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December 4, 2000

The Imbalance Sheet

See You in the Tall Grass

by Keith Law

Bud Selig went to Washington to do what people do in Washington: lie. He went to Congress to cry poverty and insist that the only thing that can save baseball is some fundamental change in the game's economic structure. While this made great copy--most media outlets ate it up like hungry curs given below-grade dog food--his case was flawed, dishonest and dangerous.

Selig ran through the same tired arguments we've addressed here before, so rather than rehash them--they're in the archives if you're curious or a new reader--I'd like to focus on another event going on right now in baseball, one with great bearing on Selig's presentations to Congress. This is the Arizona Diamondbacks' attempts to sign first baseman Mark Grace to a deal worth more than $4 million per year.

In September, the Diamondbacks issued all manner of press releases to cry poverty. They claimed they would lose $20 million this season (net income, with no elucidation on how that number came about, as opposed to the harder-to-fudge cash flow). They claimed that they couldn't turn a profit despite strong attendance, a new ballpark and good media revenues. They were obviously full of merde, because three months later they suddenly have the money to sign one of the worst first basemen in baseball for at least 16 times the cost of a minimum-salary replacement who could outhit him eight ways from Sunday.

Mark Grace is, at this late date in his career, a total stiff. His .429 slugging percentage was the worst among NL first basemen last year. It was just .007 ahead of Tino Martinez's slugging percentage, and the Yankees can't get rid of him at one year and $5 million. Grace needed a career-best 95 walks to get his OPS up to 823, better than the OPS marks of just two other NL first basemen (Eric Karros and Kevin Young).

What's worse is that Arizona has better internal options. Greg Colbrunn has slugged .500 or better more times in the last two years (two, albeit in limited playing time) than the 37-year-old Grace has in his entire 13-year career. Erubiel Durazo, when healthy, could produce more at the plate in four months than Grace could all year. Arizona has the positionless Jack Cust sitting in the minors after drawing 117 walks for Double-A El Paso. Cust didn't show great power last year, but if the Snakes just wanted a first baseman who could draw tons of walks and poke 15 homers, why pay Grace $5 million instead of just promoting Cust? We don't even have to talk about Roberto Petagine, Morgan Burkhart, Mario Valdez and all the other underemployed first basemen of the world to point out that the Diamondbacks are blithering idiots.

So when Selig went before Congress to claim that baseball is all fouled up, he was right. Baseball is screwed up and many of its teams will lose money, but the reason isn't the economic structure of the game. It is the utter and relentless incompetence of teams like Arizona that drives baseball teams into the red, because when you pay $5 million for a $250,000 asset, you're going to have a hard time turning a profit on the investment.

Keith Law can be reached at klaw@baseballprospectus.com.

Related Content:  Mark Grace

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