HOUSTON -- Jeff Bagwell inched closer to the Hall of Fame a year ago, but will this be the year he is accepted into Cooperstown?
After receiving a respectable 56.0 percent of the vote in his second time on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot a year ago, Bagwell will return to the ballot for a third time this year as part of a star-studded cast of players that includes longtime teammate Craig Biggio.
Bagwell received 41.7 percent of the vote two years ago, and a similar increase in voting percentage could have him knocking on the door of the Hall.
Bagwell has said repeatedly through the years he doesn't expect to get voted into the Hall of Fame, but he certainly produced the kind of numbers during his 15 years with the Astros that could wind up seeing him bronzed in Cooperstown.
"It's all about my teammates," Bagwell said when he first appeared on the ballot. "If they think I was a good teammate and enjoyed playing with me, then that's all that matters to me."
A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from eligible Baseball Writers' Association of America members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Longtime Reds shortstop Barry Larkin was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, receiving 86.4 percent of the vote a year after getting 62.1 percent.
Starting pitcher Jack Morris (66.7 percent) and Bagwell (56 percent) are the top returning vote-getters from last year's ballot. Results of the 2013 election will be announced on Jan. 9, with the Hall of Fame inductees enshrined on July 28.
Bagwell, 44, last appeared in an Astros uniform during the 2005 World Series, the crowning achievement in a career that included the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1991 and the club's only NL Most Valuable Player Award three years later.
Bagwell played in four All-Star Games, had 2,314 hits, 449 home runs, 1,529 RBIs and helped Houston reach the playoffs six times. He was forced to retire after a degenerative shoulder condition made it impossible for him to throw a baseball and nearly impossible to swing a bat.
The early end to his career kept him from hitting 500 home runs, which almost certainly would have punched his ticket to the Hall, but he still has strong credentials.
"He's definitely going to the Hall of Fame," said Phil Garner, who managed Bagwell from 2004-05. "There was no doubt he was one of the best players in his era, year in and year out, all the way up until the last couple of years when he couldn't throw as well."
Bagwell has compared his Hall of Fame candidacy to Andre Dawson, a slugger with similar numbers who had to wait out nine years of eligibility to get the call from the Hall. Dawson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010 after receiving 45.3 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility in '02.
Bagwell's case for Hall of Fame consideration goes beyond numbers and awards. He was one of the smartest players in the game and a tremendous baserunner, as well as a good defensive player.
"There's no doubt about it, he should be in the Hall of Fame," Biggio said. "His numbers speak for themselves when you compare them to other first basemen and other power hitters, in general. But the defensive side gets lost. To me, there's no doubt in my mind he deserves to be in there, and we'll cross our fingers and hope for the best."
The Astros acquired Bagwell at the Trade Deadline in 1990 in what will forever be remembered as one of the most lopsided trades in history. Houston got Bagwell, a skinny Minor League third baseman, from the Red Sox in exchange for relief pitcher Larry Andersen.
With Ken Caminiti established at third base, the Astros shifted Bagwell across the diamond to first base. He was in the Opening Day lineup in 1991, and would be for 15 consecutive seasons. Bagwell hit .294 with 15 homers and 82 RBIs in 156 games in his rookie season, giving Houston a sign of things to come.
He had blossomed into one of the most feared sluggers in the league by 1994, hitting .368 with 39 homers and 116 RBIs in only 110 games, and winning his only Gold Glove Award en route to unanimously being named MVP in a strike-shortened season. Not that the work stoppage mattered to Bagwell, because his season ended Aug. 10 when he was hit by a pitch and broke his hand two days before the players went on strike.
Bagwell -- who also missed the final 20 games of the 1993 season after being hit by a pitch on the hand and was on the disabled list for a month in '95 with his third such hand break -- averaged 34 homers and 115 RBIs in his career, and hit .297. He stole 202 bases.
Bagwell drove in at least 100 runs in all but one season from 1996-2003, and slipped to 27 homers and 89 RBIs in '04, though he hit .286 with two homers and eight RBIs in the playoffs. Led by Bagwell, Biggio, Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, the Astros made it to the World Series for the first time in franchise history in 2005.
The pain from his arthritic right shoulder forced Bagwell to undergo capsular release surgery in May 2005, and caused him to miss 115 games. He returned for the final few weeks of the regular season and served in a pinch-hit role because of the difficulty he had throwing a ball. He was the designated hitter for Houston in the World Series, going 1-for-8 in the Fall Classic in his final appearance in an Astros uniform as a player.