January 28, 2008

There's an elephant in baseball's living room. With pitchers and catchers due to report in less than three weeks, most teams have finished building their 2008 squads. There are still a fair number of available free agents, but most are old, infirm, or otherwise unproductive. There is one glaring exception, the last big name free agent who remains unsigned: Barry Bonds.

Bonds was indicted on perjury charges in November, and those charges, stemming from testimony regarding his alleged performance-enhancing drug use, combined with his age (43) and deteriorating knees, have kept him from finding a new team.

Still, he led the major leagues in walks and on-base percentage last year, and only five other players hit a home run more often than he did in 2007. Bonds was also fifth in Baseball Prospectus's Marginal Lineup Value rate among all players with 400 or more plate appearances in 2007, and 19th in the majors in their cumulative Value Over Replacement Player despite his reduced playing time.

Put simply, Bonds remains a difference-maker and is sure to have a significant impact upon whichever divisional race he enters. What's more, he's the perfect win-now addition as he's surely looking for nothing more than a one-year contract and can be discarded after the season at no cost. That said, not every team is close enough to contention to benefit from his production, and few contenders are likely to be willing to endure the assorted distractions and disapprovals that will accompany Bonds to his new team. Here's a look at where the Bonds market stands now.

Marlins andPirates: Hopeless.

Royals, Rays, andNationals: Developing young teams that are not yet ready to contend.

Giants: Not only just as bad, but they have already parted ways with Bonds.

Orioles: In the early stages of rebuilding.

Athletics: Before Bonds' perjury indictment was handed down, it was assumed that this particular pachyderm would sign with the team that wears his kind on their sleeves, but since then the A's have undergone a rebuilding process of their own, which should end their brief experimentation with fading Hall of Famers at DH.

Reds and Brewers: Simply put, they don't have room for Bonds. The Reds have the potential for an extremely productive outfield with Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr. and baseball's top prospect, rookie center fielder Jay Bruce. Having signed Mike Cameron to play center, the Brewers are also full, as Cameron will keep Corey Hart in right field and push Bill Hall to third base, thereby allowing the team to move Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun's stone glove and monster bat to left field.

Red Sox: The defending world champions may be the one team in baseball that doesn't need the injection of production Bonds would provide to be considered the preseason favorite for another title. They also already have the best DH in baseball in David Ortiz and four starting outfielders.

Blue Jays: Toronto has room in left field -- Bonds is an easy improvement over the platoon of lefty Matt Stairs and righty Reed Johnson -- but the Rogers Centre's artificial turf likely rules out the possibility of Bonds playing the field there, and he is blocked at DH by the unmovable, and immobile, Frank Thomas.

Twins: The idea of the Twins loading up to make one last run for a title with Johan Santana is a nice fantasy, but even with Bonds in the lineup, they'd lack the team to make it happen, and the Twins aren't exactly known for making big free-agent splashes.

Cardinals: Also in something of a rebuilding stage, and even with Bonds in the lineup, they'd be unlikely to win with their current rotation, and they need to devote their season to giving figure out what they have in outfielders Rick Ankiel and Colby Rasmus. Still, Rasmus is a center fielder, Chris Duncan is expendable, and the thought of Bonds backing up Albert Pujols in the lineup has to be awfully tempting given the fact that 85 wins could win their division.

Cubs: For that same reason, Chicago might reconsider their unwillingness to play either Alfonso Soriano or Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome in center in order to make room for Bonds in left, but they would do so at the expense of center fielder Felix Pie's (who might still be dealt to Baltimore for second baseman Brian Roberts) development.

Rockies: The holier-than-though Rockies would likely object to adding Bonds on moral (and financial) grounds, but in the most competitive division in baseball, every extra win counts, and Bonds would greatly improve their road performance.

Dodgers Los Angeles has enough of an outfield crunch to worry about without adding Bonds to the mix, but an outfield of Bonds, Andruw Jones, and Matt Kemp would be superior to any combination they could conjure up out of their current quartet, which includes Andre Ethier and Juan Pierre.

White Sox: The South Side would be a good fit if the ChiSox could find a taker for Joe Crede, but with Jim Thome plugging up DH and Crede forcing Josh Fields into left field, there's no room, and the Sox aren't close enough to a division title to allow Bonds to impinge upon Fields' development.

Tigers: The Tigers big offseason trades indicate that they are going all-in this year, but if they had any intention of bringing in Bonds, they wouldn't have acquired Jacque Jones to platoon with Marcus Thames in left, as they already have Gary Sheffield at DH.

Phillies: The signing of lefty Geoff Jenkins to platoon with Jayson Werth in right field indicates that Bonds was never in Philadelphia's plans. Besides, in Pat Burrell, the Phils already have an unpopular high-on-base slugger to play a terrible defensive left field for them.

Braves: Penciling in rookie Brandon Jones in left field with Matt Diaz as either a platoon partner or plan-B would seem to make Bonds an excellent upgrade, but one suspects that Hank Aaron's presence on the team's board of directors might be enough to cause the team to pass on signing the man who broke Aaron's career home run record.

Diamondbacks: The D-Backs have a perfect platoon partner for Bonds in left fielder Eric Byrnes and desperately need an offensive boost after winning the NL West last year despite being outscored by their opponents. However, the fact that Byrnes is the teams' third-highest paid player and is owed $28 million over the next three seasons likely eliminates any chance that Arizona would be willing to impinge upon his playing time. Meanwhile, giving Justin Upton a long leash in right is an important part of the franchise's long-term strategy.

Angels: The best fit for Bonds in the AL would actually be the Angels, despite the fact that they enter the season as the only team likely to take their division with ease and appear to have a very crowded outfield of their own. That the Angels will pay Gary Matthews Jr. $42 million over the next four seasons doesn't make him any more than the fourth outfielder he's always been save for that one life-changing season in Texas, while Reggie Willits profiles very well as a fifth-outfielder given that he's still earning the league minimum. Assigning Matthews and Willits to those roles would allow Bonds to split the left-field and DH jobs with Garret Anderson while pushing Anderson further down in the lineup. Slotting Bonds in Anderson's old spot as Vladimir Guerrero's left-handed protection radically alters the look of the Angels lineup, which in last year's ALDS saw the three- to five-spots filled by Guerrero, Anderson, and Maicer Izturis. Torii Hunter won't be enough on his own, but mix in Bonds and the Angels could unseat the Red Sox in the AL this year. Still, as with Byrnes and the D'backs and the Dodgers and Pierre, the length and price of Matthews' contract will almost surely prevent it.

7) Yankees: The Yankees not only have the money to sign Bonds, who played his final season for the Giants last year on a one-year, $15.8 million contract, but are looking to recapture the division they had won nine straight times before being passed by the rival Red Sox last year. The Yankees are trying to rebuild while winning, and thus are giving center fielder Melky Cabrera, still just 23, an opportunity to make good on his early promise despite the fact that he's still a below-average hitter. That has resulted in a crowded outfield/DH picture with Cabrera pushing Johnny Damon to left, Hideki Matsui to DH, and leaving Jason Giambi in the lurch at first base. As crowded as that may seem, bringing in Bonds would still improve the Yankee lineup, though that lineup is already heavily left-handed. The team's increasing emphasis on youth and homegrown players points away from a Bonds signing, but with Hank Steinbrenner filling his father's blue blazer with similar bluster, it would be foolish to rule the Yankees out, particularly with the Red Sox threatening to emerge as a new dynasty out of the East.

6) Mets: The Mets have fragile fortysomething Moises Alou in left field and the decidedly average Ryan Church in right field, which leaves plenty of room for Bonds. They also have something to prove after their historic collapse down the stretch last year. From Bonds' perspective, he'd be following in his godfather's footsteps by ending his career in Queens. Then again, most associate the image of Willie Mays in a Mets uniform with the embarrassment of a player who stuck around too long, and the New York tabloids would absolutely feast on Bonds and the baggage he'd bring to the Big Apple. Still in a division there for the taking, Bonds could make the difference.

5) Cleveland Indians: Like the Yankees and Mets, the Indians, who came within one game of the World Series last year, have something to prove in 2008. The catch is that the Indians are a low-budget team with a full-time DH in Travis Hafner. Still, Hafner had an awful season last year that could have been the start of the sort of early decline typical to late-bloomers with "old-player skills" like his. What's more, the Indians' corner outfield positions are undermanned by three platoon players in righties Franklin Gutierrez and Jason Michaels and lefty David Dellucci. Bonds would make a great platoon partner for Michaels in left field and could take some of the DH at-bats away from lefty Hafner against left-handed starters. For a modest single-season increase in payroll, Bonds could give the Indians the extra push they need to hold off the Tigers and rematch with the Red Sox in the playoffs.

4) Seattle Mariners: Bonds would be a huge upgrade over Jose Vidro at DH for the Mariners, but the M's weren't nearly as good as their record indicated last year and would need more than Bonds to contend this year. If the Erik Bedard trade goes through, however, all bets are off. The deal would give the M's an ace in the rotation and clear room for Bonds in the outfield by shipping Adam Jones to Baltimore. Then again, if flanked by Bonds and Raul Ibañez, center fielder Ichiro Suzuki may have to cover most of the pasture himself, a defensive handicap that could undermine the pitching upgrade represented by Bedard.

3) Texas Rangers: The most likely place for Bonds to land in the AL is Texas, as by bringing Sammy Sosa back last year the Rangers proved that they're not opposed to loading up the sort of baggage that Bonds would bring to Arlington. The Rangers also have an opening at DH after not re-signing Sosa, and with the astute additions of Josh Hamilton in center and groundballer Jason Jennings in the rotation, Bonds might actually get them within shouting distance of the wild card, as the Rangers' Pythagorean record (based on runs scored and allowed) was identical to that of the Mariners last year.

2) Houston Astros: The Astros were terrible last year, but new GM Ed Wade has rolled the dice this offseason and is hoping for a big turnaround in a weak division. If he were to leave rookie sensation Hunter Pence in center, he'd have room for Bonds in a corner. The catch is that neither Bonds, nor current left fielder Carlos Lee really has any business playing defense. Having both of those players in the field on a daily basis could undo much of the good they contribute at the plate.

1) San Diego Padres: The Padres came painfully close to the post-season last year, giving them something to prove. They also have a gaping hole in left field, which is currently occupied by Scott Hairston. The drag here is that Bonds is a career .195/.405/.390 hitter in San Diego's pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Still, the Padres, who have taken a less controversial but also far less favorable chance with Jim Edmonds in center, seem more likely to sign Bonds than the other teams that could best use him (the Angels, Braves, D'backs, Indians, and Mets), and would benefit more than other the three teams (Texas, Houston, and Seattle) that seem most likely to give him a shot. Signing in San Diego would also keep Bonds in California and out of an intense local media spotlight. San Diego seems like the best destination for Bonds despite his past struggles in Petco. Should he land there, he'll undoubtedly tip the balance of power in the division, but then, he'll do that no matter where he plays this year.

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