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August 28, 2001

The Imbalance Sheet

Mythmongering

by Keith Law

The Twins are falling, and therefore, so is the sky, according to those who drink heavily at the fountain of MLB swill. It's no surprise that one of the first cries showed up on MLB's own site. Mike Bauman, apparently just purchased from Jim Henson Productions, issued a typically opinion-laden, fact-free piece last week stating that the Twins' collapse was evidence that baseball's entire economic system is b0rked. Here's the introduction to his article:

The only problem with the first-half success of the Minnesota Twins was that some people used it to make a point. And the point simply was not correct.

The argument was that the performance of the Twins, with the lowest player payroll in the Major Leagues, at less than $25 million, proved that economic disparity was not really that large of a deal.

If the Twins could compete at this level, the argument went, then the whole idea that baseball's economic structure was fundamentally flawed was itself fundamentally flawed.

The problem with Bauman's article is that he spends the entire time arguing that the Twins' early success proved nothing without addressing what the Twins' success meant, and without proving his thesis that baseball's economic structure is broken.

That the Twins had a hot start above all expectations is undeniable. The Twins went 18-6 in April and 55-32 before the All-Star break, riding their strong and not terribly expensive starting pitching (aside from Brad Radke, who was overpaid in a bid to keep someone else from overpaying him even more) into first place. Getting 55 wins by the All-Star break should, in most scenarios, put a team above the .500 mark for the season--even if the team loses 30 of its next 44 games, as the Twins have. If they manage to win just 13 of their remaining 31 games, they'll finish above .500; in the age of the wild card, that's the fringes of contention. So Bauman's basic contention that the Twins are struggling just as a small-market team should is flawed.

But someone needs to say that the Twins did not prove that economic disparity is not a continuing crisis for baseball. The proof came when, shortly after the All-Star break, the Twins lost shortstop Cristian Guzman with shoulder inflammation.

And the thing is, they had no adequate replacement. This is exactly the kind of thing that separates the small-market franchise from the large-market franchise.

Bauman is now arguing that the loss of one player, and the Twins' inability to replace him, was the cause of the Twins' demise, and that the Twins' inability to afford a decent $200,000 backup infielder is proof that they can't afford to compete. Given that the Twins already had a shortstop (Luis Rivas, their second baseman) available, all the Twins had to do was find an adequate second baseman who might come close to the .308/.347/.508 Guzman posted before the All-Star break. And backup second basemen who can hit are the very definition of replaceable talent.

With guys from Amaury Garcia to Marcus Scutaro to Enrique Wilson to Adam Riggs kicking around, passing through waivers, or just rotting in Triple-A, the Twins really have no excuse for not having a decent second baseman in the minors. Instead, they've given the most playing time at Edmonton to Edwin Diaz, who is hitting a lusty .281/.329/.450 in a hitters' paradise. (It's notable that not a single Twin player at Triple-A has an OBP over .390.)

But I'm being slightly coy. The Twins did have an option in Casey Blake, nominally a third baseman but a passable second baseman in a pinch, who is hitting .315/.380/.497 right now in Triple-A. Blake was up briefly during Guzman's absence and went 7-for-22, but was mysteriously optioned on July 20 and only made five starts during his time in the majors. At the same time, Denny Hocking has a 644 OPS in more than 300 plate appearances. One player doesn't explain the Twins' entire fall from first place--Radke struggled and got hurt, and Eric Milton also hit the skids--but the fact that Tom Kelly continues to refuse to put the best players on the field may have something to do with it, and that has nothing to do with money.

Bauman goes completely over the edge towards the end of his piece:

The current game operates on two economic axioms: The first is that if you don't spend money, you can't win. The second is that even if you do spend money, there is no guarantee of success.

Bauman's second point is accurate, but the first isn't. He never mentions the A's or the Giants in his article, even though both teams have won in 2000 and 2001 without breaking the bank. The White Sox and Marlins are both hanging around .500 with small payrolls as well. And the Twins, of course, have perhaps the best win-to-payroll ratio of any team this year.

Bauman's sin here is in printing the "axioms" as fact without bothering to produce any evidence to support them. That's just sloppy journalism: an opinion writer whose opinions reflect ignorance should lose his pulpit. MLB.com may not want to criticize its own teams, but perpetuating the myth of the "small market" crisis is hardly good PR, especially when more and more fans are realizing that it doesn't even exist.

Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  The Who,  Twins

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