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September 23, 2007

Prospectus Today

End of an Era

by Joe Sheehan

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On Friday, the Giants held a press conference to announce that their sub-.500 team, with its mediocre offense, was going to play the 2008 season without its best hitter. From the press reaction, you would think that they'd announced that the AT&T Park press box was going to be redesigned, with every spot getting a Barcalounger and a personal flat-screen TV.

The naked glee generated by this decision was embarrassing (links courtesy Buster Olney's ESPN.com blog), with the San Francisco writers falling all over themselves to praise McGowan for cutting loose the best player in franchise history, the most productive player on the current roster, the best hitter in the National League and, dollar for dollar, one of the better values in the game. The press pool showed no recognition that Bonds remains an amazing player and an asset to any team, even one far from contention. Yes, he requires special treatment; is it some kind of news to everyone that the very best people in any line of work tend to get perks that separate themselves from their peers?

Of course, the story about Bonds, for that crowd, has never been about performance. It's always been about Bonds' disdain for the media, his refusal to provide access and quotes and make the media's job easier. I have no doubt that if you have to deal with Bonds on a daily basis-if dealing with him is a major part of your job description-that it would make your life difficult. However, to allow that one aspect of the man to become the driving force for years of negative coverage strikes me, has always struck me, as just as unprofessional as his approach. The disdain for Barry Bonds among the local media is disproportionate to anything the man has ever done, amounting to a collective tantrum that has poisoned the man's reputation among baseball fans nationwide, Bonds' relationship to the media, and the media's treatment of him because of it, queers the entire discussion about Bonds' accomplishments and whether they may have been influenced by extra-legal actions on his part. He's never been evaluated fairly because the world has been told he's a bad guy, and we don't like bad guys. The people who see the Bonds/public/media triangle as a racial matter miss the point; it's not a lesson in how American treats black men; it's a lesson in how the media can make or break men of any hue.

Well, bad guys can rake, too, and whatever you think of Bonds as a person, Bonds as a baseball player has been a force of nature. Even at 43, he's the best hitter in the NL on a per-AB basis, and second only to Alex Rodriguez in the majors. His defense, despite appearances, is just a bit below average, and his baserunning costs his team a few runs a season and isn't among the worst in the game. That player-best hitter, so-so-defense, essentially neutral baserunning, moderately durable-is an asset to 30 out of 30 teams, a championship-caliber baseball player who will be the best player on the market this winter, and almost certainly the lowest-risk one. Torii Hunter for five years and $75 million? Andruw Jones for five years and $70 million? Kyle Freaking Lohse for Gil Meche's deal? Or Barry Bonds for one year at $18 million plus an option? Which of those sounds like the most sensible deal to you?

The way a guy treats the media might be important, but the way he treats pitched baseballs is a hell of a lot more so, and Bonds still rakes. Acting as if he's some kind of drag on the Giants because of…you know, I don't even know what the actual reasons are for this mindset. Barry Bonds' actual play on the field-counting everything-dwarfs the performance of his teammates in so many ways that I can't actually find the right angle to argue against the perception that he's a problem. Just to put a framework on it, here's a list of all the Giants who are over 30, making more than $1 million (thanks, Cots this year and who are signed beyond 2007:

               Age   Salary    Years Left    WARP
Barry Zito      29    $10MM        6          3.5
Ray Durham      35     $7MM        1         -0.3
Dave Roberts    35     $5MM        2          2.8
Randy Winn      33     $4MM        2          4.1
Rich Aurilia    35   $3.5MM        1          0.8
Bengie Molina   32     $4MM        2          3.9
Steve Kline     34   $1.8MM        1          0.7

Barry Bonds     42  $19.3MM        0          6.1

Bonds' figure includes the bonuses he's hit.
Barry Bonds is the problem, right? This list doesn't even include the worst player in baseball, Pedro Feliz, and the five million bucks he drew down this season for his 2.8 WARP. Where are the long articles deriding the money being thrown away on Ray Durham and Steve Kline, or the glee that the deals for Feliz and Omar Vizquel ($4 million, 1.7 WARP) expire at the end of the season. Go ahead, dock Bonds some runs for baserunning and give some to all the guys on this list. Sure, even Steve Kline. Just remember that Dan Fox has show repeatedly that the range of baserunning values is safely within one win a season, and Bonds hasn't been near the bottom of the list.

The Giants are free to run their team however they care to, but we shouldn't persist in this fiction that Bonds is what stands in the way of the rebuilding process. The Giants, as effective as they've been in drafting and developing pitchers, have had little success with hitters. The Dan Ortmeiers and Rajai Davises populating the outfield and the lineup aren't prospects, they're MLB fourth and fifth outfielders who are being evaluated generously by virtue of not being Barry Bonds. The Giants have no prospects being blocked by Bonds, and if they did, they'd actually be being blocked by Dave Roberts and Randy Winn. As we saw with Alex Rodriguez and the Rangers, the team, the press and the public is focusing far too much on the best player with the biggest contract, rather than the money being wasted on the ridiculous contracts for inferior players throughout the rest of the roster. Bonds is worth the money; Ray Durham and Barry Zito, not so much.

Barry Bonds is still a great player. Concerned about how often he can be a great player for your team? At 41 and 42, he's averaged 127 games and close to 500 PAs a season while playing in the field regularly. This notion that he's a part-time player who can't stay in the lineup is another of the myths propagated by the industrious San Francisco media. Bonds is just shy of an everyday player in the National League, and for an American League team, getting most of his playing time as a DH, there's no reason to think he couldn't play more often. Even at 125 games and 500 PAs, Bonds is a force to be reckoned with, and a team signing him would be in good position to add in some playing time for him in October.

Bonds is a distraction, the people who have covered him will tell you. I don't doubt that Bonds is high-maintenance, as a veteran player with a considerable ego and a prickly personality. What I do doubt is that those things outweigh his performance on the field and the value that brings to a baseball team. Are wins distracting? Are pennant races? Playoff appearances? Persistent in the coverage of Barry Bonds is this notion that evaluates his clubhouse persona, the evaluation of him as a teammate, as being just as important as what he does on the field. MLB isn't Little League, it isn't your high school team, and it isn't your rec softball league; what a guy does between the white lines is infinitely more important than what he does anywhere else.

Steroids? Bonds tested positive for amphetamines, and we have no context for that since his is the only positive test that's been leaked. Bonds has yet to fail a steroids test, and despite a grand jury that's been open longer than Paris Hilton's bedroom door, we're no closer to legal action against him than we were the day he testified in the BALCO case. Check back with me when the protests over Rafael Betancourt helping the Indians to a division title reach a fevered pitch, or when the multi-year deals awarded to Guillermo Mota and Ryan Franklin are voided due to their past-and proven-steroid use.

Just noodling here, but is it possible that what's distracting about Bonds isn't the man himself, but the media hordes who descend upon the man so they can write about how badly he treats the media? Isn't that story done by now?

Barry Bonds is a great player with some limitations and some baggage. The limitations and the baggage don't begin to outweigh what his bat brings to the table. There's not a team in baseball that he wouldn't add value to, and if not every team is a great fit-the Red Sox come to mind-there are enough that are to make it likely that if Barry Bonds wants to play baseball next season, he will be able to so. When he's once again among the league leaders in OBP, OPS, EqA and MLVr, distanced from the poisonous San Francisco media, it will be interesting to see how his performance is covered.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Barry Bonds,  The Who,  Media

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