Who should sign Barry Bonds?

There are a bevy of all-time greats who still haven’t found a home for 2008, but one of them stands far above the rest: Barry Bonds. I fully understand why a team would want to stay as far away from the Barry circus as possible, but this is a guy coming off a season with an OPS over 1.000. A couple of weeks ago, John Beamer took a look at who might be interested for 2008, and I thought I’d tack on a less realistic, more stat-packed answer to that question.

It’s tough to project a 43-year-old coming off of a string of unprecedented seasons for a player his age, but even conservative forecasts put him down for a .900 OPS, while others suggest he’ll stay in four digits. In short, we’re talking about a player who is a good bet to be one of the 20 top offensive contributors in baseball, and still has a shot to be among the top five.

Setting aside all of Bonds’s legal problems, I want to know who should sign him. Surely, there are teams who could use that bat; maybe there is a club or two for whom Bonds would make the difference between a playoff spot and an early October fishing trip.

Finding the pain

Bonds should probably be a designated hitter, but he can still manage in left field. That rules out every team that is set at those two positions (or NL teams with established left fielders). We should also ignore the teams with no chance of contention. Not only should they save their cash, they have no reason to take on the complications (legal and otherwise) that Barry brings with him.

Let’s start with something simple. Here are the 12 potential contenders who got an aggregate OPS of less than .800 from either LF or DH. (I’m defining “contenders” broadly, as you can see; I only excluded the obvious ne’er-do-wells, like Tampa, and teams in rebuilding mode, like Minnesota and Oakland.)

Team    Pos     OPS

LAA     DH      .706
SEA     DH      .746
NYY     DH      .752

DET     LF      .673
CLE     LF      .719
CHW     LF      .731
TOR     LF      .741
TEX     LF      .780

ARI     LF      .759
MIL     LF      .771
LAD     LF      .773
ATL     LF      .789

No matter how often I review production from designated hitter, I’m always a bit surprised to see how bad it can be. It’s particularly shocking to see the Angels, a division winner (and solid offensive team), on the list. If you wondered just how bad Shea Hillenbrand was, remember that Vlad Guerrero got 40 starts at DH, too.

Narrowing the possibilities

While the Angels had the most glaring hole in 2007, they aren’t an option for Barry now. The offseason signing of Torii Hunter leaves several players for one or two positions, and if Mike Scioscia is flexible enough, he should be able to get decent left field/DH production out of some combination of Garret Anderson, Gary Matthews Jr., and Juan Rivera. It won’t be what Barry could contribute, but it won’t be an embarrassment.

The Yankees are in a similar situation: There are plenty of useful players to fill the DH role, and as long as the team stays reasonably healthy, their aggregate production from that spot is likely to improve. We can probably rule out the Rangers as well, as the addition of Josh Hamilton gives them a number of options for Bonds’s two positions.

Two of the NL teams should be eliminated from contention as well. The Brewers signed Mike Cameron, which started a domino effect that moved Ryan Braun to left field, and while the Dodgers might give Juan Pierre the nod in left, it won’t be for a lack of better options. We might as well knock out the D-Backs as well; signing Bonds would probably be an improvement in 2008 over giving Justin Upton an everyday gig, but Arizona doesn’t need to do it, and it probably makes more sense to let Upton learn on the job.

And then there were six

That leaves the Mariners, Tigers, Indians, White Sox, Blue Jays, and Braves. There may be other teams that lost a left field or DH and will get poor production out of one of those spots, despite getting decent results last year, but the only club that springs to mind is the Giants. I don’t consider them a contender, so let’s stick with these half-dozen possibilities.

Blue Jays: If everyone stays healthy, the Jays have a nice platoon in left between Reed Johnson and Matt Stairs. If Johnson stays healthy, there’s little reason to think that the Jays will suffer through sub-.750 OPS production in left, and I’d imagine Johnson is a better bet to stay in the lineup than Bonds is.

Braves: Bonds would be taking at-bats away from Matt Diaz and, most likely, someone who will platoon with Diaz. That would be a substantial improvement, and having Diaz (a righty) around would allow the Braves to maximize Bonds’ rest time, as well. The Braves got the highest OPS from left field of any of the teams on this list, but the difference between the AL and the NL means that the improvement represented by Bonds would be nearly as great.

Indians: Of the teams listed here, Cleveland might suffer the most on defense by replacing their incumbents with Barry. But on offense, the potential is extraordinary. The entire lineup returns from 2007, but with a probable improvement at second. Put Bonds in the middle of the lineup and this instantly goes from a middle-third offense to a top-third offense. The Indians may be counting on a rebound from Jason Michaels or David Dellucci, but adding Bonds would not only make them a clear-cut favorite in the Central, but it would drastically improve their chances of going deep into the postseason.

Mariners: While the Indians might stand to gain the most by adding Bonds, the Mariners are the team that might need him in order to play in the postseason at all. They are the first team I’ve discussed that could make him a full-time DH, and while Erik Bedard makes them more competitive in 2008, they are trying to improve on a season in which they gave up more runs than they scored.

Tigers: It’s hard to imagine Detroit making another splash this offseason. But their situation is similar to that of the Indians: With one more signing, they could relegate the other to the wild card race. The offense is probably good enough to get them to the postseason as is, but the Tigers had the worst production from left field among the teams under discussion here, and I would expect a substantial gain from the players Jim Leyland has to choose from.

White Sox: I’m probably being kind by considering the White Sox contenders; Chicago will almost certainly improve, but not enough to beat out either the Indians or Tigers. Carlos Quentin doesn’t have much more to accomplish in the minors, so given the White Sox current situation, they should probably give the at-bats to him.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
How big of an improvement?

To quantify what kind of gain a Bonds signing would represent, let’s make some assumptions. A rough average of several different projection systems puts Bonds’s 2008 OPS at about .950 in the NL. Let’s say that .950 is the result of a .420 OBP and a .530 SLG, and it translates to a .920 OPS in the AL, based on an OBP of .410 and a SLG of .510. I’m not going to mess with park factors. Let’s further assume that as a left fielder, Bonds is good for 350 at-bats, and as a DH, 400 at-bats.

Using the basic version of Runs Created (total bases times on-base percentage), here’s what those assumptions spit out when coupled with the assumption that each of these teams will see the same production that they did last year:

Team    Pos     RC AsIs RC Bonds    RC Diff
ATL     LF      53.8    77.9        24.1
CLE     LF      44.5    73.2        28.6
DET     LF      38.5    73.2        34.7
SEA     DH      55.5    83.6        28.1

The Tigers are the clear “winner” here; acquiring Bonds would represent more than a three win improvement over what they got from left field last year. The difference for the other team teams is nothing to sneeze at, either.

It’s also possible that these numbers understate the possible improvement. Take, for instance, the Braves. Last year, Matt Diaz got about half of the playing time in left, while the rest went to Willie Harris and Ryan Langerhans. Harris was okay, but Diaz was very good as a platoon player. Assuming that the Braves kept Diaz around after signing Barry, Bonds would be replacing far more Harris and Langerhans at-bats than Diaz at-bats.

If Bonds got 350 at-bats for the Braves at the performance level noted above, and Diaz got the rest (and he continued hitting at the same pace), the improvement would be 32.5 runs, almost an entire win better than in the simpler model above. The difference wouldn’t be quite as dramatic for the other teams, but it suggests that Bonds may be a three-win addition for a number of clubs.

Is three wins worth the risk and the hassle? Heck if I know, I’m just a stat geek.

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