As you might have heard by now, MLBPA plans to investigate the lack of offers over the winter for 43-year-old Barry Bonds. While this might seem like big news, it’s really little more than routine. Don Fehr, head of the player’s association, tells us that his organization looks into free-agent issues every day. Only if they “come to the conclusion with respect to any player that there’s a matter worth pursuing, [they’ll] pursue it.”
So, under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be news. However, we’re talking about a guy who hit .276/.480/.565 in 477 plate appearance last year. A guy who hasn’t had an OPS+ below 150 since 1989. A guy who, by all anecdotal evidence, has kept in shape this winter and could conceivably give your team another 450 or so plate appearances at a well above average clip.
Still, it’s easy to ascertain why he hasn’t landed a gig anywhere. An entire book is dedicated to proving that he abused PEDs willingly. The Mitchell Report, while not harping on Bonds like it did Roger Clemens, didn’t help the former’s case much. Why bring in a publicly-assumed PED user when there are younger, more flexible players on the market to fill your roster?
Before I go any further, I’d like to mention the definition of collusion: “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.” I’ll revisit this later. But for now, let’s move on.
For some teams, this was an easy decision. Bonds can DH and play some kind of role in left field, but that’s about it. So right then he’s limited in a way that has nothing to do with steroids. The Yankees, for example, already have two players slotted for DH duty, Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui. And beyond that, they already have a lefty-heavy lineup. So you can strike him off at least one team’s list, two if you count the Giants, who publicly told him he wasn’t welcome back, three if you count the Red Sox, who have Ortiz hogging the DH spot, four if you count the Indians, who have Travis Hafner doing the same. And let us not forget Frank Thomas in Toronto, Gary Sheffield in Detroit, and Jim Thome in Chicago.
What’s holding the other teams back? Well, you first have to consider that Bonds only fits on contenders. So beyond the seven teams we just named, we can strike out the Marlins, Nationals, Astros, Pirates, and Orioles. So that’s 12 teams out of 30 who right off the bat should have no interest in Bonds. And that’s before we get a bit deeper into the matter.
In order for him to land with an NL team, they have to have a reasonable outfield vacancy. This rules out the Phillies (Burrell, Victorino, Jenkins), Brewers (Cameron, Hall, Hart), Reds (Dunn, Griffey, Bruce/Freel), Cubs (Fukudome and Soriano at the corners), Cardinals (Ankiel, Duncan at the corners, plus Brian Barton and Colby Rasmus), Dodgers (Jones, Kemp, Ethier, Pierrre), Rockies (Holliday, Hawpe at the corners), and DBacks (Byrnes, Upton, Young).
So now we’re down to 10 teams that could possibly house Bonds: The Mets, Braves, Padres, Rangers, Mariners, A’s, Angels, Twins, Royals, and Rays.
From these teams we can eliminate the Twins for not only money concerns, but because they have two starters at the corners, and some room at DH (Jason Kubel/Craig Monroe). Bonds would be a better option, but I think given the Twins M.O., no one expected them to sign Bonds. Ditto the Braves. They might not be set for life with Matt Diaz in left, but I doubt they’d use the payroll on Bonds.
The Royals are a bit crowded, as they have Mark Teahen, David DeJesus, Joey Gathright, and Jose Guillen for three outfield spots, plus Ross Gload and Billy Butler for first base and DH. The Angels are also stacked in the outfield, with Garrett Anderson, Vlad Guerrero, Gary Matthews Jr., Torii Hunter, Reggie Willits, and Juan Rivera vying for three outfield spots and the DH.
The Padres and A’s both have openings, but also have different reasons to decline. The Padres likely want some defense out there, considering the cavernous PETCO Park. Having an outfield of Bonds, Edmonds, and Giles means a pretty weak defensive outfield. On the A’s side, they’ve got Jack Cust at DH. And beyond that, they’re not quite sure if they’re going to contend. Might as well see what you’ve got before you go picking up a player like Barry Bonds.
The Mariners are an interesting case. They have Raul Ibanez starting in left, though he might not be the best option out there. At DH they have Jose Vidro, someone who is not an ideal candidate for that slot. Bonds would be a huge upgrade, for sure, and would also upgrade their questionable offense.
That leaves three: The Mets, Rays, and Rangers.
The Rays have been linked to Bonds this off-season, though it appears that won’t happen. If the Rays’ roster was coming to maturity at this point, I could see bringing in Bonds. But as they’re currently constituted, it makes sense to pass. A similar case can be made for the Rangers — Keith Law has them second to Tampa Bay as far as farm systems go. They have Frank Catalanotto, Josh Hamilton, and Milton Bradley in the outfield right now. Yeah, they could sign Bonds as a DH, but I don’t think that it’s quite an obvious move. Their pitching is still the part they need to work on most.
The Mets are interesting here, since they have Moises Alou in left. He’s not playing 162 games this year, I can tell you that much. It might make some sense to bring in Bonds. Could Alou play right field against lefties, and split time with Bonds in left against righties? I suppose. And Ryan Church could back up Beltran in center. So it wouldn’t be a horrible arrangement. But then you have an outfield riddled with injury risks.
It took a lot of words, but I’ve shown that nearly every team has a rationale for not signing Bonds. So let’s look back to our collusion definition. A “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.” It’s pretty clear that that the MLBPA won’t be able to prove collusion to this definition. There’s just too much evidence to the contrary.
Is it possible that all the GMs got together and said, “Okay, no one sign Barry Bonds”? I suppose. If they did, though, they did a great job covering their tracks. More likely, though, it was a decision made by each team individually. They weighed their own rosters, and then considered the risk of Bonds missing time for his legal troubles. And in the end, they decided it wasn’t worth it. I can’t find fault in that conclusion.