It's a simple question with a complicated answer.
A-Rod, right? He's in his prime. He's coming off a season for the ages. And he's about to become the first three-time MVP since, well, Bonds. I mean, what's there to debate?
But if Rodriguez opts out of the last three years of his 10-year, $252 million contract (and agent Scott Boras has said he favors his client terminating his current deal with the New York Yankees), you know what's going to happen next. Boras, the master manipulator, is going to try to turn this into a bidding war. Opening bid: likely $30 million per, which is more than the entire Tampa Bay Devil Rays' payroll ($24 million) and about the same as the Florida Marlins' payroll ($30.5 million).
Bonds is not going to get $30 million. He might be lucky to get $3 million base salary, plus incentives. Maybe less.
"Why would you pay him $9 million, 8, 7, 6 or 5?" a major league scout said. "If you're the Oakland A's, offer him a base of $2 million, and if he gets 500 at-bats, then he'll get his [incentive] numbers."
Two or three mil is respectable money, but for Bonds and his considerable ego, it's going to be an insult. It shouldn't be. He's a one-dimensional player who got paid an eye-popping $15.8 million by the San Francisco Giants to put butts in the seats during his joyless chase of Henry Aaron's home run record. He got the record, the Giants got their sellouts, and then Giants owner Peter Magowan, citing irreconcilable differences with Bonds, got his divorce.
So Bonds is a free agent. Let's say he sucks it up and agrees to sign a one-year deal, with incentives, worth (and we're being generous here) $5 million-$6 million.
Meanwhile, A-Rod decides to opt out, the Yankees take a pass on an extension and Boras does what he does best: create demand -- in this case, for a player who wants an unprecedented $30 million per year.
Who would you sign?
"Wow, that's a good question," the scout said.
Only a limited number of teams will be interested in each player. In Bonds' case, it will be because he's old, almost always hurt, a prima donna and the only career home run leader we know who has testified in front of a federal grand jury about steroid use. In A-Rod's case, it will be because he's really, really expensive.
The market for Bonds shrinks by 16 teams because chances are no National League team needs a weak-throwing statue in left field. Let's face it, Bonds runs like he has a bullet in his thigh.
"He'd be better served in the other league," an NL general manager said. "It's awful hard to line up 120, 130 games in left field at this point in his career."
If no NL team is interested, that means designated-hitter duty in the American League. The AL is the Statue of Liberty of baseball ("Give me your tired, your poor, your crippled sluggers ..."). Or, as the NL general manager said, "Sammy Sosa didn't play [in 2006]. He was the worst player in the American League during the second half of the 2005 season. But if the Texas Rangers can give Sosa a job, then certainly I would think somebody would give Bonds a job."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but you get the point. Sosa, after a year off, returned in 2007 to hit a very respectable 21 homers and 92 RBIs as a DH. So some AL team, looking for a bargain, is going to offer Bonds a contract.
Bonds might prefer the Los Angeles Angels, but it would be a stunner if image-conscious owner Arte Moreno let Bonds within a Rally Monkey of his franchise. The Seattle Mariners? I can't see Ichiro Suzuki or the team's conservative ownership signing off on that one. The Yankees? Sure, they need to get older.
No, the Athletics are the logical choice. They're on Bonds' favorite coast. They're just across the bay. They're familiar with these kind of flyer deals (Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza, etc.) It all makes sense.
A few teams from both leagues will kick A-Rod's tires. Moreno and the Angels are a possibility, as are the revenue-rich Boston Red Sox (second-highest payroll in the big leagues, trailing only the Yankees), the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Chicago Cubs' Lou Piniella would love to be reunited with Rodriguez, but the team's impending sale complicates matters. And Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been known to pay top dollar to the game's top talent (remember Michael Jordan?).
Of course, if it were based purely on projected salaries, Bonds is the better buy. Bonds hit 28 home runs, drove in 66 runs, had 132 walks, batted .276, had a .480 on-base percentage and had a .565 slugging percentage in 126 games and 340 at-bats. Lots of numbers, but the bottom line, said the NL GM, is this: "Quality left-handed bats are still very hard to come by."
A-Rod nearly doubled Bonds' 2007 home run total (54), more than doubled his RBIs (156), had an 80-point advantage in slugging percentage, hit 38 points higher in average and had 243 more at-bats. It isn't close ... until you factor in the money.
"If you go from a straight mathematical analysis," the scout said, "A-Rod is going to make about $30 [million], Bonds about $5 or 6 [million]. Will A-Rod's stats be five times higher than Bonds'? Probably not."
The Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers [who also contributes to ESPN.com] crunched more numbers. The payroll rankings of the past five World Series champions: 11, 13, 2, 25 and 15. The payroll rankings of this year's final four playoff teams: 2, 23, 25, 26. Average number of wins during the three years before A-Rod signed with the Rangers: 85. Average number of wins during his three years there: 72. Average number of wins in the four years prior to and then during A-Rod's Yankees tenure: no difference, 97.
So, you've got to choose Bonds, right? He's the new car equivalent of 0 percent financing. A-Rod is simply too expensive.
Sorry, I'd rather take my chances with Rodriguez and that K2-sized contract than Bonds and his lineup of question marks. Sure, Bonds will come relatively cheap, but do you really want him in your clubhouse?
Remember when Bonds was within a couple of home runs of Aaron's record? Remember Giants manager Bruce Bochy's pained expression whenever anyone asked if Bonds would be in the lineup the next day? Bonds essentially dictated to Bochy when he'd play and when he wouldn't.
Bonds is old. His body continues to break down. In the past four seasons, he's played in more than 130 games just once. And Bonds' drama king reputation gives some GMs and owners the shakes.
"He may have a hard time getting a job, he really might," the general manager said.
"He's such a distraction for everybody," the scout said. "He just walks around in his own miserable world. A-Rod is going to be a distraction, too, but I'd still take him, just because of the negative factors [of Bonds]."
"[Bonds' 2007 numbers] were good, there's no question," said another MLB club front office executive who specializes in statistical analysis. "But with [Rodriguez], at least you know what you're getting. Right now, I'd be paying the money to [Rodriguez]. Because you don't know what the price would be on the headaches, the negatives of Bonds."
The steroid cloud still appears on Bonds' Doppler radar. He also would be making the switch from NL pitching to AL pitching. And, as usual, Bonds would be about Bonds, and those 65 hits he needs to reach the 3,000-hit mark.
Neither choice -- Bonds at Wal-Mart prices, A-Rod at $30 mil -- is ideal. In fact, I wouldn't touch Bonds with a 10-foot checkbook.
But one owner is going to be intrigued by Bonds, and another owner is going to be swayed by Boras. And one, if not both, are going to regret it.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. He co-authored Jerome Bettis' autobiography, "The Bus: My Life In and Out of a Helmet," which is available now.