Thursday, March 29, 2007

Series Preview: Those Goofy Orange Birds

Every year, some team surprises everyone. If you're the type who likes to sleuth out such things, you could do worse than to investigate the Baltimore Orioles. They have many of the same ingredients that turned the Tigers into last year's best story, starting with a projectable young pitching staff.

When Leo Mazzone left the Atlanta Braves to work with his best friend (and Baltimore Orioles manager) Sam Perlozzo, expectations were high that Mazzone’s magic would greatly improve the Orioles young staff. And it happened. It just happened way too late. Over the 2nd half of the season, Baltimore’s young rotation improved almost across the board, with four of their starters posting an ERA at least .89 lower than they did before the All-Star break. They’ll need to continue that if they’re going to challenge for a playoff spot in the very tough AL East.

As the middle of this rotation goes, so goes the Orioles season. Daniel Cabrera is a 6’ 7” Nuke Laloosh clone whose 100 mph heater scares the living daylights out of batters because he just has no idea where it’s going. Adam Loewen is a 22-year-old southpaw who similarly can strikeout the side or walk the bases loaded. And Jaret Wright’s upside can be found in 2004 (the last time he had Mazzone as a pitching coach) when he posted a 2.48 ERA.

If the middle of their rotation can carry a good chunk of the load, the lineup should be able to score enough to make things interesting. Like Detroit last year, this lineup doesn’t have many easy outs where you might expect them. At catcher, Ramon Hernandez hit 23 home runs last year. In center field, the Orioles will platoon Corey Patterson (who rakes right-handers and stole 45 bases last year) and Jay Payton (who will start the season on the DL). And at second base, Brian Roberts recovered from elbow surgery to have a great 2nd half of the year.

But the key to the offense is shortstop Miguel Tejada, who the Orioles signed as a free agent before the 2004 season. Remember how we all used to drool over the triumvirate of shortstops – Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra? Well, Tejada has surpassed them all as the best shortstop in the game. He plays great defense, has a ton of natural clubhouse energy, and will hit around 30 homers and drive in 110 RBI.

Maybe more importantly for the home team, all the Orioles needed to do was give him a big check to anchor their lineup for this decade. While the Twins hem ‘n haw about how long-term contracts can go very wrong, the $38 million that Tejada will make over the next three years looks like an absolute bargain after the contracts that were given away this offseason. As the new ballpark introduces new sources of revenue, it’s worth remembering that smart bets (especially when they’re signed young, like Tejada or Vladamir Guerrero) can be made in the free agent market, just like they are in the farm system.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Trip Through Fantasyland

"Tas" is the reason I have avoided writing about fantasy baseball on this site for the last five years. So though I play it, admire it, and can for short periods become obsessed by it, I don't write about it. Because right about the time normal people hear the syllable "Tas" in "Fantasy Baseball", their eyes gloss over, and they start to feel a little numbness just behind and to the outside of their eyelids. And they're gone.

I get this, so I don't write about fantasy baseball. But the people who do, and the people who read them, generally know their stuff. If you want to see exactly how obsessive fantasy baseball (also called Rotisserie) can get, I highly encourage you to check out Fantasyland, a very entertaining book by Sam Walker, which is now available in paperback. Walker was a sportswriter who was invited to join "TOUT Wars", a premiere fantasy baseball league run by a bunch of guys who sell fantasy baseball advice for a living.

He goes totally overboard. Besides spending thousands of dollars, he uses his access to players and GMs to try and influence them. For instance, he called Pirates GM David Littlefield and trying to convince him to trade for Doug Mientkiewicz (who was eventually traded to the Red Sox) because Mientkiewicz would get more at-bats in Pittsburgh. He also tries to convert Jacque Jones to becoming more disciplined at the plate, and Jones plays a pivotal (and touching) role in the book. For Twins fans, it's a fantastic read.

Anyway, there are thousands of people who have spent months crunching numbers and reading tea leaves trying to figure out exactly how many RBI Jason Kubel is going to end up with this year. And last weekend, the top echelon of these people - that TOUT Wars league - gathered and started drafting players. So I thought it might be kind of interesting to see exactly what they think various Twins will be worth this year. And whether that might be a reality check to Twins fans.

It's Good To Be King
How far ahead of every other starting pitcher is Johan Santana? According to the rotoheads, it's not even close:

Johan Santana - $36
John Lackey - $24
Dan Haren, Felix Hernandez - $23
C.C. Sabathia, Jeremy Bonderman, Roy Halladay - $22
Daisuke Matsuzaka - $21
Curt Schilling - $20

No reality check here. There's a level of top starters, like Schilling, Dice-K, King Felix and Halladay. Then there's a slightly higher level, which is completely empty. And then there's the level that Santana is on. Giggle.

And a Bunch of Jacks (or is it Jokers?)
And the rest of the rotation?

Boof Bonser - $11
Matt Garza - $9
Glen Perkins - $1
Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson, Carlos Silva, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker - $0

The fantasy baseball junkies like Bonser more than Twins Territory does. They also clearly don't expect Garza to remain in the minors long. And they're hoping they'll see Perkins. And Slowey or Baker. I'll let you figure out what that means for the rest of the names on the list.

Closing the Door
The seamheads don't lust after the Nathanator quite as much as Santana. That doesn't mean he's any slouch:

Joe Nathan - $26
Mariono Rivera - $25
BJ Ryan - $25
Francisco Rodriguez - $24
Huston Street - $23

He's been ridiculously consistent and healthy (knock, knock) the last two years, making him a favorite. This isn't a fluke, by the way. He finished with the top price in another premier league draft (LABR League) just a few weeks ago.

The Rest of the Best Bullpen
The rest of the bullpen is usually drafted based on their perceived ability to end up closing. Given Nathan's track record, it's a good sign that the roto-junkies didn't bid much compared to other middle relievers:

Juan Rincon - $3
Jesse Crain - $2
Pat Neshek - $1
Dennys Reyes, Matt Guerrier - undrafted

Essentially, it looks like they expect roles to more or less follow seniority, which is probably accurate for this organization. I am a little suprised that Reyes didn't get drafted. I think the general expectation in Fantasyland is that he'll regress a bit this year.

That's it for tonight. If I have time, I'll cover the hitters side tomorrow.

Twins Takes
Very briefly...
  • Garza was sent down, allowing us all to pick his recall date in a pool at the event on the 7th. Good times. I'll go with 4/24.
  • So apparently this leaves 28 guys in camp, but I still can't figure out who the last guy is. 5 starting pitchers + 6 relievers + 9 position players + 4 bench = 24 guys. Besides them we know that Durbin, Heintz and Rabe are still around. Who is the last guy? Is Liriano still in camp? Can someone help me?
  • While this whole 25th spot is a bit of a mess, it's worth noting that it's partly due to the injury to Alejandro Machado. That's unfortunate, but it's not a bad break for the organization. His injury, which will take 5-6 months to rehab, virtually assures the Twins that they'll get to keep Machado in their organization next year and not have to return him to the Nationals. The Twins might very well have their backup middle infielder for the next several year for the cost of a Rule V waiver. Nice.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

24 (23?) Guys for a 25 Man Roster

The Twins cut five more guys yesterday - four that weren't surprises and one that is. Left-handed reliever Mike Venafro was reassigned to Rochester, and has three days to decide if he'll accept it or become a free agent. If he accepts it, he'll wait his turn as a left-handed reliever in the bullpen, possibly competing with Ricky Barret for that opportunity.

Venafro was a surprise because he had a chance of taking the last spot on the roster. Instead, there are now 29 players still in camp, and 23 of them can feel comfortable that they'll be able to watch the Opening Day festivities up close. The rest are at least nominally competing for two spots. Or rather, two are competing for one spot (the fifth starter), and five are competing for the last spot (the 25th man).

The fifth starter spot has been talked about ad nauseum. Carlos Silva has been absolutely awful, but it's more telling that Matt Garza hasn't even had a chance to be that. Instead, he's been relegated to pitch the late innings of games, after the other teams are inserting backups and prospects. If the Twins were serious about Garza, I suspect we'd have seen him with at least one start over the last week or so. Silva's trying his best to convince the Twins he belongs in Rochester, but he hasn't succeeded so far.

If the Twins do the right thing and keep Garza, they still have a decision to make about who the 25th guy will be. It would probably mean keeping Silva as a 7th bullpen arm, but does that do him any favors? If he really wants to recover, he likely needs to pitch as a starter and work through the problems that he doesn't seem to have in his bullpen sessions. Plus, it's not like he's going to walk away from his $4.35 million salary.

But if not Silva, who? JD Durbin has been similarly awful, needs work in AAA at least as much as Silva, and is also a long shot to catch on with any other club. Josh Rabe has had a nice spring, and I suppose that you could make the case that he could replace Lew Ford, but that just calls into question the wisdom of re-signing Ford - a light-hitting right-handed sixth outfielder who could just as easily be replaced by Rabe.

To be honest, I can't even figure out who the 29th guy in camp is. But the 28th probably has the best shot of breaking with the team besides Silva. That's Chris Heintz, who could be a 3rd catcher, which would supposedly allow Gardy to have Mauer bat more at designated hitter.

I'm tired of beating that dead horse, but I'll do it one more time. On the rare occassion that an injury forces a DH to become a catcher, the pitcher needs to bat. That's not an issue late in the game, when the Twins are usually switching relievers every inning anyway. It might be an issue early in the game, in which case you let the pitcher have one damn at-bat. Or have MAtt Guerrier earn his paycheck. This isn't rocket science, and nobody needs to burn a 25th roster spot to solve it. (Thwap. Neigh. THWAP! Silence.)

Unless, of course, there are no better options, and frankly, that's kinda looking like it's the situation. You could make the case that giving it to Silva or Durbin would hurt them more than it would help them. What the Twins could really use is a left-handed bat with some power off the bench, but they didn't even bring anyone like that into camp. (Unless you cound Garret Jones. And you really shouldn't.)

It's not the organization's finest hour, to be sure. The team couldn't find a backup shorstop, completely ignored any left-handed pop, and now has a roster spot for which they essentially don't need and aren't really going to use.

This organization prides itself on the little things, and generally they succeed. But now they find themselves with plenty of needs, an open roster spot, and no candidates to fill them. They'll take plenty of heat over the next couple of days about who they bring north. But maybe we should be looking a little closer on who they brought south.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Vegas Recap: Barry, Liberace and Perspective

You would think that when you’ve been alive forever, and when your name is music, that you would continue to write the songs. But near as I can tell, that’s not what happened to Barry Manilow.

We saw Barry in Vegas (The Music and Passion show!), and you can’t help but notice that all those catchy melodies pretty much stopped as the 80’s were gaining steam. That’s not unusual in pop music – the flavor of the day changes regularly – except that Manilow wasn’t a singer, he was a songwriter.

Often with songwriters, even when they’re not cranking out their own hits, they’re cranking them out for others. Dolly Parton, Bruce Hornsby, and even that grimy chick from 4 Non Blonds – they all cranked out tunes after the spotlight quit shining on them. Manilow was the premiere songwriter for a decade, and was in his youth. So why are so so many of his albums just covers of songs from various decades?

I suspect the muse has left the building. For better or worse, it has been replaced by a certain amount of perspective, which tends to dampen those emotions that gush a little more freely when adulthood is a newer phenomenon. The excitement, despair, melancholy and god knows what other fuel is in shorter supply. What comes naturally is still possible, but it’s a lot more work.

And the Vegas trip was much the same. We had a huge group join us in Vegas this weekend, and by any standard measure I’d have to say it was the best group trip we’ve ever had. There were some killer events, both on and off the casino floor, and some great opportunities to reconnect with friends and family that we don’t see nearly as often as we used to.

And yet….

Perspective gets in the way. Our stupidity is a little more limited, our need for each other not quite as severe, our reality a little more separate. In the past, Vegas wasn’t as partitioned from our world, just a slightly crazier extension of it. Now, it’s not even close. Vegas used to be our reality on steroids. Now it fees like a movie we’re watching – still fun, but not as guttural.

But boy, was it one solid four days. Our goal was four solid days of irresponsibility and I think we mostly succeeded. So in honor of Barry, and the perspective that we gain whether we like it or not, let’s review the weekend by remembering some of Barry’s greatest hits.

Mandy – The concert didn’t produce any surprise special guests, unless you count Barry singing Mandy as a duet with a much younger version of himself. Playing a clip from Midnight Special, Manilow accompanied the younger version with a dueling piano and a slightly more “Vegas” feel.

Our trip had a special guest too. About five minutes after we checked into NYNY we ran into my brother Jeff. That would have been a surprise all by itself since he’s married with children and wasn’t supposed to be on the trip. It was a little more than a surprise considering that he is married with children in Melbourne, Australia. Turns out that he, my family and most of my friends had conspired to keep his trip a secret from me.

After catching up, Jeff went to check in, and The Voice Of Reason™ and I took the elevator to our room.

TG: Wow. Silence. Wow. Silence. I guess the ante has been raised on this weekend, huh?
TVOR: Yep. Silence. I’m not going to see you again this weekend, am I?
TG: No. No, you’re not.
TVOR: No. No, I’m not.

It’s a Miracle! – To the most miraculous stat of the weekend – 4 days, 3 nights, 0 hangovers. I’m giving full credit on two of those three nights to the ultra-doughy deep dish pizza they serve at NYNY until 3 AM. But Friday morning – that required divine intervention. I consider that to be the surest sign yet in my short existence that god exists. Somewhere around 10:45 AM I finally agreed we’re now even for that whole Drew Pearson push off thing.

And speaking of Thursday night, things are a little fuzzy, but I’m almost sure that at some point our wait staff started dancing seductively on the bar in tiny little leather outfits. It was like a cross between the Drew Carey show and Wicked pictures. I’m almost sure this happened. If anyone else remembers this, I’d sure appreciate some reassurance.

Copacabana – To the hottest bar north of Havana, I dedicate La Fontana bar at the Bellagio. NOT inside. Inside it feels a little like a wedding reception most times. Let me be a bit more vivid. Like a wedding reception where your angry overweight aunt is scaring everyone off the dance floor while the wedding band is playing .38 Special. Hold on loosely, indeed.

No, go outside, order a glass or two of overpriced port, and sit back and watch the Bellagio’s fountain show through a few interludes. It plays every 15-20 minutes, and it’s a wonder, an impressive combination of art, engineering and thousands of gallons of spurting water in the middle of a dessert. I was asked by a guy on the plane what he should do with his one night in Vegas. I told him to start it there.

Somewhere Down the Road – One of the more touching moments in the concert was when Barry sang this alone on a stool with very little accompaniment, but mostly what struck us all was how the sentiment just dripped with the blindness of youth.

That little look back in time was echoed Saturday, as four younger guys walked toward us heading to the food court. As they staggered past, it was clear that they weren’t just hungry – they NEEDED food. Three of them held their Miller Lites, but the fourth one, the one that took two steps sideways for every step forward, was desperately trying to rally with a mostly empty can of Red Bull. None of which would’ve been all that unusual if it wasn’t 11:30 AM. Dripping with youth indeed.

Ready to Take a Chance Again – To the song that Barry, inexplicably and inexcusably left out of the concert, I dedicate The Liberace Museum, which I inexplicably and inexcusably skipped on Saturday. It may be the ultimate Vegas experience - schlocky, cheesy, hilarious and while still just tiniest bit creepy.

Ships – We’re two ships that pass in the night, but it isn’t alright. This song goes out to the half dozen bartenders who managed to completely piss me off this weekend. Here’s what you DON’T know - I was gonna order a beer. I switched to that ridiculously tedious drink I ordered only after I watched you consciously ignore me for 15 minutes. Hope you enjoyed shredding and crushing those mint leaves.

I Write the Songs – To Bob, who was the driving force behind the weekend. For his 40th birthday Bob decided two years ago that all of us were going to Vegas to watch Barry Manilow. 22 people answered the call, and several of them arranged activities like Barry, The Liberace Museum and Spamalot. This weekend Bob was the music, and I for one, hope he’s around forever.

That’s this year’s Vegas recap. Next time, I PROMISE there will be some live updates while I’m there, now that I finally figured out exactly how to work this whole high speed internet thing. If you’ve been in Twins withdrawal, stop on back tomorrow, and I’ll try and get back on the horse. See ya then…

Bus #4

OK, I know I didn't publish Friday. I'm sorry, but I had trouble logging into Blogger in Vegas. What's more, I'm not putting the final Vegas story up until tomorrow, because it isn't finished. And I can't even replace it with a Twins Take, because I have no idea what has been going on regarding baseball for the last four days. So instead, I found this story which I'm not sure I've ever published. We'll see you tomorrow.

“When your mom and I first moved here, we would always watch Monday Night Football with Bobby Jackson, Jimbo, Uncle Jeff and Kapa at that place.”

“Was it fun?”

More fun that I can tell her. I think I’ll leave out the part about the enormous $1.50 plastic mugs, the 2 AM phone calls berating “lame” (translation: “sober” or "sensible") friends, and the fruitless search for late night eats that once resulted in eating (shudder) carrot omelets. (I repeat, once.) She has plenty of time to learn about that later.

I find myself on a date with my two favorite girls, only one of which is sitting next to me. The other one is waiting for us at home, but her presence is tangible as we rumble past some of our old haunts. I wonder if I’ll ever travel through Uptown and not have her with me.

“Your mom and I lived just a couple blocks that way. Jimbo was our roommate. Our parents thought we were crazy.”


“Once you get married, people don’t expect you to share an apartment with someone else. But we loved it.”

True to form from my single days, I’ve made a mess of this date. I was supposed to drive downtown to work today, but forgot and took the bus. This means that when I picked up The Chatty Chatty Princess™ from choir practice at the Basilica, we needed to ride the pokey #4 bus down Lyndale to get home. At night. In the rain. Fortunately, as also often happened in my single days, my date is rising to the occasion.

“Dad, do you know where Minnehaha School is?”

“You mean Minnehaha Academy? Yes. You took ice skating lessons there a couple of times. You hated it.”

“I got a notice from school that they’re giving lessons again.” She pauses. “Do you remember the time that you were little and mom wanted to ice skate with you, but you couldn’t ice skate and so you didn’t go?”

I can’t believe she remembers that story. When did I tell her about that? “That wasn’t your mom. That was a different little girl. I was only 10. I didn’t meet your mom for another 12 years.”

“Oh. So you were 22 when you met mom?”

Yes, I was. A week away from turning 23. And as if she hasn’t become a big enough part of this night already, now a reality exists in which I’ve known her since I was 10. (Why not? God knows I felt like that when I first met her.)

“So, um, I’ve heard from two girls in my class that a boy likes me.”

“Oh, really?”

“Uh-huh. Kyle. First Marianna heard him say that, and she told me, and then I told Ariel, and she talked to him, and he said that to her, and she told me too.”

So that’s what this night is about. Boy, am I stupid. We’re not on a date – we’re on a double date. Each of us with our non-present significant others.

“So what should I do? Should I walk up to him and ask him if he likes me?”

Why are you asking me kid? Did I mention my idea of a date is a public bus ride down Lyndale in the rain while I openly reminisce about the other girl in my life?

“No. He might get scared. What would you do if there was girl that wanted to be your friend?”

“I’d just start acting like we’re already friends.”

“Do that with Kyle. At the very least, he’ll likely be a friend. And maybe he’ll end up being your boyfriend.”

“Dad!", she scolds, "I’m only eight years old. I’m too young to be thinking about boyfriends."

Apparently none of us are ever too young.

Or too old.