Commentary

Why Bonds isn't playing

Originally Published: April 3, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Once, he was everywhere. Now he's nowhere.

Once, he was The Man. Now he's just the Invisible Man.

Once, he was the most high-profile player in his entire sport. Now Barry Bonds is so low-profile, he could be a plot line on "Without a Trace."

Barry Bonds

Bonds

Left Field

Profile

2008 Season Stats
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
126 28 66 75 .480 .276

We know Bud Selig isn't out shopping for "wish you were here" cards for his favorite history-maker these days. But it sure seems strange to be starting another baseball season without the home run king.

There are a million reasons Barry Bonds isn't playing right now. The question is: Is there a good reason?

He did out-homer Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield and Travis Hafner last year, you know. He did have a higher slugging percentage than Mark Teixeira, Adam Dunn and Carlos Beltran. He did reach base more times than Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Torii Hunter.

So why isn't Barry Bonds playing baseball? Why isn't he in uniform? Why isn't there a big "762" hanging on somebody's outfield wall right now, under a sign that says "Barry's Bombs"?

The answers are obvious … we guess. But we wanted to hear them for ourselves. So during the past couple of weeks, we asked that question -- "Why isn't Barry playing?" -- to executives from three teams that could fairly be described as contenders, with big enough budgets to afford him.

None of those executives wanted to be identified in any way, since the players' union is currently investigating whether teams may have engaged in some kind of collusion or conspiracy to keep Bonds unemployed. So we'll simply refer to them as Official A, B and C. But their answers reinforced the notion that there are many reasons -- not just one -- that No. 25 isn't playing right now.

An executive of one team we surveyed (aka "Official A") readily admitted his club considered signing Bonds -- because "we consider everything," he said.

So, we observed, how could they not conclude he could help them?

"Barry could help any team," he replied. "He could help all 30 teams. He can still hit."

So if this guy could help all 30 teams, why isn't he playing for at least one of those teams?

"Because I'm only talking about on the field," said Official A, tersely.

When we turn our gaze away from the field, of course, that's where our man Barry stops looking so attractive. But before we get there, it's not as if there aren't at least some justifiable baseball reasons this man is jobless right now.

"I don't see how any National League team could see him as an everyday player anymore," said an executive of one of those NL teams ("Official B"). "I know we don't like having guys who can't play defense on our team in this league. And he can't play defense anymore. I don't know if he'd be the worst defensive outfielder in the league. But he'd have to be in that group."

So the defense issue alone knocks 16 teams out of this conversation. Then the question becomes: Which American League contender needs a DH? And that answer is: None. Theoretically, anyway.

But couldn't we argue that Barry Bonds is an offensive upgrade over Jose Vidro, Gary Matthews Jr. or even Frank Thomas at this stage of his career? Heck, yes. That's not even a hard argument. But that brings us to those other reasons that Bonds isn't playing.

TRIVIALITY

Barry Bonds used to lead all active players in on-base percentage, home run ratio and runs scored (among other things). Can you name the three players who rank No.1 in those categories in Barry's absence, among players with at least 2,000 plate appearances? (Answer later.)

"We just don't want to deal with everything that comes with him -- the distractions, the entourage, the everyday questions," said an official of a third club ("Official C"). "Every day is a different story with this guy, or could be. And except for a couple of teams -- the Yankees, the Mets, maybe the Red Sox -- nobody is used to dealing with a scene like that every day of the season."

Yes, that scene is a big, big factor here, because there is no scene like the daily Barry Scene. The media crowds hovering. The will-he-talk-or-won't-he-talk drama. The gravitational pull of everyone and everything in that clubhouse toward Barry -- and away from the other occupants of the room. And that's just on a normal day.

On those inevitable days when a Bonds blockbuster erupts in a headline near you, you multiply all that by a thousand.

"Most teams just don't want their young players to be touched by all that, by the circus," said Official C. "Is that what you want your young players to be surrounded with?"

"He's a guy who's always on his own program," said Official B. "And how many teams want guys who are always on their own program?"

The counter-argument, though, is that, if Bonds wants to play badly enough, why wouldn't he agree to follow any team's program? Given this situation, couldn't a team lay out its rules and tell him, "Live by them or stay home?" Of course it could. So you could make a case that those worries could be controlled.

Unfortunately, however, we all know the problem that can't be controlled.

"You have to be worried just because the guy could be facing a trial," said Official C. "He could have much bigger issues ahead of him. And that could make it hard for him to focus on baseball."

"There's just too much uncertainty about what lies ahead," said Official B, "and all the baggage he could bring because of that. No matter how good a player he might be, it's tough to embrace that."

All these explanations make just enough sense, on all sorts of levels, that you can see how impossible it would be for the union to prove there was any kind of conspiracy to blackball this man. You can't blame some people for suspecting it. But how could they prove it?

"There's no collusion here," said one official. "None. There has never been any discussion, from the commissioner's office or among the clubs, to say: 'Don't sign this guy.' Collusion means an intentional, overt act to affect the market, where teams talk to each other, saying, 'Don't sign this player.' In his case, that hasn't happened. It doesn't have to happen. It's obvious. Everyone's got the same issues."

"You know, it's not just him that doesn't have a job," said Official B. "He may think everyone is just ostracizing him, but it's not just him. How about [Sammy] Sosa, [Mike] Piazza, [Kenny] Lofton, [Roger] Clemens, [David] Wells? Those are all guys who will get Hall of Fame votes. And none of them has a job. Look around. Teams are trying to get younger."

So with all those forces converging -- the glove, the knees, the baggage, the legal issues and the rampaging youth movements -- everyone has a reason not to sign this man. But here's what we found most fascinating:

Nobody we surveyed was willing to predict we've seen the last of this man.

"I think he is going to get signed," said Official C. "I do believe that. I think at some point, you'll see a team that loses a DH to an injury will turn to him. … I'll give you an example. Say David Ortiz goes down in Boston. I wouldn't be surprised if they signed Barry Bonds. Say Gary Sheffield goes down in Detroit. I wouldn't be surprised if they signed Barry Bonds. If Seattle stays in the race, I wouldn't be surprised if they signed Barry Bonds.

"It would have to be a team that has a shot to win, a team that gets to June or July and wants to upgrade at DH, or a team that has a major injury. But I really think it will happen. I really do."

And if it does happen, won't it be downright amusing to hear that team explain its thinking, why all those issues that ostensibly make so much sense now will make no sense later? We can't wait.

But all that club will have to do is just recite this guy's numbers. Heck, it's free to steal from this very column, and list all the big-name, big-buck players Barry Bonds outproduced last year. And then it can easily spin that signing as a move that makes perfect baseball sense.

It won't even be that tough -- because it makes perfect baseball sense now.

It's just too bad for the home run king that he lives in a world that allows all those other senses to enter the equation -- because they're the senses that have driven him straight to the unemployment line.

Well, for now, anyway.

Ryan Howard

Howard

Ready to rumble

Miguel and Ryan: Miguel Cabrera may have had a bearing on Ryan Howard's income level for this year. But don't connect any future dollar-sign dots between those two guys, just because the Tigers were able to sign Cabrera to an eight-year, $153.3-million long-term deal.

In the short term, Cabrera is probably the biggest reason Howard will make $10 million this year. Why? Because many people believe Howard wouldn't have won his arbitration case this spring if the Phillies hadn't made the mistake of submitting a bid lower than the $7.4 million Cabrera won in arbitration last year.

But there are no indications that Cabrera's big deal provides any kind of blueprint that would enable the Phillies to get Howard signed long-term.

For one thing, the two sides haven't spent 10 seconds talking about a deal since the arbitration hearing. For another, Howard and agent Casey Close continue to position him as an unprecedented player, who therefore deserves an unprecedented contract.

So there's no sign they view the Cabrera deal as being any more applicable to Howard's situation than, say, what Mark Teixeira will get in free agency this winter or what Matt Holliday will rake in the winter after that.

Which means that eventually, the Phillies' biggest decision almost certainly isn't going to be what to pay Howard. It's when to trade Howard.

"One of these years, they'll have to decide to move him," says one longtime baseball man. "And the longer they wait, the more his salary goes up, so the shorter the list of teams. If you move him in a year, he's what -- a 10-team guy? Wait a few years, and he becomes a five-team guy. So they're in a tough spot."

Howard, Part 2: Business issues aside, though, Howard seems primed for a spectacular year. He pounded balls to the opposite field all spring -- a sure sign he'd rediscovered the left-field power stroke that proved so elusive to him last season after he strained a quad muscle in spring training.

"He didn't have his legs last year," says Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson. "When he has his legs, he can trust his hands. When you don't, you've got to use your body to generate power. That's what he was trying to, and it got him away from that swing."

Miguel Cabrera

Cabrera

Cabrera, Part 2: Incidentally, the Marlins' decision to trade Cabrera -- as opposed to signing him -- wasn't solely a product of Florida baseball economics (or lack thereof). We've been hearing that the Marlins' baseball people have long debated whether it made sense for a National League team to take the risk of laying a contract that long (and rich) on a player who had already had a major weight issue at such a young age. The Tigers can always slide Cabrera over to DH someday. The Marlins wouldn't have had that option. The Brewers, in fact, are having almost the same conversation about Prince Fielder as we speak.

Claudio Vargas

Vargas

Life after Pedro: The Mets continue to pursue one of GM Omar Minaya's old pitchers from Montreal, Claudio Vargas, in the wake of Pedro Martinez's injury. But contrary to popular assumption, they're not interested in plugging Vargas right into their rotation, a week and a half after his release by the Brewers. Their plan would be merely to add him to their Triple-A inventory, along with Tony Armas Jr. and Brian Stokes. There are no indications, meanwhile, that the Mets are pursuing any of the other unemployed or designated-for-assignment starters out there: David Wells, Jeff Weaver, Robinson Tejeda, etc.

Life after Pedro, Part 2: It's fair to question whether the Mets built enough starting-pitcher inventory over the winter. But they obviously thought they were deep enough, because we've never heard any of their decision-makers say they were counting on Martinez to make 30-plus starts this year. And with good reason. Pedro has made 33 starts only once in the past nine seasons.

Nelson Figueroa

Figueroa

Life after Pedro, Part 3: Don't be shocked if the Mets give Nelson Figueroa -- the pitcher they called up to fill Martinez's roster spot -- a shot to stick around. Minaya seems to have a soft spot for Figueroa, a guy whose itinerary alone makes him a great story.

Just in the last year, Figueroa has been A) the winning pitcher in the Mexican League all-star game last summer, B) the MVP of the Taiwan Series last fall, C) the MVP of the Dominican Series this winter and D) the MVP of the Caribbean Series in January. We guarantee no pitcher in history has ever done all that in fewer than 12 months.

"He pitched his butt off in front of Omar at the Caribbean Series," says one scout. "And he pitched like that all winter long. I know people see the name and wonder. But you see a guy pitch like that, and you say to yourself, 'Why isn't this guy in the big leagues?'"

Brandon Inge

Inge

Best trade they never made: The Tigers tried for months to trade Brandon Inge. But when Curtis Granderson got hurt, they sure were happy they never did. Inge had played only 19 games in center field in his entire big league career before this year, so it's amazing how smooth he looks out there.

"When I hit him fungoes, I try to trick him, and he still catches them," says coach Andy Van Slyke, one of the great defensive center fielders of his own time. "The best way to do that is to take a full swing and then hit it off the end of the fungo. That's the toughest ball to read. But he reads it."

The Tigers still are expected to try to deal Inge later in the season. But they also have enough key players with significant injury histories that Inge could turn into this team's instant insurance policy for just about all of those guys.

"If you told Brandon Inge on the first day of spring training that he had six weeks to learn to be an everyday center fielder, he could do that," says Van Slyke. "If you told him he had six weeks to learn to be an everyday shortstop, he could do that. If you told him you needed him to be the eighth-inning setup guy, he could do that.

"It doesn't matter. Pick a position, whatever your need is. He might be tired if you asked him to do all nine. But he's such a good athlete, he could do it. I think he's the only guy, in all my years in baseball, who has the capacity to play all nine at a high level."

Lastings Milledge

Milledge

Lasting images: There may have been concerns about Lastings Milledge's maturity level and decision-making -- on and off the field -- in New York. But now that he's headed south on I-95 to Washington, his new manager, Manny Acta, seems to have none of those concerns.

"He's going to be better off here just because he's going to play every day," Acta says. "He didn't play every day over there. But if he gets to play every day, regardless of whether he's here or the moon, he's going to show the world that he's going to be an offensive star in this league for years to come.

"I know he had some tough times over there," Acta says. "But the fact is, he came up at 21 years old, in a big market, with a team that was expected to win. And he didn't get the opportunity to play every day. But he's going to get it here. And he's going to show the world what he can do."

John Smoltz

Smoltz

Beware of the Smoltzie: John Smoltz knew he was opening himself up to second-guessing when he decided he'd be better off starting spring training with three simulated games than pitching three pivotal Grapefruit League games. So sure enough, when Smoltz had to miss Opening Day because of a minor attack of shoulder stiffness, he heard about it. And now that it's clear he'll only miss one start, he's more steamed about that second-guessing than he looks.

"I've done so many things over the last couple of years where, if people would just wait and reserve judgment, it wouldn't be a big deal," Smoltz says. "What people will never understand is how much I've done and known my body. And people still don't trust that I know what I'm talking about. They always think I have some kind of hidden agenda.

"It doesn't matter how many times you do something. My tag is always going to be, 'I'm a start away from the end of my career.' It's ridiculous."

Down the freeway: The Dodgers already run an impressive rotation out there, fronted by Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Hiroki Kuroda and Chad Billingsley. But it might look even better around July.

They could get Jason Schmidt back by late May. And they've already begun internal discussions on how to get maximum late-season impact from their favorite phenom, Clayton Kershaw.

TRIVIALITY ANSWER

Your new leader in on-base percentage: Todd Helton (.431). In home run ratio: Jim Thome (one every 13.4 AB). And in runs scored: Ken Griffey Jr. (1,546).

They've kicked around the idea of limiting Kershaw's early-season innings in the minor leagues by replacing some of his early starts with planned bullpen breaks, where he would pitch only a couple of innings. That way, if they opt to call him up midyear, he should be fresh enough, theoretically, that he could be used normally, as opposed to finding himself in a Joba Rules-type scenario.

Kershaw, who just turned 20, had a stupendous spring, giving up only one run (on a solo homer), whiffing the likes of Prince Fielder and David Ortiz, hitting 98 mph on the radar gun and earning scout adjectives like "electric" and "special."

"This guy is real," said GM Ned Colletti this spring. "He's definitely real."

Get your schedules out

This is normally the time of year when we find ourselves looking at April schedules. But clearly, we're kind of mixed up here at the Rumblings desk. So instead, we've been looking at September. And the end of this season looks as if it's going to feature a lot more riveting series than last year. Such as …

Shake them up when September ends: Look what's in store for these teams: Braves (12 of last 15 games versus Mets and Phillies) … Brewers (nine of last 12 versus Reds and Cubs) … Red Sox (final 10 games versus Blue Jays, Indians and Yankees) … Diamondbacks (15 of last 18 versus Braves, Padres, Dodgers and Rockies).

Furious finishes: How about these matchups on the final weekend: Red Sox-Yankees, Cubs-Brewers, Rockies-Diamondbacks, Indians-White Sox, Nationals-Phillies. If we can't find some drama in one of those series, this season is going to unfold wayyy differently than we all expect.

Headliner of the week

Finally, you can find this headline in the new issue of the always-hilarious Chicago parody newspaper, "The Heckler":

Santo banned from trying to pronounce 'Kosuke Fukudome' live on the air

Taking the Subway

Now that Rumblings and Grumblings is sponsored by the brilliant folks at Subway, the least we can do is salute those folks by handing out these early awards:

Blake DeWitt

DeWitt

The On a Roll Award: When Nomar Garciaparra and Andy LaRoche both went down, everybody wanted the Dodgers to trade for (pick a name) Mark Loretta, Joe Crede, Wes Helms or even Abraham Nunez. Instead, they sent rookie Blake DeWitt -- a former first-round pick -- out there to play third base. And after three games, he's merely gone five for his first nine, with three walks, a double, a stolen base and a long opening day out that would have landed in the 18th row in Philadelphia or Cincinnati.

Cold Cuts Award: Yikes. Oakland's Travis Buck is off to an 0-for-14 start, with seven whiffs.

Worth the Bread Award: How 'bout Daisuke Matsuzaka's line so far, two starts into his season: 11 2/3 innings, 4 hits, 15 punchouts.

Super Sub Award: If Giants rookie Eugenio Velez's 14 stolen bases in spring training didn't get your attention, let's just say he hasn't let up. He came off the bench to get pinch hits in each of the Giants' first two games this season, earning him a start in the leadoff hole in Game 3. If Ray Durham doesn't pick it up, Velez won't qualify for this award anymore -- because he'll be playing every day.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com