JEFF BAGWELL is the Astros' alltime leader in home runs and RBIs. He's typically the first to arrive in the clubhouse and the last to leave, and he's the public face of the franchise. In short he has given the team everything it has asked of him in his 15-year career. Now it wants one more favor: early retirement. Bagwell, 37, who played only 39 games last year because of an arthritic right shoulder, was reportedly asked to announce that he's too hurt to play so the team can collect insurance that will reimburse it for $15.6 million of the $17 million he's due for 2006. The Astros need him to do it soon too: The claim deadline is Jan. 31. G.M. Tim Purpura denied making the request but said, "We would love to have a healthy Jeff Bagwell. If we can't have that, we have to consider our options."
Last week the first baseman was examined by Alabama orthopedist James Andrews; the team expected the results this week. Even if the news is encouraging, the Astros would be better off if Bagwell quit. He couldn't throw last season and was overmatched in his World Series at bats. Plus, Houston needs cash to bolster an offense that ranked 24th in runs in 2005. "No one in Houston will say it because [ Bagwell's] so popular," says an NL executive, "but they'd be pretty happy right now if he retired."