Thursday, March 15, 2007

Round One (XII)

It’s a tradition – the decadence that is the first round of the NCAA tournament. What isn’t a tradition is blogging, live, from a bar. Thank God for Wi-Fi.…..

The Ride Over – I’m climbing into my car about an hour and a half later than I wanted, but the grumpiness is washed away by the euphoria. There may be a higher plane reached later today, but this moment is why I do this. The tickled feeling you get from leaving work, meeting friends, and ordering that first afternoon beer is literally the whole reason I do this. Everything else may or may not happen. But this is the moment I can count on.

The Entry – I arrive at Senser’s, and the people I can count on. Michele, Bob and The Voice of Reason™. Michele always shows and Bob always runs the bracket and arranges the table. But TVOR is the reason is the reason I’m still going.

Raised in Philly and an alum of a Big 5 school, she loves this damn thing. There are years I think I can’t leave work, or arranging the sitters is a hassle, or work is just too hectic. And so I start to hedge, and she never hesitates – she signs off on the sitter, promises to be there at noon, and deals with the kids in between the games. She is a machine. I had to look a thousand miles to find her. It was worth it.

The Lunch – The waitress makes sure to offer me the extra cheese, waffle fries, and seasoned sour cream. TVOR points out that the same waitress offered her none of these. We decide that “I look like I like cheese.” I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Standford – The first thing I notice as I look at the games it that the Cardinal are losing big to Louisville, and they’re not going to rebound. That’s not good news for The Boy™, who filled out his first pool of his life last night. My little future math major decided that “maybe an 11 will beat a 6”. Or, maybe (as Matt says) they’ll lose by “plenty to ugly”.

TT– There are only a few minutes left in Texas Tech’s loss to Boston College when I realize I haven’t seen Bobby Knight yet. Nobody else at the table has noticed him either. Surprisingly, he hasn’t been tossed, he’s just not really participating. His team makes a couple of bone-headed plays at the end of the game when deciding not to foul a team. I wonder if he’s just done. Or maybe has been for a while.

Davidson vs. Maryland – Davidson keeps it close, but it’s not a great game, or at least not between great team. Eventually, it becomes clear that Davidson has one scorer and he’s out of gas. Maryland finishes them off and we’re heading to the second set of games.

Bracket Tally - After the first set of games, the leader in our family is The Chatty, Chatty Princess™. I’m tied with “The Blind Monkey”, the randomly generated bracket that we use for especially severe ridicule. Bob, our tournament organizer is even worse.

Georgetown – Within the first sixty seconds, Georgetown’s point guard Anthony Sapp has three Belmont Bruins scrambling around him to steal the ball, and he never picks up the dribble. That’s all I need to see. I love this kid. Belmont plays the Hoyas very tough for the first 12 minutes, but Georgetown just eventually beats them down. Belmont was a much better team than I thought, but it wasn’t close. Georgetown is impressive.

Penn – With 19:44 second remaining in the first half, TVOR announces that she’s happy she didn’t pick Penn. For the record, that means the Big Five fan turned her back on them 16 seconds after the game started. And I can’t blame here. Listed among Penn’s “Big Wins” were Yale and LaSalle. La Salle finished last in the A-10.

To Penn’s credit, they come back big time versus Texas A & M, providing the only real excitement of the afternoon. But after taking the lead, the Aggies score something like the next 10 points. Game over. Sorry Quakers.

The Memory – Bob tells me that in our youth we went to party, and decided that our jobs of systems guys weren’t going to cutit. So we decided to go as rival toothbrush salesmen. I would apparently draw people into a conversation, and tell them that in a couple of months, we were going to introduce “something big”. Then I would confidentially tall them “In a couple of months, you are NEVER going to have to FLOSS AGAIN.”

For the record, I remember none of this. There is at least a 50% chance that Bob is dreaming all this up to see if I pretend I remember. He’s that brilliant.

Butler – The Bulldogs find themselves in a defensive dog fight against Old Dominion. And by defensive, I mean Big Ten on ‘ludes. kinda defensive. The score is 20-19 at half. Then Pete Campbell, a 6’ 7” forward, drains four straight threes from half a dozen feet beyond the arc, and that’s it. In that kind of a defensive battle, it’s game over.

Washington State – The kid can play ball – he was the difference maker in today’s win over Oral Roberts – but that doesn’t change the fact that Derrick Low’s moustache is EXACTLY like the one my friend Craig Stanton grew in 7th grade.

George Washington – The bloggers show for the final game of the afternoon, since Will Young is a GW alum. It doesn’t go well. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice to say that Will stops seething at halftime long enough to spit out that this is “a rebuilding year”, so you can guess how that game went.

As the first two rounds of games end, one of the TVs switches to the girl’s high school basketball tournament. TVOR takes that opportunity to turn purple and spit fire. Good lord, I love this woman. And so I think I’ll spend the rest of the night watching some basketball with her. See you on Monday.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

All Wet

Ask a fish about water sometime. They can talk endlessly about the stuff and they’re smarter than you think. Temperature, viscosity, transparency – they’re experts on it all, including traits that would never occur to us. But there’s one pretty basic characteristic of water that they never understand, no matter how much you explain it. (And don’t think I haven’t tried.)

The don’t understand “wet”.

The lesson, as always, is that I spend way too much time thinking about random things. And it’s a sickness. And I’m crying out for help. But the other lesson is that even when you dedicate your life to studying something, that very act can leave you blind to something pretty basic.

Ron Gardenhire dedicated his early life to being a shortstop, and one wonders if that hasn’t blinded him in some ways. Gardenhire’s major league career was over by the time he was 27 years old, so he likely spent some time thinking about how some teams could really use another true backup shortstop, like he was. And a lot of the time, he was probably right.

But that need isn’t as clear right now for the Twins. They came into camp with at least one backup shortstop in Nick Punto, who has played shortstop throughout his major league career. Luis Rodriguez did too, playing regularly at shortstop until he arrived in Rochester. But Gardenhire has declared that Punto won’t serve as a backup, and Rodriguez can’t handle shortstop, so the question being asked is who the backup shortstop is going to be.

The more interesting question is why there aren’t any real candidates in camp. That’s not the kind of thing that is difficult to pick up during the offseason. Was the front office not aware of Gardenhire’s views?

The Twins did choose Alejandro Machado in the rule V draft, but no competitive team hands a Rule V draftee a job before spring training. That would seem to be especially true for a team managed by Gardenhire who attaches the prefix “veteran” to “backup shortstop” as if they’re one long word.

The problem with giving veteran middle infielders to Gardenhire is his track record for doing such silly things with them. Last year’s infatuation with Juan Castro didn’t end until Castro was traded away. Actually, judging from statements early this spring, it still hasn’t. While playing the Reds, Gardenhire openly pined for Castro again, talking about how the Reds gave Castro a two-year deal.

Which raises the question whether the front office didn’t provide Gardenhire with a veteran option on purpose. Which further raises the question whether Gardenhire wants a veteran backup shortstop because he refuses to move Punto, or whether he refuses to move Punto because he wants another veteran backup shortstop?

At this point, does it matter? If there’s one thing we know about Gardenhire, it’s that he isn’t afraid to be stubborn about this sort of thing. If you weren’t convinced by Bartlett’s demotion last year, perhaps the words “Corky Miller” will ring a bell? The Twins waived Michael Restovich so Gardy could keep a fourth catcher on the roster.

So what options does the front office have? Machado is supposedly going to be playing soon, but the smart money is that he won’t be the manager’s first choice. Gardenhire is already talking up Alexi Casilla, which puts Terry Ryan in the position of planting the 22-year-old on the Twins bench while the prospect’s service clock ticks and skills atrophy.

Hmmm. Or I suppose Ryan could trade for a veteran backup shortstop….

See? I told you fish were smarter than you think.

Twins Takes
On Monday, the Twins pounded Dontrelle Willis for six runs in a couple of innings. Also on Monday, the Cubs announced that Mark Prior would pitch in “B” squad games until he regains his confidence.

Two young pitchers who had instantaneous success in the majors. Two young pitchers who had boundless ceilings. And two young pitchers who never really regained the promise they showed so early and so young.

And neither of them had to undergo Tommy John surgery.

I think forward to 2008, and I think of a rotation of Johan Santana, Franciso Liriano, Matt Garza and Boof Bonser with another young gun like Glen Perkins or Kevin Slowey holding down the fifth spot. And involuntarily, I get giddy. And then I see a day like Monday, and I wonder if Liriano will ever be the same.

Deep down, I know the answer is no. That half season’s performance was so good that the reigning Cy Young winner look like an underachiever. To expect anything close is silly at best, damaging at worst.

But let’s hope Liriano fares better than a couple of the other young phenoms who burned so bright so early.

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Guide for the Bracketly Challanged

“Another damn NCAA column? How about some baseball? Must we all talk about college baseketball 24/7? Will nothing stop the (March) madness!!!”

There, I saved you the work of an angry comment about a non-baseball article. Hey, I’m the Twins Geek, so I feel your pain. But if the NCAA tournament isn’t the greatest event in sports today, it’s at least the greatest gimmick in sports today. You – yes, even you -can get into it, too. Just follow these simple steps and you’ll assimilate just fine. You might even enjoy it.

(And if you’re looking for a baseball angle, understand that most major leaguers are paying as much attention to their brackets as to the race for the last roster spot. Plus, there’s a Twins Take at the bottom. But only if you plow through the rest….)

Step 1: Take half of Thursday and all of Friday off work.
You may think you’re too cynical. You may thing you’re too mature. You may think this is a waste of time. None of these are true.

It is never a waste of time to watch a bunch of kids play under bright lights (many for the first and last time), pursuing a dream. You may believe that major college sports are thinly disguised professional leagues, and for half the teams this may be true. But there is NO WAY you can’t get behind a Central Connecticut State, or a team named the “Salukis”.

Unless of course, you didn’t pick them in your bracket. Which brings us to Step 2…

Step 2. Fill out a bracket.
Find someone – a friend, a guy at work, a web site – someone who is running a bracket pool and join the fray. You may not be an expert, but it doesn’t matter. For the next three weeks people are going to be talking about this thing, and it’s so much more fun it you have some stake in the outcome. Consider the entry fee a ticket to a social life.

Besides, it isn’t that hard to have a decent showing with just a few tips. Just the last tip below will likely put you in the top half of your pool. Invest an hour in the rest, and you could see your name hanging around the top of the standings for the next several weeks.

Tip: Find a nice short summary of each team – They’re in most papers, and they need to be written before the conference tournaments, so they’re more objective than most of the coverage you’ll see. Just put a “+” next to the teams that mention:
- good defensive reputations
- solid guards, especially if they have one with a lot of assists
- a lot of seniors
- a really good center
Put a “-“ next to the teams that have
- the words “run and gun” in their description
- haven’t played many other teams in the tourney
- have given up a lot of points.

Tip: Lose the hype – For the first round (and only the first round), put a “-“ next to a team if they won their tournament or if you see them mentioned anyplace as a sleeper or favorite. These are college kids, after all. They’ve been digesting this stuff, whether they want to or not, and are due for a let down. Alternately, if a team was supposed to win their tournament but failed, plan on a pretty decent first game for them. (But they may let down their guard in the second round).

Tip: Don’t get carried away with the underdogs – The rankings are pretty accurate. You need to really like an underdog to pick them, even in the first round. They want to pick them to go further, but understand that they almost never do. Maybe it’s the euphoria of the big win, or maybe the big programs become familiar with them after watching them play, but almost no underdogs make it past the Sweet Sixteen. The real key to a great story is knowing when to end it.

The Last Tip: Know your bracket’s scoring system – If you do nothing else than understand your bracket’s scoring system and pick accordingly, you’ll still end up in the top half of the pool. About 80% of all brackets greatly favor picking either underdogs or favorites.

If a bracket isn’t rewarding you, and I mean REALLY rewarding you for picking underdogs, then don’t pick many underdogs. If the big points come from the Final Four or championship, make damn sure favorites ends up in those spots. You’re allowed to work backwards in these things.

Step 3: Watch the first round with friends.
How many friends do you need? It depends on how hoops crazy they are. If they’re legitimately nuts, one will do. But more is always better.

I highly recommend starting at noon on Thursday, if for no other reason than you are sitting, watching basketball, and yacking with your friends at noon on Thursday. It’s just so deliciously slacker.

The bigger question is where you watch the games. There are 3-4 games at almost all times, and CBS will pick one for your market and then only go to other games if they are close. Ideally, you’ll want a place with at least three TVs and a satellite package that shows all the games. I prefer a bar, partly because I like to talk to the rest of the hoopheads about the games, too.

The bottom line is this isn’t a sporting event. It’s a week long party, culminating in a two-day celebration of youthful exuberance. Do yourself a favor and try and dig up some of your own. You won’t regret it.

Twins Takes
Jeromy Burnitz, who played for the Pirates last year and replaced Sammy Sosa with the Cubs before that, retired on Sunday. Every spring there are veterans who don’t get offers and are forced to retire, and that’s been the case this season as well. Twins fans will remember Phil Nevin from the end of last season, and he’s being joined by past stars Eric Young and Brian Jordan.

But Burnitz had one thing going for him that none of these other guys did – he hit left-handed. His numbers dove last year, but he still hit 15 home runs against right-handed pitchers in 255 at-bats. With the 25th roster spot suddenly open, one can’t help but notice that biggest left-handed power threat on the Twins bench is Jason Tyner, who hasn’t hit a home run in 1052 major league at-bats.

I assume that the Twins have done their homework here, and that Burnitz really is finished. But for all the designated hitters that the Twins brought into camp, the only left-handed option is Garret Jones, who continues to be just miserable. I assume that neither of them are the answer, but the Twins would probably be better served by adding someone like them than a twelfth pitcher or second backup infielder.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Lingering Injuries

They keep telling us that Matt Garza’s neck is just stiff, but they can’t fool me. It’s some degenerative spinal injury, requiring at least a half year’s worth of rehab.

And that’s if we’re suddenly lucky.
For some major league franchises, the cost of the minor leagues is just the cost of doing business. To the Twins, it’s an investment. The millions of dollars that are spent in salaries, scouting, per diems and signing bonuses are quickly recouped when a high-impact rookie provides millions of dollars worth of production for pennies on the dollar.

For instance, for the numbers that Justinn Morneau and Joe Mauer put up last year, a good chunk of teams would have been happy to pay $10 million. Each. And then they would’ve toasted their good fortune.

The Twins paid them $785,000. Combined. Which means that the Twins previous investments in the minor leagues provided at least a $19 million return for the organization, just for those two players. That’s the kind of return that low-revenue, low-payroll teams need be competitive.

Unfortunately, the Twins ability to leverage those investments has been limited due to a nearly unprecedented string of year-long injuries to high ceiling prospects. The Twins have had four players in the last few years who were considered elite prospects, an impressive number for any organization. But so far only Garza had managed to stay relatively healthy (knock, knock).

Joe Mauer’s knee cost him almost all of 2004. Jason Kubel’s knee cost him almost all of 2005 and ultimately most of 2006. Francisco Liriano’s elbow cost him half of 2006 and all of 2007. And the concussion from a bean-ball, along with a series of offseason plagues, didn’t keep Justin Mornea from playing 2005, but likely cost him a year of development.

Of course, injuries are a part of the game, and it isn’t difficult to find other teams who had players that suffered year-long injuries. You might even be able to find another team with year-long injuries to four high-impact players. But you’ll need to look long and hard to find a team that had worse timing.

That’s because what REALLY hurts a team like the Twins is that they all happened within the first two years of each player’s major league careers. Injuries those two years minimize the return a team receives from their minor league investments. But they hurt just as much years after the player has healed, because it makes it unlikely that a club can sign their high-impact players to a long-term contract that is below market value.

There is no better time for a ballclub to approach a rising star about a long-term deal than after their second complete season as major leaguer. Up to that point, the player has made close to the major league minimum, probably in the neighborhoold of $300-400,000 per year. That’s some nice ching to be sure, but it’s likely not enough to make sure they’ll never need a real job. They still have one more year to play before their first year of arbitration, which is where a star player can suddenly make several million dollars.

If the club offers the player a multi-year guaranteed deal after two years, they’re offering a lifetime of security a year earlier than the player would otherwise receive it. And all they’re asking in return is for the ballplayer to be a little less filthy rich over the next few years. It makes a ton of sense for both the ballplayer and the club to agree to that kind of a deal.

But because of early injuries, the Twins have yet to agree to that kind of deal with any of their young impact players. Everyone talked about locking up Maure and Morneau this year, but the time to negotiate with them was last offseason, before they reached arbitration. Unfrotunately, Morneau had underperformed through an injury-plagued year, and Mauer’s knee was still a question mark. Instead, the Twins didn’t get to talk about long-term deals until each one of them was already guaranteed a lifetime of security with their $4 million arbitration settlements.

This spring, Kubel is in the same boat as Mauer and Morneau were last year. You can bet that two years ago the Twins planned on approaching him with a long-term deal this offseason. They can’t, because they don’t know if his knees will remain healthy, or whether he’ll regain his stroke. If he does this year, he’ll get his $3 million whether or not he signs a long-term deal with the Twins. And we’ll be wondering why he and the Twins can’t get a long-term deal done.

And next offseason? Well, Liriano will be finishing his second year – except that he won’t have pitched in the majors for a year-and-a-half. So the Twins won’t be able to comfortably offer him a long-term deal, and will again see if their highly prized prospect breaks out just before his first big pay day. And you wonder why they weren’t anxious to have Liriano go under the knife?

When a star player’s lack of production is taken into account, the cost of an injury for every team is easily in the millions of dollars. That’s already devastating to most low revenue franchises. But the timing of these injuries is even worse, because it’s likely costing the Twins another $1-2 million worth of salary per year than if they could have negotiated a long-term deal at the best possible time. And it’s happened four times.

Is there any doubt the fifth is coming? So when you see pictures of Terry Ryan standing behind Garza in the Twins dugout, delivering a neck massage, don’t be so sure it’s a Photoshop job. That neck rub could be as valuable an investment as the entirety of the Twins minor league payroll.

Twins Takes

All the talk about a backup shortstop made me wonder who exactly played shortstop in Rochester after Jason Bartlett was called up last year. It looks like it was Gil Velasquez, who is at spring training and has had seven at-bats. He hits about as well as you would imagine for a 27-year-old AAA shortstop who you had never heard of before.

Which means that if Machado continues to blow his best chance at a major league job and Gardenhire is serious about not letting Nick Punto back up at shorstop and Terry Ryan is serious about not wanting Alexi Casilla to sit on a bench, we're going to see a deal for a veteran middle infielder this spring. And I can't help wonder if that's what Gardenhire really wanted all along.

The Return of the Screaming Head

I missed you, screaming head. Welcome back.

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