Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The 800-Pound Asshole In The Corner of the Room

It's a topic that's going to come up in the near future, probably more than once:
  • One (1) American League team possibly in need of a DH for an extended period of time.
  • One (1) all-time home run champion and OBP machine currently unemployed.

The question -- does 1+1 = 2?

At the risk of opening a can of worms (a) unnecessarily (after all, Papi may be back in 3 weeks for all we know) and (b) that we're probably going to hear about endlessly no matter what, here is my take on the pros and cons of the concept of the Red Sox signing one Mr. Barry Bonds to serve as their DH while Mr. Large Papi is on the mend.

PRO: Barry Bonds may be the best player ever in the history of the game.

The greatest tragedy (well... maybe "tragedy" is too strong a word) in the whole Bonds-steroids thing is that Barry Bonds didn't need PEDs to be an all-time great. If he had retired from baseball at the very moment the first Clear-filled needle touched his ass, he would have had a substantial case for the Hall of Fame. In his prime, Bonds had every single tool you could hope for from a baseball player: he hit for average, he had good power, he had great speed, he could work pitchers for high-pitch-count walks, and he played excellent defense. His early MVP awards (three of them in four years between 1990-1994) were completely deserved. Imagine Manny Ramirez with 40SB speed and top-10 in the league defensive skills, for a sustained 5-year period -- that was Barry Bonds.

Of course the PEDs turned Bonds into a statistical monster. His early MVP years look pathetic compared to the late Giants-era numbers. His 2001 season may be the most ridiculous offensive performance (and the greatest fantasy season) in the history of all sports. 73 HR? 177 BB? An .863 SLG? Holy crap.

There is no way the Sox would get that Bonds if they signed him today -- age and bad knees, plus the lack of cream and/or clear, have robbed him of that potential. But last year -- presumably without the PEDs and with the stress of the Aaron chase following him around, he hit .276 (.480 OBP) with 28 HR. His park-adjusted OPS+ was 170. For comparison's sake, Big Papi's OPS+ last year was 171. (And is currently at 123 for this year.) So even assuming, say, a 20% drop-off in performance, Bonds would probably give you at least the same level of offense as Papi was pre-injury, assuming he showed up in shape and ready to play.

It's hard to argue against Bonds from a statistical standpoint. Even at 43 years of age, Barry Bonds is arguably still an elite level player.

CON: Barry Bonds is an almost unfathomably self-centered asshole prick.

One of the many fascinating things about Game of Shadows, the Mark Fainaru-Wada / Lance Williams book about BALCO and Bonds, is the portrait it paints of Barry Bonds the person. Despite (or possibly because of) all his God-given talent and on-field success, Bonds is a truly unlikeable person. Nor does he seem to care, because he comes off as someone so narrowly and totally self-centered that your opinion or my opinon of him wouldn't even register on his radar screen, let alone be something he'd care about in the least. It's almost as if Bonds is malformed as a human personality; that he never developed any social senses other than the sense of self. Barry has some excuses for this -- he did have a rough relationship with his father Bobby, and some troubled times as a child -- but he is who he is, and nothing the Sox (or any other team that chooses to employ him) can do will change that.

There are plenty of asshole athletes, though -- the real question is "would Barry Bonds be so bad of an asshole that he would disrupt team chemistry"?

For some teams, the answer would be, surprisingly, "probably not." For example, the Giants in the last few years had pretty much accepted that Barry functionally wasn't part of the clubhouse. They gave him his special perks and his special chair, and he pretty much stayed away from the rest of the team. It wasn't an optimal situation, and Barry provided precisely zero leadership/support for his teammates, but the team probably wasn't hurt by his clubhouse presence.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, are by all accounts a very close, tightly-knit team. There is a great deal of camaraderie on this team, all centered on the undisputed Papa Bear, David Ortiz. By bringing Bonds in, you add his negative personality at the same time you are also removing the steadying, calming influence of Ortiz. (While he'll likely be around the team during his healing process, he won't be around as much as an active roster player would be.) Plus -- what happens when Ortiz returns? An unhappy Barry Bonds could be a catastrophe. All in all, there are too many dangerous possibilities for upsetting the apple cart of -- let's not forget -- essentially the same team that won last year's World Series. Bonds is a huge risk that, unless absolutely necessary (see below), may not justify the potential benefit.

PRO: Bonds would be a cheap acquisition.

Not "cheap" in the dollars sense -- Bonds would probably demand a Clemens-like ransom for his part-year of service. He is, after all, the Home Run King. But if the need arose (again, see below), money is ALL it would take to land Bonds, and almost certainly short money (i.e. a 1 year deal) at that. For the Red Sox organization as it is now constituted, that is considered a "low cost" acquisition. You wouldn't have to part with Justin Masterson or Jed Lowrie or any of the other farmhands that Future Mrs. wants to bang, as would be required if you wanted to go out and trade for Adam Dunn or someone.

CON: There is currently no need to replace Big Papi.

Leaving aside the "he may be back in a few weeks" angle -- there's no need to go out and sign a Papi-like bat unless the current roster cannot make up for Papi's absence. In other words, they may do just fine without him, and if so, why spend the money and take on a Bonds-sized headache if you don't have to?

If I told you that no Sox pitcher would give up a run for the rest of the year, would you rush out and sign Bonds? Of course not -- if the other team never scores, I'd be willing to guarantee that the current Sox lineup could score at least one run in every game. Obviously that's not a realistic scenario... but what if a Papi-less Sox squad can win 101 games? That should be enough to get into the playoffs, no? Yes, Bonds would bring offensive production to the team, but what would adding a Bonds bring to the big picture table? Maybe nothing.

The moral of the story is that you don't count your chickens until they hatch, but you also don't count them out until they're scrambled for breakfast. Let's give it a week and see how the Sox do offensively before beating a path to Barry's door. Maybe that's a headache that we don't even need. Wouldn't that be fab?

Conclusion: Wait and see.

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