Photo by Michael P. Whelan
It’s the middle of May, 30+ games into the baseball season, and teams have already begun the process of identifying needs and reevaluating their talent. Traditionally, teams make their most serious adjustments after Memorial Day, but it’s never too early for a team to make a change to their roster if it seems so obvious as to be necessary.
This makes it all the more interesting to see that three of the most decorated, dominant players of the past few decades – if not all time – are still sitting at home, unemployed. With each passing day, it seems increasingly likely that we’ve seen the last of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens.
In 2007, Bonds hit 28 homeruns in 340 at bats, to go along with a league-leading .480 on base percentage, remaining a powerful offensive force in his age-42 season. Meanwhile, Clemens famously signed mid-season with the Yankees, and pitched 99 innings of 4.18 ERA ball – a far cry from his established level of performance, but more than respectable in this day and age. And Sosa shocked everyone by coming back from a one-year hiatus to hit 21 homeruns for the Rangers, including his 600th career homer.
All three demonstrated last year that they can still put up solid to strong individual performances. And yet they all three share the ignominy of being ignored this season. Oh, and for being three of the names most associated with baseball’s steroid era – but who remembers that?
As it happens, team executives around the league remember, and for good reason. Fans, journalists and bloggers have regularly suggested that their teams pick up one of these three free agents, seeing them as an easy, guaranteed way to add performance to a team looking for one last piece. David Chalk of bugsandcranks.com has spent the past 6 months begging for his Tampa Bay Rays to sign Bonds to become a real contender, while Ken Rosenthal on foxsports.com suggested in a video story yesterday that the Tigers ought to look at signing Bonds to solve their early-season funk. The Rays and the Cardinals are known to have looked at Bonds, while a number of teams have been suggested as options for Sosa’s right-handed bat and Astros and Yankees fans have occasionally speculated about replacing their young, unproven, and nonperforming arms with Clemens.
These pleas have been consistently ignored by executives, while Bonds’ agent, Jeff Borris, has speculated that there is collusion against his and other clients, for surely, who wouldn’t want such a potent bat in the middle of the lineup? Some have jumped on the collusion bandwagon, noting that Frank Thomas, recently let go by the Blue Jays, signed on with the A’s within a week of his release. Thomas is still a strong hitter, but is every bit the defensive liability that Bonds or Sosa is and is not even as good a hitter as Bonds at this point in their careers.
But Bonds, Sosa, and Clemens advocates are mistaken when they think they can merely add the numbers of these aging stars to their own teams like a simple mathematical equation - Rays Team on the Rise + Bonds = A Better Team, a Playoff Contender. Or Yankees Strong Offense + Clemens = Better Yankees Squad. Baseball doesn’t work like that. Because Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens don’t just bring their stats with them – they also bring the circus. A quick jaunt through baseball-reference.com will indicate that the Giants’ offense – which numerous bloggers and fans thought might be one of the worst of all time, being a bad offense last year and now lacking Bonds’ big bat in the middle – is performing at exactly the same rate as last year: an OPS+ of 89. It’s not a good number, but it hasn’t declined a bit in the absence of Bonds. Meanwhile, the Yankees and Rangers are seeing similar results after the departures of Clemens and Sosa. The Yankees pitching staff is pitching to nearly identical results as last year (96 ERA+ in 2008, 99 ERA+ in 2007), while the Rangers offense is actually outperforming last year’s (111 OPS+ in 2008, 98 OPS+ in 2007).
Coincidence? Maybe. Or it could be that we’re seeing there is some truth to what teams say when they label a player like Bonds a “distraction.” At this point, the Rays and Cardinals have been linked to serious internal discussions about signing Bonds, and both decided against it – could it be that these teams have seen that the positive impact of Bonds’ individual performance is completely negated by the negative impact the Bonds circus has on his teammates? The Cards and Rays are both playing very well this year, and would risk harming their successful team chemistry and performance by bringing such a polarizing figure on board. Similarly, both Yankees and Astros brass have clearly decided not to take any action as to signing Clemens. And Sosa hasn’t found any takers for his services yet, either. While there are always going to be some people in every front office that will be wowed by the sheer numbers these players could put up, it looks like they’re being outnumbered by suits who see the overall impact a Bonds, Clemens, or Sosa has on a team, and not just on the league leaderboard. Although the old stars have many supporters, it looks like they’re coming up a little short so far in every personnel discussion. We might not see much of these players until they hit the Hall of Fame Ballot in five years – and it sure will be interesting to see whether they fall a few votes short there, too.