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March 4, 2008

What's So Bad About Winning?

Imagine that you are the general manager of a Major League Baseball team and David Ortiz suddenly became available. All you have to do is pay his salary and you can pick up a player who is easily worth three wins over the course of a season without even putting on a baseball glove. And since you've already imagined this much, throw in the pipe dream that Ortiz has adopted a more athletic physique, and can now play left field for as many as 110 games a season. Unless you have absolutely no interest in baseball, you are well aware that I'm describing not Big Papi, but the readily available Barry Bonds, whose inability to land a suitor for his services is a pretty sure indicator that he is either the victim of collusion, or that major league teams hate winning games.

After stepping down from his otherworldly peak in 2003, Bonds has established a standard for what can be expected of him as a mortal. Between 2006 and 2007, Bonds has averaged 485 plate appearances, 123 walks, 27 home runs, and an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of 1.022. The list of other players who have averaged an OPS of over 1.000 during the same stretch reads like the first half of the first round of a fantasy draft: Ortiz, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard. Not surprisingly, the four other hitters listed above all have jobs lined up for 2008. Analysts are almost universally in agreement that Bonds still has something left in the tank to contribute this season. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA, one of the premier objective player-projection systems, projects Bonds will come to the plate 475 times in 2008, with 21 home runs and a .419 on-base percentage, which in most years would put him in the top five in the league in OBP. The Hardball Times's Marcel projections forecast a similar line for Bonds, with 23 home runs and a .420 OBP. Zips, from Baseball Think Factory, projects 22 home runs and a .456 OBP.

In addition to their resemblance to Bonds's performance last year, all of these projections are similar for a reason; they are all completely objective and based solely on Bonds's past performance and thousands of points of data collected from the past performance of thousands of other players. It is very unlikely that Bonds cannot compete at a major league level, albeit in reduced playing time, in 2008.

Of course, the argument can be made that there is more than performance to weigh in the decision to add Barry Bonds to one's baseball team. As Lowell Cohn states in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, "There are other kinds of sense besides baseball sense. There's common sense. There's good sense. No team should want Bonds—even though he can hit—because he's a load." Beyond the media circus that is hardly unexpected around the second-best baseball player of all-time, and the steroid "allegations" (LOL), there is now also the chance that Barry Bonds could be convicted of perjury and sent to jail, therefore negating any value on the baseball field. (Side note, though: On the off-chance that he is sent to prison, how awesome would it be if Barry Bonds was the starting left fielder on the San Quentin baseball team in the California Penal League?).

Really, though, when's the last time someone as famous as Barry Bonds actually served prison time? Paris Hilton? She served 22 days. For every Martha Stewart and Scott Weiland, there are 10 O.J. Simpsons, Kobe Bryants, Michael Jacksons, Robert Blakes, and Phil Spectors. Are all 30 Major League Baseball teams really unwilling to bet against a celebrity going to jail? On a perjury charge no less?

Several analysts, including ESPN.com's Rob Neyer, have hypothesized that Bonds is holding out for more money than inquiring teams are willing to spend on him, a la Latrell Sprewell in 2004. Such a scenario is hardly unthinkable, given Bonds's propensity towards arrogant and sometimes erratic behavior, and introduces a valid question: How much is Bonds' performance actually worth? Since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973, it has been common for American League teams to sign aging sluggers to reduced contracts in order to take advantage of their hitting prowess that often lingers after their bodies are no longer suited for playing the field. Notable examples of such contracts include former home-run king Hank Aaron's deal with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1975, Frank Thomas's with the Oakland Athletics in 2006, and Mike Piazza and Gary Sheffield's respective deals with the Oakland A's and Detroit Tigers in 2007. The problem with these comparisons is that while Thomas, Sheffield, and Piazza are all likely Hall of Famers, they are not Bonds.

Bonds is such a special talent that even his decaying shell is still so much more valuable than almost any other player in baseball. Last season, Piazza made $8.5 million. Sheffield made almost $11 million. Bonds outperformed both of them last year and will be at least as valuable, if not more so, than them in 2008. The market for veteran power hitters is set fairly high, and there is no reason for Bonds to settle for less than what he's worth.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to dislike Barry Bonds. He broke the most cherished record in all of sports while probably abusing performance-enhancing drugs. He is notoriously surly with the media. He's by many accounts kind of an asshole. Worse yet, he seems like one of those assholes who knows he's an asshole, making him an even bigger asshole. But is the rejection of these negative characteristics really worth four or five wins over the course of a season? Is any team really in a position to sacrifice wins like that in 2008?

As Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus wrote last month, "Barry Bonds can still help 30 teams. Every single one of them would be better for having him on the roster in some role." By turning their backs on a player of Bonds's caliber, teams are doing their fans an enormous disservice. They are putting self-righteousness ahead of the more important (and perhaps only) goal of a Major League Baseball team: putting themselves in the best position to win the World Series.

Related in Gelf: An interview with Bonds's biographer.

Related on the Web: The Hardball Times crunches the numbers and finds that the two teams that could benefit the most from signing Bonds are the Braves and the Tigers.

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- Sports
- posted on Mar 05, 08

good stuff Jake, if only the sports media werent so puritanical the best hitter in the game might have a place to play

- Sports
- posted on Mar 06, 08

Excellent think piece. I agree with most of your points. However, you hit the nail on the head when you described the reasons teams may not sign this bum: he's a bum. And he probably does want way too much money, making him an extremely overpriced bum. Moreover, he's an extremely overpriced bum who will miss tons of games whether he goes to jail (or simply attends his own trial) or is once again simply unwilling to push himself to play. Collusion? Sure it's collusion. Everyone knows he's an overpriced bum and wants nothing to do with him. Good riddance to him. You, however, should keep up the good work and give us more of the same good baseball writing. Thanks.

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