A hypothetical travesty

So Barry Bonds returns tonight.

He returns to an aging, veteran Giants team that, this morning sits seven games behind the Padres in the NL West. San Francisco is tied with the Diamondbacks and one game behind the Dodgers. They’re 13 games under .500. A week ago, the earliest it was expected Bonds might play this month, they were 11 games below break-even and two games closer to first place.

The first question, of course, is, Why? Why is Bonds bothering? What’s he trying to accomplish? He’s not going significantly help the Giants this year, so why risk a career-ending injury for 20 meaningless games? (That’s 20 team games. I doubt Bonds will play in each one.) Is it to bring the fans out for the final seven home games in a ballpark that already draws pretty well as it is? Is it to see if he can hit 11 home runs in those 17 games to tie Babe Ruth this season? Is it a selfish decision, either on his part or the part of the ballclub?

But the second question, in my mind, is tougher to answer, though much more hypothetical. I first thought of this a week ago, when his presence in the lineup for — at the luckiest best — six more games would have meant more. Say the Giants go on a tear of historic proportions. Say they win 17 of their last 20 against a schedule packed with NL West (and, by definition, weak) opponents, plus the Washington Nationals. Such a run would make the Giants 81-81. Is he that good? Some may say so.

Now say the three teams in front of San Francisco — the Padres, Dodgers and Diamondbacks — all play .500 ball the rest of the way. That puts the Padres at 81-81 as well, forcing a one-game playoff. Perhaps the Giants win that game with Noah Lowry going up against Jake Peavy, or perhaps Woody Williams, if Peavy’s arm troubles turn out to be significant enough to affect him the rest of the way. Maybe Bonds plays a big part in that win, whether it’s at Petco Park or by the Bay in San Fran.

Say all that happens. Say Barry Bonds plays as many as 17 of these 20 games, gets 70 plate apperances, give or take five or 10, and hits eight home runs while scoring 20 (owing to a dozen or two walks).

If all that happens, is Barry Bonds the NL MVP?

Unlike the Cy Young Award, which is intended for the best pitcher in the league for each season, the most valuable player award carries within it a definition of who should be eligible for the award. It doesn’t say how that value should be measured, and while I would contend that the most valuable player in the league is the one whose numbers surpass — or at least stack up with — those of the best players in the league over the course of the entire season. A healthy player, to me, is more valuable than an injured one, no matter how well the injured one plays when he’s in the lineup. There is virtually no situation, at least this year, in baseball in which an MVP-caliber player who misses significant time with an injury is replaced by a player of equal caliber.

Bonds is a great player, and he may have a significant impact during these past few weeks, but if he’s still that good, wouldn’t he have been more valuable to the Giants had he been healthier this year and given them more than 70 at bats? The team is 64-78 as of Monday morning; perhaps a full season of Bonds would have meant that they were 78-64 at this point. That record would be good enough for a seven-game lead today. I don’t think a 30-game turnaround is that much of a stretch when we’re talking about Bonds, at least not over 142 games.

But would he deserve the MVP? Clearly such a turnaround by the Giants would be attributed to his return. This is clearly an abnormal season in the NL when the entire East Division has a good chance of finishing at or above .500 while the West Division leader could earn that title with the same .500 mark. Had the Giants still gone 64-78 but the Padres managed to win just six more games than they have, it’s doubtful the Giants would have a shot to make up 10 games over the last 20. My point there is that, yes, the Giants have an outside shot to win this division with Bonds back, but I think that has more to do with the ineptitude of the rest of the division to win games than it does with the Giants ability to stay in the race without their slugger. I believe that the Giants (and Diamondbacks, too, at 64-78) are “in the race” simply by default. First and foremost, it’s de fault of the Padres.

To answer my own question, I agree that Bonds’ return, if it does trigger a 17-3 run to close the season, would solidify him as one of the league’s most valuable players this year. But no one disputes that. No one questions you when you say he’s the Giants’ MVP, or the most valuable player in the West Division. But is he the most valuable player in the National League for 2005? More valuable than Albert Pujols, who has helped the Cardinals to a 14-game lead and a magic number of 6 as of this morning despite injuries to just about every starting position on the field in St. Louis over the course of the season? Would Bonds be more valuable than Andruw Jones, who carried the Braves on his back when they were calling up players from Double-A to start in the place of veterans like Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan, or when they lost three starting pitchers to injury?

I don’t think so. If I happen to be prescient enough to predict San Francisco’s 17-3 season-ending tear, I think Bonds receives an alarming number of votes, but should fall behind Jones and Pujols (who has unfairly followed Bonds in this voting in previous years) in the final tally. What those two players did for their teams over the course of the full season have been more valuable than what Bonds could do in three weeks. In my mind, the five-and-a-half months he missed hurt the team more than the three weeks he’ll provide.

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