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March 8, 2001

The Imbalance Sheet

A Pair of Jokers

by Keith Law

The Pirates continue to astound us with their incompetence. This week, they signed Scott Sauerbeck, the very definition of free talent (he was taken from the Mets via the Rule 5 draft in December of 1998), to a three-year, $2.4-million deal. Although that's not a lot of money, and we generally advocate locking good young players up through their arbitration years and beyond, the problem here is that Sauerbeck is not young and not good--and the Pirates don't realize that.

"If you look at the numbers, he's been very effective," said General Manager Cam Bonifay.

Really, Cam? I looked at the numbers, and I wouldn't call him effective. In his second year around the league, Sauerbeck put 40% of the batters he faced on base (opposing hitters had a .399 OBP against him). Right-handed hitters torched him to the tune of .305/.458/.433. This is "effective?" Indeed, if Sauerbeck is so effective, why did the Pirates feel compelled to spend millions more on another left-handed reliever, Terry Mulholland?

It's clear that the Pirates' problem is twofold: They can't manage their budget, and they can't tell an effective baseball player from a blow-up doll.

Meanwhile, most of a continent away, a number of Arizona Diamondbacks made news recently by agreeing to defer some of their compensation in a misguided attempt to alleviate the team's alleged financial difficulties. There's so much wrong with this picture that it's hard to decide where to begin.

First and foremost, there's not a whole lot of evidence that the Snakes in the Grass are actually losing money. Like nearly all major-league teams, they have never had to open their books to any kind of outside inspection. Banks don't give out loans without doing an extensive credit analysis first, so why would players give their employers loans without due diligence?

Second, it's not clear that this does anything for the players. It's possible that they will defer the money long enough so that the income doesn't arrive until after they retire, at which point they'll be in a lower tax bracket, but the time value of the money may overwhelm the slight tax benefit. They'd be better off taking the money now and investing it than waiting ten years for their cash. If the players thought that the deferral would mean that the Snakes would spend the money to improve the team, well, they were wrong.

That's because the Diamondbacks are already squandering the money. This is the same team that ignored its surfeit of first basemen who can hit and gave real money to Mark Grace, whose career as a useful regular is over and who clearly isn't worth more than Erubiel Durazo right now. Then they signed Greg Swindell, a good but replaceable left-handed reliever (see above), to a three-year deal that runs until he's old enough to cash in his IRA. Note that they didn't hire back the 20 people they laid off in a "cost-cutting" (read: PR) maneuver last fall.

Of course, the bottom line for Jerry Colangelo and his henchmen is that the Diamondbacks have now more or less successfully painted themselves as a franchise in trouble, which some members of the mainstream sports press have dutifully reported without attempting to verify the claim. Maybe someone should write a column suggesting that Colangelo stop blowing money on expensive mediocrities if he wants to make money.

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

Related Content:  Money

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