Barry Bonds hit No. 715 on Sunday, but the question still has to be asked:
Are the Giants better with him in the lineup or better with him out?
For the 2000-2004 period, the Giants built their team around Bonds. That left them vulnerable when he wasn’t there for almost all of last season, as they collapsed to a 75-87 season, and it’s a questionable strategy this season.
Bonds is looking exactly like what he is: An almost 42-year-old man coming off three knee surgeries. He can barely move. He clogs up the basepaths — don’t even dream of him scoring from second on a single — and he’s a defensive liability.
It was painful to watch him in a game last week when he was unable to reach for a ball he should have caught and went under his glove for a double. In another game, he failed to back up the play on the overthrow of third base by reliever Steve Kline, requiring shortstop Omar Vizquel to run the ball down.
When Moises Alou comes off the disabled list shortly, the Giants can field an excellent defensive lineup, with Alou in right, Steve Finley in center and Randy Winn in left, which is his best position.
When Bonds is in the lineup, though, Winn has to move to center, where he’s acceptable but not great. And, whether it’s Winn or Finley, the center fielder has to cover much more area with Bonds in left. When Willie McCovey played left for a brief time in the early ’60s, Willie Mays told him, “You cover the foul line and I’ll take the rest.” That’s what it’s like for Giants center fielders now with Bonds in left — but there’s no Willie Mays on the roster.
The Giants would cheerfully accept this if Bonds were the hitter he was in 2000-2004, but he’s not. He can occasionally unleash that awesome power — the Sunday blast was no cheapie — but his bad knee obviously handicaps him.
He can’t reach for the low, outside pitch that he used to drive. Pitchers didn’t dare pitch him inside before because that was almost a guarantee of a home run, but they do it now. He’s struggled to hit off-speed pitches, too.
In his frustration, Bonds has been going after pitches off the plate, which he didn’t do in his hitting prime. Manager Felipe Alou told him to go back to being a good hitter, not just a home run hitter, and Bonds’ batting average has risen. But right now, Bonds is a line-drive hitter who should hit around.300 with perhaps 25 to 30 homers this season, good for most hitters, but hardly what the Giants expect from their star.
This season, opposing managers helped the Giants by continuing to walk Bonds at illogical moments, which created run-scoring opportunities for the Giants. That pattern is changing. The A’s pitched to him, yielding the 714th home run but not otherwise getting hurt, and National League managers will follow the same strategy.
The Giants aren’t going to bench Bonds, for sure, but by treating him as if he were still the centerpiece, they might wind up costing themselves a chance at the playoffs.