In the world of Major League Baseball, the Boston Red Sox had won the 2007 World Series in a four game sweep over the Colorado Rockies, giving them two World Series titles in the last four years after going more than 80 years since their previous World Series championships. The 2007 season was also the last season in the big leagues for Barry Bonds.
Ahh, Barry Bonds, baseball villain. For the first dozen or so years of his career, Bonds was well regarded as one of the greatest players of his generation. He was often compared with Ken Griffey, Jr. at the time. Both were very good players from a young age who hit for average and power and played good defense. They also both had fathers who played in the major leagues. Bonds was in the National League, Griffey was in the American League, and they routinely faced each other in All-Star games.
Bonds had come up as a 21-year-old in 1986 and Griffey arrived three years later, making the major leagues at the age of 19. If you compare them at similar ages using cumulative WAR by age, Griffey got a bit of a head start because he was in the big leagues at a younger age and keeps that lead through age 30. The graph below shows each player’s cumulative WAR by age (WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement and accounts for the total value of a player, which includes his offensive and defensive production. All WAR data for this article comes from Fangraphs.com).
Of course, there is the performance-enhancing drugs issue. The book “Game of Shadows” suggests that Bonds used PEDs starting in 1999 and used them through 2004, although he never failed a drug test. He did admit to using “the cream” and “the clear” but said he thought they were the nutritional supplement flaxseed oil and a pain-relieving balm for the player’s arthritis.
This brings us to the end of Barry Bonds career. In 2006, at the age of 41, Bonds played 130 games, had 493 plate appearances, and hit .270/.454/.545 (that’s batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). He was no longer as good in the field as he had once been but hit well enough to be worth 3.2 WAR. He had a similar performance in 2007, at the age of 42, when he hit .276/.480/.565 and was again worth 3.2 WAR. That was the final year of his contract with the Giants so he became a free agent heading into the 2008 season when the Giants chose not to re-sign him. Despite having been a productive player over the previous two seasons, no team came calling for Bonds. He even said he would play for the league minimum and no team showed interest. Without a place to play, his career was over.
In December of 2007, Bonds was indicted for his testimony before a grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO). It took many years and too much taxpayer money, but there eventually was a trial and Bonds was convicted of an obstruction of justice charge in 2011. A few weeks ago, an appeals court threw out that conviction. Now that Bonds has been cleared of all charges related to BALCO, it’s being reported that he is preparing a collusion case against Major League Baseball.
The owners of MLB teams have been found guilty of collusion multiple times in the past, including three consecutive years in the 1980s (1985, 1986, and 1987) when owners ended up paying players $280 million in damages. They were at it again in 2002 and 2003. This time owners paid players $12 million but the agreement was made with no admission of guilt. So it would not be surprising to find that MLB owners collectively decided to NOT sign Barry Bonds after the 2007 season.
Collusion will be difficult to prove. In the cases from the 1980s, large groups of free agent players went unsigned so it was easy to see that something strange was going on. As an example, in 1985 there were 35 free agents and only four of them changed teams and each of those four was not wanted by his old team. Players such as Kirk Gibson, Tommy John, and Phil Niekro were not given offers. This happened again in 1986 and again in 1987.
In the case of Bonds, not only is he just a single player who was not given any offers, but he also had enough negative publicity surrounding him because of PED allegations and generally personality prickliness that teams could claim they didn’t want to sign him and deal with the media circus that would surely follow.
That being said, let’s look at the possibilities for Bonds heading into the 2008 season. He would be 43 years old and his defensive skills had declined enough that he had been worth negative value in the field in 2006 and 2007. Despite this, his bat more than made up for it. Marcels is a projection system created by baseball analyst Tom Tango that projects how a player will hit in a season based on his three previous years. It’s a simple system that weights the three previous seasons then adds in adjustments for age and regression to the mean. Based on 2008 Marcels, Bonds was projected to hit .257/.420/.488 in 488 plate appearances with a wOBA of .380. The metric wOBA is a measure of how good a hitter is based on everything a hitter does. It doesn’t include defense. Bonds’ projected wOBA of .380 would be 21st in all of baseball. What team couldn’t use the 21st-best hitter in baseball?
Let’s consider some options. If a team were to sign Bonds before the 2008 season, it would likely be a team with post-season hopes. Perhaps Bonds could be the bat to put them over the top. Bonds himself would most likely be looking to play for a contender, considering he would be 43 years old. So, looking backwards, let’s look at the teams who were playoff contenders who received little production from left field or DH in 2008.
In the National League, the following teams were within three games of a playoff spot:
· New York Mets—finished 3 games behind the Phillies in the NL East
· Arizona Diamondbacks—finished 2 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West
The Mets left fielders combined for 1.6 WAR. Bonds had been worth 3.2 WAR in each of the two previous seasons but was a year older. If he had another 3.0 WAR season then, theoretically, he would have improved the Mets by a win or two. He likely could have made that race a little closer. Barry Bonds on the Mets in 2008 would have the added benefit of the New York media covering his every move, so that would have been fun.
The Diamondbacks finished two games behind the Dodgers and their left fielders were worth just 0.1 WAR. Yeah, it was brutal. Even if Bonds dropped from 3.2 WAR in each of the previous two seasons to 2 WAR, he would have made the NL West division a dead heat (theoretically). The two players with the most playing time for the Diamondbacks that year were Conor Jackson (.300/.360/.422 in 334 PA) and Eric Byrnes (.231/.273/.374 in 220 PA).
How about the American League? In the AL, only the Minnesota Twins were within three games of a playoff spot. They finished one game behind the White Sox in the AL Central. The Twins left fielders combined for 1.2 WAR. Based on projections, Bonds would likely have made up that one game deficit and maybe even pushed the Twins ahead of the White Sox in their division.
So, Bonds had a chance to affect the playoff races in either league by signing with the Mets, Diamondbacks, or Twins.
One last option to consider just for fun would be the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners had won 88 games in 2007. They were six games behind the Angels in their division and six out of the wild card also, but an 88-win team is expected to contend the following year. The Mariners had signed Jose Vidro prior to the 2007 season, giving him $16 million over two years. In 2007, Vidro had been worth 1.0 WAR with a .314/.381/.394 batting line. Since he still had $8.5 million remaining on his contract, it’s not surprising that the Mariners didn’t go after Bonds for the DH position. In left field, the team had fan favorite Raul Ibanez. Ibanez hit well enough (.291/.351/.480) but his fielding was unbelievably bad, so he was worth just 0.9 WAR in 2007. With Vidro at DH and Rauuuuuuul in left field (and Ichiro in right field), there was no place for Bonds.
Still, he would have improved the team greatly at DH in 2008. The Mariners used 16 different players at DH that year and they combined for -2.8 WAR. That’s NEGATIVE WAR. Vidro was a big part of the problem, as he hit .234/.274/.338 in 330 PA in his final season in the bigs. Bonds could have improved the 2008 Mariners by five or six wins over what they had at DH. They still would have finished with the worst record in the American League, but they would have been much more interesting than watching Jose Vidro ground out to second base 115 times.