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What if the Cardinals had signed Barry Bonds?

Barry Bonds went unsigned for 2008. What if the Cardinals had made the call?

St. Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants
Imagine these two as teammates. It’s easy if you try.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The FanGraphs page of Barry Bonds reads like satire. Hundreds of years from now, like with Babe Ruth, baseball historians may question if Bonds literally existed.

Perhaps he did, perhaps he was even the best player in baseball, but surely these numbers were the result of an erroneous translation—a 212 wRC+ with 10.2 Wins Above Replacement in his worst season of a four-year stretch which began when he was thirty-six?

2004 is my personal favorite Barry Bonds season—the one in which he had a 37.6% walk rate coupled with a 6.6% strikeout rate and a .609 on-base percentage. But it is worth occasionally venturing to his 2007 statistics. It wasn’t the best Barry Bonds season, by any means, but it is a standout by any standard other than perhaps his own.

At this point, the formerly fleet-footed and slick-fielding Bonds was a liability at both, but his offense was still there. He drew a walk in 27.7% of his plate appearances, finishing the season with a .480 OBP and a 157 wRC+. At 477 plate appearances, he narrowly missed having a qualified season, but among batters with as many plate appearances as he had, Bonds ranked first in OBP and tied for sixth in wRC+. In the off-season, the all-time home run king became a free agent. He wasn’t offered a contract. By any team.

One would think that Barry Bonds had decided to step aside while still playing at a high level, but by all accounts, the now-43 year-old slugger still wanted to play. And yet no team offered him the opportunity.

Again, this wasn’t peak Bonds. And at his advanced age, he wasn’t a long-term investment. But how could teams forecast that he would regress so hard in 2008 that he wouldn’t be playable?

The 2008 Cardinals were rebuilding to the extent that the Cardinals rebuild—two-thirds of the vaunted MV3, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, were traded in the off-season and the Cardinals were coming off a 78-84 record. But the 2008 version improved, winning 86 games thanks to an MVP campaign from Albert Pujols and a breakthrough season from Ryan Ludwick. But they missed the playoffs. The team could have used Barry Bonds.

The Cardinals’ regular left fielder, Skip Schumaker, was okay. He was basically a league-average hitter, though this is not ideal for a non-elite fielder at a relatively low position on the defensive spectrum. 2007 Barry Bonds, flawed running and fielding included, was worth 178% the FanGraphs WAR value of 2008 Schumaker.

So how might history have changed if the Cardinals had called Scott Boras in early 2008 and signed Barry Bonds? Well, I invented a time machine and told John Mozeliak to sign Bonds to find out how things went down (how else was I going to do this? Blindly speculate what would have happened? Use the time machine for the many millions of more practical reasons to use one?). Anyway, here is a timeline.

  • February 2008: The Cardinals sign Barry Bonds to a one-year, $750,000 contract which includes several million in performance incentives. While this contract is considerably below his theoretical market value—according to FanGraphs, Bonds was worth $17.8 million in 2007, which itself exceeded his $16 million salary—the Cardinals were bidding against a disinterested market. There has long been a conspiracy, one which seems utterly plausible if not proven, that MLB teams colluded against Barry Bonds. Bonds later sued MLB over this, although he did not win the suit. Regardless, unlike 1980s collusion, this entire theoretical practice, designed from a public relations perspective rather than an industry-wide savings one, could be broken by signing one player.
  • April 2008: Although there was some criticism of the Bonds signing in St. Louis, he gets off to a hot start to his Cardinals career. Like when he was on the San Francisco Giants, he is routinely booed in the road, but local fans embrace the slugger. Bonds regularly bats cleanup, sandwiched between Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick. Pujols is no longer an obvious intentional walk candidate, and Ludwick becomes a major RBI threat due to the on-base king Bonds batting in front of him.
  • July 2008: At the time the All-Star Break rolls around, the Cardinals are 56-40 (they were 53-43 in the “Bonds remains unsigned” timeline, occasionally known as “reality”). Bonds is carrying a 148 wRC+ into the All-Star Break, and while his defense isn’t very good, it’s not quite as disastrous his 2007 numbers suggest. As the deadline approaches, the Cardinals sit in second place. While the real 2008 Milwaukee Brewers charged to a Wild Card spot thanks in part to a blockbuster July trade for soon-to-be free agent CC Sabathia, this version stands back and allows the Cubs (motivated buyers, they still trade Josh Donaldson and others for Rich Harden) and Cardinals to compete for the division. The Cardinals make some fairly unexciting trades to improve their bullpen. Sorry I can’t be more exciting here, but again, I’m not making up a story here. This is what actually happened when I used my actual time machine to learn what happened.
  • October 2008: Barry Bonds slips a bit down the stretch—he’s still a good hitter, with a wRC+ of 123, but he’s showing some signs of aging and is disproportionately benefiting from his reputation, still drawing all of the walks partially due to his plate discipline but partially due to fear. While the Cubs maintain their stranglehold on the NL Central, the Cardinals do win a Wild Card berth. In the NLDS, the Cardinals face the Philadelphia Phillies, where a rejuvenated Bonds and Pujols are able to out-slug the Phillies in five games. Next, the Cardinals are able to dispose of the Los Angeles Dodgers, fresh off their NLDS upset sweep of the Cubs. When the World Series comes around, Barry Bonds is able to play three games in his new ideal position of designated hitter against the Tampa Bay Rays. It would’ve been four, but the World Series ends in six games, with the Cardinals winning their second World Series title in three seasons, earning them a reputation for even-year magic. Although Bonds does not win World Series MVP—the honor instead goes to two-game winner Adam Wainwright—he wins his first World Series and becomes a rich man’s version of Will Clark among Cardinals fans.
  • 2008 offseason: Bonds played well in 2008 but both parties saw the writing on the wall—the Cardinals did not want to risk his defensive shortcomings becoming even more apparent, and Bonds understood that he would be better off as a DH. The Cardinals do offer Bonds another one-year deal, again filled with incentives, but Bonds, to nobody’s surprise, instead ventures to the American League. With their 2008 DH, Hideki Matsui, a decade younger than Bonds but showing more rapid signs of aging, the New York Yankees pony up and offer Barry Bonds a two-year deal worth $32 million. It seems like an overpay to most, given his one-dimensional game and age, but the Yankees are desperate to make the playoffs again after a third-place finish in 2008.
  • June 2009: The Cardinals’ 2009 goes pretty much as their actual 2009 went. But the big moment comes in June. You see, because Bonds was a fairly major free agent, the Cardinals received a compensation pick from the Yankees in exchange for Bonds signing with them. The Yankees only picked at #25, so they weren’t that worried about giving up the pick. After drafting Shelby Miller at #19, the Cardinals used the 25th pick to draft the player who was actually taken with the #25 pick on the original timeline—Mike Trout.
  • November 2009: Barry Bonds wins the World Series for the second consecutive year, winning the World Series MVP award originally won by Hideki Matsui. Cardinals fans are mostly happy for their beloved one-year wonder but some are resentful that the Cardinals were not willing to sign Bonds to an extension.
  • 2010: Barry Bonds is bad. Very bad. Like, unfathomably bad. His wRC+, 120 in 2009, sinks to 77 in 2010, which is a passable mark for a slick-fielding shortstop or catcher, but is quite poor for a committed DH. But in his defense, Bonds ended the season at age 46. He retires soon after the postseason concludes. Bonds doesn’t exactly go out on top, but with two World Series rings, 813 career home runs, and a much softer reputation, he is far more revered than had his career ended in 2007. He is still dogged by steroid accusations and some media resentment for his surly younger (and older) days, but he fares much better in Hall of Fame voting. As of the 2017 class, he still isn’t in (I didn’t travel forward in time; that’s just absurd), but he is within striking distance.
  • 2011-present: I’ve written before about what would happen if the Cardinals had drafted Mike Trout (though this also assumes the Cardinals didn’t draft Shelby Miller), and the bad news is that Mike Trout doesn’t mean the Cardinals all of a sudden win every World Series. The good news is that the Cardinals have Mike Trout the Cardinals have Mike Trout the Cardinals have Mike Trout.

And this is the story of how the Cardinals signing Barry Bonds would have, absolutely, 100%, beyond a shadow of a doubt, led to the Cardinals winning the 2008 World Series, Barry Bonds having the chance to rehabilitate his reputation, baseball fans being more easily able to reconcile Bonds as one of the sport’s more prolific record holders, and the Cardinals having Mike Trout.