travesties, just one of those “maybe not the best but not nutso” choices.

3 years ago
Reply to  Jason Martinez

That narrative is very important. A new arrival to a team that is a significant factor in a major turn around for that team. That narrative is high ranking when it comes to voting for MVP.