Friday, October 29, 2010

NBA Thoughts



The NBA season started this past Tuesday, and judging by the ratings that the Heat-Celtics game generated (it was the highest rated cable show in television history) most of you already knew that. Most teams however started on Wednesday night, including our hometown Timberwolves. I was interested to watch the Wolves, no doubt, but most of my NBA excitement centered on the Oklahoma City-Chicago game on ESPN. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and even Joakim Noah would usually be more than enough good players for me to tune in, but the fact that Cole Aldrich was also playing made it a can't miss game for me.

As most of you know, I've known Cole for quite a while. I was lucky enough to play with him on a few traveling* teams growing up and over the years we've gotten pretty close. I consider him a dear friend, so yes, even if he shot 0-58 in the NBA finals and committed six technical fouls that clearly cost his team the game, I wouldn't say anything bad about him at the time, and I especially wouldn't write anything bad about him on here. I don't have 'journalism ethics' guiding me, because, obviously I'm not a journalist. I write here because I enjoy it and I hope those of you who often read it as well feel the same way. I am absolutely biased towards Cole and always will be.

*I don't like that traveling can be spelled with one or two l's and be considered right either way. Spelling it with two l's looks strange to me, so I spell it with just one, but I think words should have one spelling. I'll gladly start adding the other l into the word if we can just settle on one spelling.

It was tough to watch the game on Wednesday and not see Cole play at all. From a strategic standpoint, I understand it. The Bulls only 'true center' is Noah, and he's more athletic than pretty much every true center in the league, so there's no doubting that there was never an ideal situation to give Cole the first minutes of his career. The game was also very close, so Thunder coach Scott Brooks did what he felt was best for his team. They ended up winning by 11, so there's no reason for anyone to second guess his decision. Cole will play and play plenty this season I think, so it's nothing to worry about. I think Cole's friends and family were more worried about it than Cole was himself, and to his credit when I talked to him after the game he was just happy they were 1-0. He knows he'll need to contribute in key situations during the year and he'll be ready when he's needed, there's no doubt in my mind.

It's worth noting that even the great Kobe Bryant didn't play at all in his first game. The Lakers began his rookie season with a 14-point victory over the Phoenix Suns. Kobe got his first minutes of the season in game 2, against the Wolves, playing six minutes in a six point win. He's arguably the best player in basketball, and there's simply no argument that he was the greatest player post-Jordan and pre-LeBron. No, I'm not saying Cole is the next Kobe; nobody is. There are differences in the situation, no doubt, but I bring up Kobe as an example because clearly it's not detrimental to a player's prospects if he doesn't play at all in his first game.

Cole will be needed to anchor the paint and bang down low in almost every game this year, and I fully expect him to see his first minutes tonight against the Pistons, who use Ben Wallace plenty still and that is a much better matchup for Cole than Noah would have been. Cole's playing time will fluctuate depending on the situation and how well he's playing, just like every rookie. However, this post isn't meant to discuss Cole, but rather to point out that while rookies minutes are usually jerked around by coaches, there's simply no excuse to do it with an established veteran player.

I've been fairly critical over the past few months of the Timberwolves decision making. When Glen Taylor first hired David Kahn, I was upset with the hire. Kahn's track record was terrible, and one of the teams he eventually left coined the phrase that they had been 'Kahned' into hiring him. Then Kahn traded Randy Foye and Mike Miller for the #5 pick in the draft, which turned into the hopefully great Ricky Rubio, and I was on board. Kahn traded away players like he was playing NBA Live, and considering how poor the Wolves roster was that was a good thing.

However, Kahn then decided to hire Kurt Rambis as the head coach. The decision seemed logical at the time; the team wanted to become a running team with the ability to play in the half court when necessary. Rambis had extensive knowledge of the 'Showtime Lakers' and the triangle offense, so on paper it seemed to make sense. Unfortunately, Rambis was hired after the Wolves had drafted Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry. Flynn's best skill was undoubtedly his pick and roll game, while Curry's best skill was his shooting. For those unfamiliar with the triangle offense, the pick and roll is frowned upon. It's an offense that relies on lots of cutting and good passing, and in turn is supposed to create lots of open shots for players. Even when the team would decide to run, Curry still seemed to be the better fit, because he would always be able to be a spot up three point shooter if nothing else. Flynn would need to drastically adjust his game to fit in the Rambis offense, and he would need to show things that he simply didn't show at Syracuse.

I like Jonny Flynn. He's not as bad as some of the more knowledgeable Wolves people I know seem to think, but being taken one spot ahead of Curry while Curry excels in Golden State's running system will always be a mistake. It was a mistake on draft night and it's looking worse and worse as the games are played.

Despite that drafting mistake, I was still pretty much on board with Kahn until this past off-season. I hated the trade that sent the #16 pick to Portland for Martell Webster, and that was before he was hurt and needed surgery. Some fans have said it was a great trade because Webster had a great pre-season. Yes, honestly, these fans think a great pre-season means that Webster is for sure going to be a good player for the Wolves. While I would love to be wrong, the fact is Webster has been in the league for five years and nothing he's done suggests he'll ever be anything more than a decent 7th or 8th man on a playoff team. Paying him $5MM a year for the next two years is foolish, especially when players of his caliber are available each and every off-season for about half of that.

I wasn't a fan of drafting Wes Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins, and while I wasn't as against the Darko signing as most people were, there's little doubt that drafting Cousins and spending the $5MM a year they gave Darko on a free agent wing man like Josh Childress would have made the team much better this season and likely a lot better into the future.

I cannot stand Kurt Rambis, though. He strikes me as someone who thinks he knows more about the game than he does because he's been around it for so long. The Wolves lost their season opener by one point on Wednesday, and there were certainly some positives. Luke Ridnour looked very good, quieting the doubters that said repeating last season's performance was virtually impossible, for at least one night. Anthony Tolliver played great in stretches. Even Sebastian Telfair, who at times looked lost, played a very good game. The Wolves new point guard tandem combined for 35 points and 12 assists, and just 5 turnovers. Wes Johnson looked good, despite getting just 18 minutes.

But there were a few negatives, too. Beasley shot the ball too much and didn't shoot particularly well. The most popular negative from the game though has been the playing time of Kevin Love. Love is probably the most underrated player in the NBA, and certainly the most underrated Minnesota athlete I can remember. Most fans hate him. Most fans still think it was a mistake to trade him for OJ Mayo.* Love isn't flashy. He looks like a fifty-year-old man when he runs up and down the court. He doesn't jump out of the gym, and while he has range all the way to the 3 point line, he doesn't shoot over people. He's very effective, but he's ugly to watch. I understand why fans don't like him, and given that he hasn't played enough to truly show his talents, I don't blame most fans for not understanding just how good Kevin Love really is.

*To those of you who think it was a mistake... you're wrong. Way wrong, actually. Love has been among the most efficient players in basketball over the last few years, and he's been the best rebounder per minute in the NBA. If the idiots that run the Wolves would just give the kid the 35 minutes a game he deserves, he'd be putting up some ridiculous stat lines some nights. He'd lead the league in rebounding by a pretty wide margin, which is saying something considering he's undersized for his position. And I haven't even mentioned that Mike Miller came over in the trade too, and he was a focal point of the trade that landed the Wolves Ricky Rubio. It was one of the few good trades McHale made.

Kurt Rambis continues to jerk Kevin Love around like he's a rookie who needs to earn his minutes. He said that benching Love in favor of Tolliver down the stretch wasn't because of anything Love did wrong but rather because Tolliver was playing so well. I won't disagree about Tolliver, because he was playing great. But Love certainly could have played at least half of the final eight minutes at center over Darko, right? Darko isn't a very good rebounder, and while he did block four shots, he was fairly brutal down the stretch. Even if Rambis wants to say the team is simply better defensively with Darko at center and Tolliver at the 4, not putting Love in for the final possession was the dumbest thing he did all night. The team was down 117-114 with about seven seconds left. They didn't have time to get a quick two and foul, they needed to tie it with a 3 on this possession. There likely wouldn't even be a chance for a rebound and another three point attempt; they were going to get one good shot at best.

So, it would only make sense that you'd have your best 3 point shooters on the floor, right? If nothing else, Rambis should have simply subbed Love in for Darko, since Love has the ability to stretch the floor far better than Milicic. The Wolves ultimately missed a game-tying three and the rebound was tipped in as time expired, and the only shot the Wolves had at being over .500 this year was squandered because of absolutely terrible coaching down the stretch.

This team will never be more than a 30-win team as long as Kurt Rambis is directing the ship. If I was Ricky Rubio I'd be telling my agent I either want to be traded to a team in a much better situation, or I just want to stay in Spain and continue to dominate that league. While the constant negative comments the national media is saying about the Wolves are getting old, there's no doubt that for the most part they are right. The Wolves are simply not headed in the right direction, and the only way Kahn and Rambis are going to have a winner during their time here is if they hit a homerun in the lottery next year AND Rubio decides to come over. Even then, I'm sure Rambis would find a way to screw up the playing time just enough to ensure our Wolves continued losing winnable games down the stretch.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Alexi Casilla



Early last week I took a look at the Twins payroll obligations for the 2011 season and what I believed to be their biggest needs heading into the off-season. If you already read it, you can just skip down past the quotes. In case you missed that post and have no desire to read through it now, here's what I wrote regarding the payroll:

These numbers put the Twins current 2011 obligations at about $101.6MM. If the Twins have a conservative approach, that would leave them with just under $9MM to spend. I expect about a 20% increase though this year, at least, so I'm going to put the Twins maximum payroll at $123MM, but contending teams like the Twins almost always try to leave some room in their payroll in-case they have the chance to add an impact player during the year. I'd put the Twins expected opening day payroll at about $117MM, give or take a few million. That gives us about $15MM to spend.


So, what are the needs that the Twins will hopefully attempt to fill with that money? Again, here's a recap of what I felt were their biggest needs:

Second Base, like it is every year, is a major need yet again with Orlando Hudson having a sub-par year and becoming a free agent. A utility man would be nice, as Tolbert isn't a major league caliber player and despite making almost $2MM next year, Harris has a long ways to go to be back with the Twins. The Twins also need to find an impact bench bat that rips lefties. Someone like Marcus Thames, who can hit for Kubel in late-game situations against lefties and also get most starts at DH when a left-hander starts the game. The team will likely look to add one or two relievers as well, and I'm sure they'll look to bring Thome back.

However, despite the team likely to lose Carl Pavano, who had a great year, the team really doesn't need a starter. They have five solid under-30 starters that given another full year should be just fine. They also have Anthony Swarzak in AAA for depth purposes, and top prospect Kyle Gibson could be ready as soon as Opening Day to jump into the rotation, so the team has both talent and depth for the first time in quite a while. No reason to spend money on the rotation as it's better allocated to other parts of the team.


As of right now, the plan seems to be for the Twins to give Alexi Casilla the second base job. Rather than try to make another veteran signing for somewhere near $5MM for one year like they gave Hudson last off-season, the team's thinking seems to be that Casilla can provide similar numbers at a much more cost-effective salary. There's no arguing that Casilla is much cheaper than a veteran second baseman would likely be; he's going to make slightly above the minimum. However, expecting Casilla to be even average over a full season isn't the best way to ensure the Twins make the playoffs for a third straight season.

After posting above average minor league numbers in both 2005 and 2006, Casilla seemed to be a solid middle-infield prospect. He wasn't going to be an all-star, but he had good speed and his on-base percentage was .380 during that time. He appeared to be a solid future top of the lineup hitter, and while playing second base or shortstop with good speed he was going to be a big part of the team's future.

Unfortunately, since 2007, Casilla has done very little to suggest he's a major league caliber starter. In his first stint at AAA in 2007, he hit just .269/.345/.344 in 84 games. The on-base percentage isn't terrible, but the slugging percentage is absolutely brutal and after factoring in what is usually a 10-15% decline from AAA to the bigs, Casilla should have struggled when he was called up. And that's precisely what he did. In just under 200 at-bats in 56 games, Casilla hit an abysmal .222/.256/.259. To put that into perspective, Casilla's .516 OPS was almost exactly half of Mauer's 1.031 OPS from 2009. The only positive was that Casilla stole 11 bases in 12 tries, but when you're getting on base less than 26% of the time there simply aren't many opportunities to run.

In 2008, Casilla again spent the majority of the first half of the season in AAA. He struggled yet again, hitting just .219/.350/.250 in 121 at bats. Injuries to the Twins already weak middle infield left Casilla as literally the only option to be called up despite his struggles, and unlike 2007 Casilla greatly outperformed his expectations and put up a .281/.333/.374 line in just under 400 at-bats. His offensive season was pretty much exactly average for the 2008 season, and while his defense was inconsistent there were flashes of brilliance in the field that suggested if he put it all together he could be a gold-glover. The Twins again appeared to be fairly high on Casilla and he went into the 2009 season as the projected starter at second base.

He simply couldn't capture the same magic that he seemed to have in 2008 though, as he struggled all year. He hit just .202/.280/.259 in 80 games, and the Twins were forced to go out and acquire Orlando Cabrera at the trading deadline to try to help upgrade the middle of their infield. After the debacle that was the 2009 season, the Twins seemed to give up on Casilla and when the team signed Orlando Hudson to a one-year contract, there was a distinct possibility that Casilla wouldn't even make the team. Since he was out of options, meaning the Twins couldn't send him to the minor leagues without first giving every team in baseball a chance to pick him up for free, the Twins ultimately decided to keep Casilla on the roster as the 25th man.

His 2010 numbers are better than most would expect, as he hit .276/.331/.395 in 69 games. He played very sparingly at times, though, and it's tough to have confidence in Casilla as the starting second baseman heading into 2011 when he's been terribly inconsistent both offensively and defensively. Casilla does add speed to the lineup, and unlike Denard Span, Casilla is a fantastic base-stealer. He's stolen 35 of 39 bases in his career, and if he was able to put together a full season with his numbers last year he'd be a very solid starter in the league. Unfortunately, his past
would seem to suggest he's simply a decent utility player at this point in his career, and that's a pretty valuable spot to have on the Twins because if nothing else it would hopefully keep Matt Tolbert from ever seeing Target Field's home dugout again.

My original hope for second base was that Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima would be the Twins top target. His Japanese team was expected to post him* and the posting fee was projected to be under $5MM. So if the Twins had decided to target Nakajima, they likely could have won the bidding for $5MM and then signed him to a three or four year contract for about $3MM a year. Where am I getting these estimates? In 2007 the Rays won the 'posting' of Akinori Iwamura for $4.5MM, and then signed him to a three-year, $7.7MM contract. Iwamura was never a star after coming over from Japan, but he was an elite player in the Japanese league, and he hit 32 home runs in his final season in Japan. His career high was 44. The power disappeared when he arrived in the big leagues, but his numbers were still solid prior to this season when he seemed to simply fall off the map physically.

*Basically that means they'd sell his rights to a team in the MLB, who would then have exclusive negotiating rights, like Dice-K and the Red Sox a few years ago, but the posting fee wouldn't have been anywhere close to Dice K's $53MM or whatever it was.

Nakajima didn't show the same power that Iwamura showed in Japan, but his batting average was slightly better, and he still managed 20+ home runs over the last three years. He also has above-average speed and he drew 50+ walks a year during the same time period, so his projections would seem to be what the Twins are foolishly hoping to get from Alexi Casilla. Nakajima, though, isn't being posted by his Japanese team and so my hopes of him being a Twin for the 2011 season are officially impossible.

So since Casilla isn't likely to be the answer for the 2011 season, tomorrow I'll take a look at the possible free agent targets and the players who may be available via trade. I haven't looked into either too extensively yet, but my guess is the list is likely to be rather weak. It's possible Casilla might be the best option by default, but we'll see about that. For now, I'll just say there's simply no reason a team with an expected payroll over $100MM should be starting Alexi Casilla at any position.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Idiocy of the NFL Challenge Rule



Instant replay in the NFL is a good thing. It's hard to remember that not too long ago the NFL didn't allow coaches to challenge, didn't have final two-minute booth reviews, and many terrible calls by the officials weren't fixed. There's no arguing that the current replay system in the NFL is far better than not having one at all. However, that doesn't mean it's a good system.

It's worth noting that last night's Vikings-Packers game is not the reason I feel the way I do about instant replay, but with it fresh in most people's minds it is the best game to use as an example.

So how do I feel about the current instant replay system? I think it's idiotic. In case you don't know the rules, each NFL coach is allowed two challenges per game. If he disagrees with a call on the field, thinking the ref botched the call, he can challenge it. The ref will then look at replays to determine if the call was indeed right or wrong. If the coach is wrong, though, he loses a timeout. If he gets both challenges right, he's awarded a third challenge. The coach is not allowed to challenge a play in the final two minutes of either half, because the booth automatically reviews those plays. The thought process with that was that they didn't want a bad call to end a game, and if coaches were out of timeouts at that point they would be unable to challenge themselves. This thought process seems logical enough, but the last time I checked a touchdown in the first ten seconds of the game counts for exactly the same amount of points as a touchdown in the final ten seconds.

I think the NFL should use the same system the Big Ten has used over the last couple of years, which is that every review comes from the booth. In my opinion, there's no arguing this is the best system currently available. Think about how the NFL system currently is run for a minute. NFL coaches are being penalized because of human error. The goal should be to get every call right, and with technology the way it is today there's no excuse not to. There always will be plays that are inconclusive, and that's fine, because instant replay can't show us everything.

There's simply no reason though that an NFL coach should have to risk a timeout by challenging a call because it appears as if the ref missed a call. Sure, if the coach is right and the ref made the wrong call, he doesn't lose a timeout. But with teams constantly running quick plays after controversial calls to avoid a challenge, it's difficult for coaches to get confirmation from someone in their team's booth and throw the challenge flag in time. This results in a gut-feeling and what they saw live while the players were moving 100 miles per hour. That's why so many coaches have poor challenge records.

The Vikings didn't lose last night because of the refs. They had every opportunity to win that game and simply failed to do so. However, there were two situations where the challenge rule hurt the team involved. One happened to the Vikings, and one happened to the Packers.

When the Packers scored their second touchdown, it was on a third and long in the red zone. Packers tight end Andrew Quarless appeared to catch the ball and get his backside barely in bounds, and the ref called it a touchdown. However, the replay clearly showed that Quarless juggled the ball as he went out of bounds, and there's no doubt the call would have been overturned if it had indeed been challenged. Vikes fans love to blame Childress for not challenging, and yes he absolutely should have, but keep in mind he's on the sideline. Watching live it looked like Quarless caught the ball cleanly; the only issue appeared to be whether he got two feet in. Once his backside hits in bounds, though, it counts as two feet. The ref was right there, so Childress undoubtedly assumed he'd lose the challenge. Someone in the Vikings booth needed to be watching that replay and screaming at Chilly to challenge before the Packers kicked the extra point.

Now, if there isn't a 'challenge' system but rather a simple booth review in that situation, the Packers are forced to kick a field goal rather than given the seven points. That's a four point swing. The Packers won by four. It's an entirely different game if that call is correct, but again despite it appearing to be the difference in the game point-wise, the whole game would have been different from that point on. It just would have been nice if the ref got the call right on the field, or if the NFL had a system in place that didn't force the head coach to risk a valuable timeout because refs make mistakes.

The other example came in the fourth quarter. The Packers were in a third and eight situation I believe, or something similar, and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hit Greg Jennings on a comeback route. Jennings appeared to catch the ball about a yard past the first down, and it looked as if the Vikings defender touched him in that spot. Jennings wasn't down yet, and his momentum pushed him back a few yards and the refs spotted the ball inches short of the first down. McCarthy chose not to challenge, likely assuming they'd be able to convert fourth and inches, and also realizing he might need that timeout late in the game for one reason or another. I believe under review Jennings would have been given a better spot, and the Packers would have had a first down deep in Vikings territory. The Vikings stopped John Kuhn on fourth and inches and had an opportunity to win the game in the final minute because of a bad spot by the officials and no challenge.

Everyone loves to criticize the head coach when he fails to challenge a play that was clearly wrong on the field. There's no doubt that both Vikings and Packers fans were screaming obscenities at their televisions last night as they watched two common senseless coaches duke it out. However, these kinds of mistakes happen almost every week, in almost every game. It's time the NFL looked at it's current replay system and realized that getting the calls right should be the most important aspect of the system; it shouldn't be a strategy that a coach needs to have. The NFL will likely never adopt the system they should, because they aren't going to want to show just how many calls officials get wrong during a game.

It's unfortunate, because as great of a game as it was last night, it would have been even better if those two key plays would have either been called correctly on the field or would have been reviewed by the booth.

Friday, October 22, 2010

JJ Hardy



JJ Hardy has been a hot topic lately for anyone writing about the Twins. The Twins have a tough decision to make, or so it would appear. After trading Carlos Gomez for Hardy at about this time last year, many people expected Hardy to have a much better season in 2010 than in 2009, and therefore it appeared as if the Twins would have Hardy for two years. His final year of arbitration is in 2011, so the Twins technically have a few options.

First, they could simply offer him arbitration, in which the team would ultimately put in a 'bid' for Hardy's 2011 salary and Hardy's agents would put in another 'bid' and each side would argue their case. Whoever presents a better case wins. However, most arbitration cases never get that far; both the team and player will propose a number and the team and agents will almost always meet in the middle. This helps avoid a very awkward situation, in which the team that wants to keep said player is actually talking negatively about his abilities to get him cheaper for the next season. It's avoided whenever possible, so the more likely scenario if the Twins did indeed decide to keep Hardy for one more year is that they'd simply agree on a number between about $5.5MM and $7MM. This was my assumption in the payroll post, and I put Hardy at $7MM to just be safe. The team could also decide to offer Hardy a long-term deal, but I think it's unlikely they'd commit $7MM a year over the next three years to someone with Hardy's injury history and his inconsistent stretches last year. They'll at least want to see a full, healthy season of JJ before trying to lock him up.

So, that brings us to the question everyone has been asking: Should the Twins bring JJ Hardy back next season?

My original thought was simply that the Twins have been so incredibly below average at shortstop over the last decade that even another repeat performance by Hardy was likely to be significantly better than whoever his replacement was. I wasn't thinking about the payroll, other possible trades, or even who the other free agent shortstops are. I simply was thinking 'Well, the Twins always screw up middle infield decisions, so hopefully they take Hardy's average play and keep him.' Remember, with Hardy making $7MM next year, I currently have the Twins projected payroll at $101.6MM and likely a spending cap of about $120MM. Even bringing Hardy back wouldn't hinder the team's ability to bring in another piece, especially if they don't foolishly waste money on a 'veteran starter' when they have much cheaper and likely better options throughout the system.

Now, just because the Twins have the payroll flexibility to make some moves finally doesn't mean that they should spend it foolishly. If the team feels they can get about 90-95% of the production from someone else for even 25% of the cost, that might be a good business decision to make. If the team could replace Hardy with a $2MM shortstop, they'd have even more money to play around with. Let's look at how good Hardy was last season compared to the rest of the league's shortstops.

JJ hit .268/.320/.394, good for a .714 OPS. That number seems low, and extremely poor for a starting caliber player, but his .714 OPS was actually just barely above the league average at his position. In 2010, the average major league shortstop (using only players who got enough at bats to qualify for the batting title) hit .266/.322/.391, good for a .713 OPS. In other words, Hardy's season was as close to 'average' offensively as he could be. However, Hardy dealt with a wrist injury for part of the season, and even attempted to play through the pain from May 25 until June 4. He hurt the wrist on a slide in a game on May 4, and spent the next 3 weeks on the DL. When he came back, the wrist had not yet healed, and during that two week stretch while playing hurt Hardy hit just .139/.184/.167 in just under forty at bats. His terrible slugging percentage during that time being below his on-base percentage is an even bigger sign that his wrist was giving him problems because he wasn't able to drive the ball at all. He only had five hits during that time; four were singles and the other was a bloop double. He simply didn't hit anything hard. The Twins decided to put him back on the DL, this time taking their time to ensure he came back healthy and ready to play.

If you take away that small stretch, Hardy actually hit .283/.335/.421 in just over 300 at bats. A .756 OPS would have placed Hardy fourth in baseball among shortstops. Of course, this was the second season in a row Hardy dealt with a wrist injury, so it's definitely a possibility that this injury nags at him each year and he continues to miss games and struggle at times. It's also possible that the Twins finally gave Hardy enough rest to allow the wrist to heal properly. That's up to the team doctors to decide, but if I had to guess I would assume he has a clean bill of health.

So, if you assume Hardy's wrist injury did in fact play a part in his terrible two week stretch from late May into early June, his offense alone clearly makes him worth the $7MM. A full season of Hardy at .283/.335/.421 while likely hitting near the bottom of the lineup would be an enormous boost for an offense that was very good last season and will be getting Justin Morneau back as well. But if you don't agree that it was the wrist injury that forced Hardy's struggles, then the decision is a little tougher. If we expect him to match 2010's numbers, posting a .714 OPS, his defense plays a big part in whether he's actually worth such a large commitment in 2011.

Using UZR, which I would agree has some flaws but in my opinion is the best defensive stat available, Hardy posted a 12.8 UZR/150. Again, that means Hardy saved almost 13 runs over the average shortstop over 150 games. Had Hardy played a full season, he was on pace to lead all shortstops in UZR. Hardy has historically been a very good defensive shortstop despite lacking even average foot speed, so last season's 12.8 number isn't likely to be an outlier in this situation. He's been above a 6 every year of his career, and posted a UZR/150 of 14.5 in 2007. He is a very good defensive player and should continue to be next season.

If Hardy does simply post the same numbers he did this year, over a full season though, he's worth $7MM. An average offensive shortstop and elite defensive one make Hardy one of the better shortstops in the league. The fact that a lot of people, including the Twins front office, feel that Hardy will be even better next season with the wrist injury behind him makes it seem like a no-brainer to keep Hardy.

If Hardy posts something similar to his non-wrist injury .283/.335/.421 line with his stellar defense yet again, Hardy is likely to be a top three shortstop in baseball, which would make his salary an extreme bargain for one year. The only real issue is whether Hardy will be able to stay healthy for a full season, and if the Twins doctors deem him healthy and ready to go, there's no doubt in my mind that the Twins should and will bring back Hardy for the 2011 season. Fans will cringe upon first seeing Hardy's stats and then his salary for next season, but when compared to other players at his position, Hardy grades out very well and the trade that sent Gomez for Hardy last year at this time looks even better now.

See you in 2011, JJ.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Understanding the Payroll



Before diving head first into the off-season and all of us playing GM, it's important that we take a look at what the Twins payroll is likely to be for the second season in Target Field. The Twins finished 2010 with a payroll that was either very close to or exceeded $100MM. Their beautiful new ballpark, Target Field, drew over 3 million people this year. These clearly aren't the Twins of the early part of the millennium. A very good team to use that is a great example is the Cleveland Indians in the mid-90's, particularly between 1993 and 1995, as brand new Jacobs Field opened in 1994. Here is how the Indians payroll jumped up as they developed an elite contender, and a look at what their attendance did during the same time period. Due to the strike-shortening 1994 season and then the late-starting 95 season, it's much easier to look at attendance numbers on a per-game basis.

1993 Indians payroll: $17MM 26th in the league, 26,888 fans per game, 76-86
1994 Indians payroll: $31MM, 16th in the league, 35,313 fans per game, 66-47 (Strike)
1995 Indians payroll: $40MM, 7th in the league, 39,483 fans per game, 100-44 (Strike)
1996 Indians payroll: $47MM, 4th in the league, 41,220 fans per game, 99-62
1997 Indians payroll: $58MM, 3rd in the league, 42,295 fans per game, 86-75

In each of those five years, the Indians ranked 18th, 8th, 3rd, 3rd and 4th in MLB in attendance. The reason Cleveland is a good model (certainly not perfect, but the most similar you'll find) to follow is because they were a small to mid-market team that had consistently been in the lower half in payroll much like our Twins about a decade ago. Basically, this example would seem to suggest that those who think 2010 was a one-time deal as far as a $100MM payroll is concerned are off the mark. The Twins likely will increase payroll over the next few years, and 2010 is likely to be just the stepping stone. The tricky part, of course, is guessing how much that number will actually increase.

If we go back to the Indians, their payroll increased by the following percentages each year: 45%, 23%, 15% and 19%. The 45% is a bit mis-leading, because Cleveland had several young talented players due arbitration raises. I really don't think the Twins will be making a 45% payroll increase between now and opening day 2011. It's beyond unlikely, as the Twins will not have a $145MM payroll this coming season. However, even if we are very very conservative with our predictions, a 10% increase each year for the next four years is certainly not that hard to fathom. If we assume the Twins payroll was indeed $100MM as has been predicted they spent, a 10% increase over the next four years would put the Twins payroll numbers in this general direction:

2011: $110MM
2012: $121MM
2013: ~$133MM
2014: ~$147MM

Well look at that. On what I would consider a very conservative increase, the Twins seem likely to reach that $145MM plateau in the near future, assuming the world doesn't end in 2012. However, with nobody other than the Twins front-office people looking ahead four years, the only relevant information for this off-season is the 2011 payroll and on a much smaller scale the 2012 payroll as well.

So we've pinpointed the Twins likely lowest possible payroll. Now let's look at the salary obligations for next year, compliments of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

C: Joe Mauer $23MM, Jose Morales $400K, Drew Butera $400K = $23.8MM
IF: Justin Morneau $14MM, JJ Hardy $7MM, Brendan Harris $1.75MM, Alexi Casilla $500K, Danny Valencia $400K, Matt Tolbert $400K = 24MM
OF: Michael Cuddyer $10.5MM, Jason Kubel $5.25MM, Delmon Young $4MM, Denard Span $1MM = $20.75MM
SP: Scott Baker $5MM, Francisco Liriano $4.5MM, Nick Blackburn $3MM, Kevin Slowey $2.5MM, Brian Duensing $500K = $15.5MM
MR/CL: Joe Nathan $11.25MM, Matt Capps $5MM, Jose Mijares $400K, Alex Burnett $400K = $17MM
Other Obligations: $500K Buyout for Nick Punto = $500K

I've assumed the Twins simply let go of Pat Neshek and Glen Perkins, as that would shed about $1MM in salary they don't need to pay if they don't want to.

These numbers put the Twins current 2011 obligations at about $101.6MM. If the Twins have a conservative approach, that would leave them with just under $9MM to spend. I expect about a 20% increase though this year, at least, so I'm going to put the Twins maximum payroll at $123MM, but contending teams like the Twins almost always try to leave some room in their payroll in-case they have the chance to add an impact player during the year. I'd put the Twins expected opening day payroll at about $117MM, give or take a few million. That gives us about $15MM to spend.

First, what are positions of need? If the season started tomorrow, the current unfilled roster would have this lineup:
C: Joe Mauer
1B: Justin Morneau
2B: Alexi Casilla
3B: Danny Valencia
SS: JJ Hardy
LF: Delmon Young
CF: Denard Span
RF: Michael Cuddyer
DH: Jason Kubel

Second Base, like it is every year, is a major need yet again with Orlando Hudson having a sub-par year and becoming a free agent. A utility man would be nice, as Tolbert isn't a major league caliber player and despite making almost $2MM next year, Harris has a long ways to go to be back with the Twins. The Twins also need to find an impact bench bat that rips lefties. Someone like Marcus Thames, who can hit for Kubel in late-game situations against lefties and also get most starts at DH when a left-hander starts the game. The team will likely look to add one or two relievers as well, and I'm sure they'll look to bring Thome back.

However, despite the team likely to lose Carl Pavano, who had a great year, the team really doesn't need a starter. They have five solid under-30 starters that given another full year should be just fine. They also have Anthony Swarzak in AAA for depth purposes, and top prospect Kyle Gibson could be ready as soon as Opening Day to jump into the rotation, so the team has both talent and depth for the first time in quite a while. No reason to spend money on the rotation as it's better allocated to other parts of the team.

So who would I target to fill these needs? Who are the Twins likely to target? We'll get to all of these needs and questions over the next week or two, so keep checking back. First will be what I believe to be the team's biggest need yet again; a starting second baseman.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Optimism



Optimism is a great thing. Cynics will undoubtedly cringe at that thought; and those same people will try to tell you it's worthless to be optimistic because most of the time you'll be let down. These people are Yankees fans. Yes, Yankees fans are cynics. The team that wins more than anyone. The team that spends more than anyone. But their cynics because when you have the payroll capabilities of the Yankees, as a fan you don't get attached to many players simply because players aren't usually life-long Yankees. Derek Jeter, Mo Rivera and Jorge Posada are exceptions. I think a lot of Yanks fans still dislike Pettite for going to Houston years ago. Regardless, the point is that there's no reason to listen to these cynics.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010, was, sadly and honestly, the pinnacle of my sports-watching life. I've seen my favorite NBA, NFL, NHL AND MLB team all lose one game or one round short of the finals. I've seen the Vikings do it twice. I've seen the Timberwolves trade one of the top 10 greatest players ever because they can't make it work with him. I've seen the Vikings trade one of the 2 greatest receivers ever because their meat-head coach couldn't babysit YOUR kids if he tried. I've seen the Twins trade one of the 3 greatest pitchers in the last two decades because of money. I've seen the Wild ultimately let Gaborik go, citing money and injury issues, only to go out and sign an equally injury prone but less talented player in Martin Havlat. So, yes, October 6, 2010 was the pinnacle of my relatively young sports-watching life.

The Twins were finally going to beat the Yankees, this was their year. Some idiot even predicted they'd sweep the evil empire. And our prodigal son, Randy Moss, was coming home. The Vikings were finalizing a trade that would send a 2011 third round pick for Randy Moss. It was a day of extreme joy in this state. Then Cuddyer hit a 2-run homer, Hudson scored a run the old Twins way, and trust me, everyone was drinking the kool-aid. The Twins were going to sweep. Moss was going to sign an extension, and be a star for 4 straight years. The Vikings were going to dismantle the Jets on Monday, and they were definitely going to win the Super Bowl this year. Then Jorge Posada hit a 3-2, 2-out line drive single that literally missed going in Orlando Hudson's glove by 3 inches. Granderson then tripled, the Yankees led 4-3, and just like the people of Jonestown or Dennis Green, we realized the Kool-Aid wasn't what we thought it was.

After jumping ahead 3-0, the Twins would be outscored the rest of the series 17-4. The Randy Moss hoopla continued to be all positives after his press conference, but Brett Favre's little fiasco put a damper on positive Vikings news. With a few hours to go until Monday Night Football, I could realistically see the game going any way possible. I could see Randy Moss channeling his 1998-self and going for close to 200 yards and 2 or 3 touchdowns. I could see the Vikings offense playing terribly again, scoring very little, and losing a not-so-close game. I could see AP carrying the team to another victory. And everything in between.

But I've realized life's a lot more enjoyable when you're optimistic. 'Being happy' isn't as easy as we're supposed to believe it is, and we all know this. Little things that really shouldn't bother us, sometimes do. When you're optimistic, though, I've realized those days come less and less. I can't remember the last time I was legitimately sad, which is a good thing. I wasn't sad when the Twins lost last night, or any of the past week. I'm not sure why; usually it would kill me to have to wait until March for Twins baseball, and even longer for meaningful baseball. But this time it didn't. I'm sure watching the Twins lose an amazing 12 straight post-season games has allowed my mind to grow numb when it comes to October baseball. But I like to think it's also because, it's a lot better being optimistic.

Randy Moss will be unstoppable tonight. He'll score three touchdowns, he'll catch eight balls, and he'll go for close to 175 yards. The Vikings will, for the first time all season, put everything together and dismantle the Jets. Favre will look great, AP will be running people over, and Jared Allen will do his sack dance and tell the NFL to shove it. With the Packers not only losing, but also dealing with a ton of injuries, and nobody believing the Bears are for real, the Vikings will again be showered with mostly positive press except for when Tedy Bruschi talks. Or the Favre investigation is finished.

That's optimism. And while cynics will likely be right, that there's no way this is going to happen and I'm just going to be let down in 9 hours when the game's over, the fact that most Yankees fans are cynics and most Twins/Vikings fans are optimists, is further proof that sport Gods don't exist. Because if they did, there's no way the cynical fan base would have the winningest team in baseball history, while the optimistic one would have the SuperBowl-less Vikings or the CantWinAPlayoffGame Twins.

Skol Vikes, because it's Superbowl or bust, homeboy.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Impossible



The Twins are now down two games to none in the American League Divisional Series after losing 5-2 last night to the hated Yankees. The Twins have scored first in both games, and been tied going into the 7th inning as well in both games. Put simply, they've played like the Twins of years' past, and the Yankees have been, well, the Yankees. And if starting off the ALDS by losing the first two games to the Yankees wasn't bad enough, both games were at Target Field, which means the only way the Twins are going to advance to the ALCS is if they somehow go into New York and win two straight games; including having Nick Blackburn defeat CC Sabathia in game 4 if they even get to that point. A logical person would conclude that the Twins are probably finished; even if they manage to win game 3, they're going to be heavy underdogs in game 4.

As Twins fans, we're scared of the Yankees. Some will admit it, some won't, but it's the truth. We have every right to be; they've owned our Twins over the last decade, and after winning game 1 against the Yankees in '04, the Twins have now lost eight straight post-season games against them. This year looked to be different, because it could be realistically argued that the Twins did indeed have the better team this year. After these first two games, that seems to be the furthest thing from the truth. The Twins have collapsed in almost every key situation, while the Yankees are riding big hits at opportune times to victories. It's been disheartening to say the least.

However, for the first time in regards to sports, I'm not going to be logical. Things that seem impossible one moment suddenly are proven possible and people are stunned. Fans go crazy, both good and bad. Yes, these 'impossible moments' are absolutely the exception, not the rule. All year, I've harped on Twins fans not expecting to see the exception in situations, but to understand that in most cases there won't be an exception. I've used that explanation to try to temper expectations on Delmon Young, and to try and explain why Danny Valencia really isn't going to hit .330 for his career, or even the .311 he finished at. So yes, a team coming back down 2-0 is always the exception, not the rule, and the Twins, going into New York down 2-0, coming back from that seem like a huge exception. But I'm still predicting it.

There are a few moments that come to mind when I think about situations nobody imagined ever happening. No, I didn't include the Buckner play, because as hard to believe as that was, it was the Red Sox. At the time they hadn't won a World Series in almost 80 years, so there's no doubt in my mind there were several Red Sox fans expecting the worst. The Buckner play was certainly worse than anyone could have even imagined, but when you follow a team that consistently chokes, you learn to expect it. This is how I will feel if the Vikings make a deep post-season run. I will have nothing optimistic about the Vikings if they make it to the Super Bowl, because I got sucked in last year and I won't do it again. (Except right now, with the Twins...)

Let's start by going back to 1988. The Los Angeles Dodgers are opening the World Series at home against the powerful Oakland A's. After carrying the team into the playoffs and then to the World Series, Kirk Gibson hurts his knee sliding into second base in the final game of the NLCS. He's on the Dodgers World Series roster, but he's been ruled out for game 1. Gibson doesn't even bother getting dressed; he simply gets into what he would wear under his jersey, and heads to the trainer's room to get some treatment to try and be ready for game 2. Gibson was forced to watch the game on a TV screen, with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda checking on Gibson every inning to see how he's feeling. Every inning through the first 8, Gibson gives Lasorda simply a thumbs down, clearly in too much physical pain to play, and in too much mental pain to say anything. When Lasorda walks away, Gibson asks the trainer if he's reading the box score right; the pitcher will hit 4th for the Dodgers in the 9th inning. Before the trainer can even confirm that Gibson's right, he's already out of the trainer's room and putting his pants and jersey on, before limping back into the training room. "Go tell Skip I can pinch-hit in that spot if he needs me to." Gibson tells the trainer. Lasorda is informed Gibson is available.

The Dodgers are down 4-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Gibson is now sitting on the bench. A's hall-of-fame closer Dennis Eckersley gets the first two outs with ease, which means the pitcher's spot is now on deck. Lasorda has already told Gibson he will hit if the game doesn't end, so he's got his helmet on and is holding his bat. However, Lasorda told Gibson to stay on the bench rather than go on-deck, he didn't want the A's to know Gibson was even available. After Eckersley walks the batter, the Dodgers announce the move as Gibson stumbles out of the dugout and takes a few big practice swings before limping to home plate. The place erupts. He wasn't even supposed to be playing tonight, and now he's pinch-hitting in the biggest moment of the game. I can't imagine how loud that stadium was at that point. After looking silly by fouling off two good pitches, Gibson eventually works the count full. He calls for time, swears Eckersley is going throw his signature back-door slider and try to freeze Gibson with a pitch on the outer half, and then steps back in. Gibson's right, and the back-door slider gets too much of the plate. On basically one leg, Gibson hits a game-winning, 2-run homer over the right field wall and heroically limps around the bases as Dodger Stadium goes absolutely nuts. It is probably my favorite sports story, because it's even better than a movie-ending. If this had happened in a movie rather than real life, people would leave the movie saying 'There's no way that would ever happen.'

Vin Scully's words as Gibson rounds first? "In a year of the improbable, the impossible has happened!" Go figure. Impossible. It was about as impossible as anything we could imagine; he was literally announced as unavailable before the game by Scully. But it happened.

Now, fast-forward to 2005. March 2, 2005, to be exact. The Minnesota Vikings have officially traded Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders for two draft picks and a linebacker. Fans, for the most part, are outraged. The Vikings have been hovering around mediocrity for the past few years, and Moss was one of the only exciting aspects of Sunday's for most Vikings fans. It was a sad day for the majority of Vikings fans. We can probably all remember for the most part when Moss was traded. Not everyone remembers throwing their cell phone like I did, and some people don't remember exactly when they were told Moss was gone... but we all remember the trade and how we felt about it.

What would someone have said to you if on March 3, 2005, you said "Hey guys, don't worry about it, in October of 2010, Moss will come back, and he'll be catching passes from our quarterback Brett Favre. Oh, and Daunte Culpepper will be starting in the upstart UFL on a team coached by Dennis Green." After they got done laughing at you, they'd probably ask where you got the drugs and where they could find some good stuff like that. Well guess what? It's all true. Favre-to-Moss. Getting Moss back was the single greatest Vikings moment in my lifetime, and it will only be trumped if they ever win a Super Bowl. In 2005, Moss coming back seemed like a pipe-dream, and Brett Favre playing for the Vikings certainly seemed 'impossible.'

In a year in which the Vikings reacquire Randy Moss basically out of the blue, why can't the Twins do what at this point seems absolutely impossible? Why can't the Twins get a great pitching performance from Duensing to win game 3, light up Sabathia on 3 days rest in game 4, and then watch Liriano out-duel Pettite in game 5 at Target Field? As Minnesota fans we are so used to the worst thing happening, because our past would suggest that's exactly what's going to happen. However, there was a certain team in '04 who's fan base was far more tortured than ours that became the first team in baseball history to come back down 3-0 in a playoff series. The players aren't the same, and as Twins fans our anguish is nowhere near what the Red Sox was, but after watching what I considered impossible (reacquiring Randy Moss) happen, I'm expecting the same thing from the Twins. Shock the world.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Randy Moss



The year is 1998. The Vikings open training camp with a lanky, arrogant, but oddly intelligent new toy; a rookie receiver by the name of Randy Moss. We've all heard the stories, top five talent drops into the Vikings lap in the middle of the first round because of character concerns. Moss lights the league up from day one. He had four catches for ninety-five yards and two touchdowns in his first NFL game, and the Vikings routed the Bucs 31-7. The lanky, arrogant, athletic freak that was Randy Moss never looked back. He helped the Vikings go 15-1, and he was literally a star from day one.

I still remember the day it was announced the Vikings had traded their star receiver. Mike Tice clearly had no ability whatsoever in controlling Randy, and rather than attempting to hire a much more proven coach that would likely be able to at least keep Moss in-line cheapskate owner Red McCombs decided to trade Moss. Yes, there's no doubt in my mind Zygi Wilf signed off on the trade, because he was the owner in waiting and there's simply no way McCombs dealt the team's best player without consulting with the man he was selling the team too. However, I don't blame Zygi. He clearly wanted to bring a new culture to the team, and after the Vikings finished the 2005 season (their first without Moss) with a meaningless win, Zygi wasted no time firing Tice and going after the then hot coordinator, Brad Childress. Look, Childress isn't a great coach. But he deserves a lot of credit for where the team was when he took over to where they are today, and even with some of his silly play calls and very strange interviews, I'm glad he's our coach. He's done a far better job than any other Vikings coach in my lifetime, and he was a big part of building what was the league's worst defense into arguably the league's best.

That day, though, when it was announced Moss would no longer be a Viking, I broke my cell phone. In my defense, it was a flip phone, but the flip part was extremely flimsy, so I was going to need a new phone in the near future anyways. Still, the minute I saw it go across the ticker on ESPNews, I threw my phone into the wall and the top half flew off. It was oddly calming. That day was among the worst I've felt as a sports fan.

Tuesday night was the opposite of that. What started with an accidental tweet from Bill Simmons soon enough was a confirmed report from Jay Glazer that the Vikes and Pats were close to a deal to send Randy Moss back to Minnesota. To understand how excited I was, imagine every Christmas morning from the time you were four until you were about sixteen, add all of that excitement together, and multiply it by 100. Randy Moss has always and will always be my favorite athlete. I don't care that he slowly rolled into a traffic cop who was trying to prevent him from making an illegal turn. I don't care that he walked off the field against Washington all those years ago. I don't care that he admitted he 'plays when he wants to play.' All I care about is that my favorite athlete of all-time is once again a member of my favorite football team.

Almost every Vikings fan loves Moss. Sure, there are some who think he's a bad teammate, a cancer, an embarrassment to our society, etc, but the majority of the Vikings faithful will always love Moss.

For me, it's easy to understand why I love him so much. He was the first real star player I watched consistently that I remember. 1998 was the first year I remember watching Vikings games, and actually caring if they won or lost. The Vikings were all-world that year, going 15-1, so naturally I was hooked. The Twins, my favorite Minnesota sports team, were terrible as always so it's not hard to understand why 10-year-old me was so entranced by the Vikings and even more so by the freak of nature that was Randy Moss.

This is the guy that gave us the wonderful 'straight cash, homey' and 'What's 10 grand to me?' quotes in a hilarious conversation on the way to his car. He admitted on HBO a few years ago that he used to smoke marijuana all the time before he got to college, and he still did it 'once in a blue-moon.' He later had to backtrack and deny using marijuana to avoid being put into drug testing by the league. This is the guy who, years after Cris Carter and Jake Reed had left Minnesota, leaving Moss as the lone remaining player of the '3-deep' group, was interviewed on ESPN for the Sunday conversation. I'll never forget that interview, not only because Moss was engaging, intelligent, funny and made sure to talk about how great his fans were, but because he was wearing the most hilarious hat I've ever seen. It was from one of the conference title years, '98 or '00, and it was a 3-deep Vikings hat. It said 3-deep on the front, with '80 Carter, 84 Moss, 86 Reed' on the side, and just a Vikings logo on the back. However, what made the hat so unique was that Moss had made some adjustments with a black sharpie. He had crossed out the '3' on the front and written '1' so it now read '1-deep.' He crossed out Carter and Reed's names and numbers, so it just said '84 Moss.'

Some people are likely to be turned off by that story. It could certainly be seen as selfish and meaningless, and another sign that Moss simply doesn't get it. But I don't love Randy Moss because he's a great people person*. I love Randy Moss because he can catch a football better than just about anyone in the history of the world. Jerry Rice is the greatest receiver ever, there's no doubting that, but Moss is more physically gifted. Rice had a much hungrier attitude, but Moss makes everything look so easy.

*Moss gets way too much bad publicity because most of the media has grown to dislike him. Did you know Moss donates hundreds of thousands dollars a year to middle-schools near his hometown of Rand, West Virginia, so those kids will have not only athletic facilities on site, but also so some children can eat lunch every day. Did you know almost every time Moss would score, he'd find a less fortunate kid, either with a physical or mental disability sitting near the end zone, and give that kid the ball. He'd always high five the kid too, and there's no way that kid ever forgot the moment. Did you know during a Monday Night game after Moss had been traded from Minnesota, he flew Ragnar, the Vikings mascot, to the Monday Night game he was playing in that night. Moss scored a touchdown in that endzone, and did his version of the Lambeau leap into Ragnar's arms. Vikings fans will always love Randy Moss, and it's about time the good stories start coming out about the guy.*

I love that the Vikings are going all-out to make another Super Bowl run. As a fan base, we love to criticize poor decisions and even when good decisions go bad, we criticize. It's in our nature. However, realistically, all we can ask for is that the coaching staff, the front-office and the owner do everything in their power to put the best possible product on the field. For a team that already had big-name stars like Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Steve Hutchinson, the Williams brothers, Antoine Winfield and a soon-to-be healthy Sidney Rice, adding Randy Moss makes this team arguably the most dangerous team in football.

Sidney Rice and Moss are the perfect complements to each other, and once Rice gets healthy this offense could realistically score 35 points a game. Rice and Moss, with Percy in the slot, Shiancoe at tight end and AP in the backfield... with arguably the greatest QB of all-time (I don't think Favre is, but it's certainly arguable) slinging the rock? I was more optimistic than most fans on the Vikings chances this season after their 0-2 start, but now I'm downright giddy. I will be shocked if the Vikings don't win the division again, and even more shocked if this team isn't playing in the Super Bowl for the first time in my life.

Randy, it's absolutely fantastic to have you back, and since you love to appease us Vikings fans, we all know you're going to score two touchdowns on Monday night and make us fall further in love with you.

Oh, and all the Vikings gave up was a third round pick. In Zygi we trust. Build the damn stadium already.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Predicting the Sweep

I'm going to be called crazy, biased, overly optimistic, a moron, and probably much more unkind words by a lot of people for saying this, but the Twins are going to sweep the Yankees this week. It's useless to break down the teams player vs. player in my opinion, because it's not like Robinson Cano will ever face off against Orlando Hudson. It's literally a team vs. team game, and the Twins will prove in this series that they are the better team this season. The Yankees are the bigger name, both as an organization and on a player name basis. Their entire starting infield is likely to be first-ballot Hall-of-Famers, although I'll admit it's premature to put Cano or Teixeira in already. Still, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter are probably the two biggest names of this generation, and the fact that they are starting on the left-side of the same infield shows just how star-packed this Yankees team is.

Of course, while the Yankees are once again a group of big-named high-priced stars, these aren't the Minnesota Twins of years' past, either. After hovering around $70MM payrolls at their peak, and usually settling in well below $60MM for the better part of the last decade, the Twins were quite literally 'David battling Goliath' in all their previous playoff match-ups with the Yankees. Of course, that's not a good comparison, because David beat Goliath, something the Twins have been unable to do over the last decade. With the payroll near and possibly exceeding $100MM this year, the Twins have been able to put together a very formidable, complete lineup, and they boast an exceptionally deep bullpen and a much better than expected 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation. While the Twins can't brag about a starting infield that is almost all likely to be Cooperstown-bound, they have multiple all-stars, and even without former MVP Justin Morneau they still have Joe Mauer, and Jim Thome is performing like, well, vintage Jim Thome.

The Yankees lineup has been better this year as far as scoring runs goes, but they play in a much hitter-friendly stadium so the difference really isn't quite as large as the run differential would suggest. The Yankees scored just four more runs on the road than the Twins, 386-382, so the offenses are extremely similar.

Just like the lineups, the Yankees rotation and bullpen consists of several big-name players, while the Twins are much lesser-known commodities, despite performing in some instances better than the high-paid, well-known Yankees. There's no arguing C.C. Sabathia is elite, among the top starters in the game, and since left-handers are kryptonite to the Twins superman lineup, he's going to be an incredibly difficult match-up for them. However, as good as Sabathia's been, Liriano has been every bit as good in most cases. Regardless of how good both lineups are, I wouldn't be surprised at all if Game 1 is a 1-0 final.

Andy Pettite and Phil Hughes will be the starters in games 2 and 3, but the Twins will counter with Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing. On name recognition alone the Yankees would appear to have a major advantage, but the fact is Pavano has outpitched almost every other American League starter besides a handful, and Hughes is no exception. Duensing has become, well, vintage Andy Pettite, and that's quite a bit better than 2010 Andy Pettite. The Twins have the advantage in the starting pitching department for the first time in recent memory, and even if Sabathia is as unhittable as many experts believe, he can only start 2 of the 5 games and the rest of the Twins staff is undoubtedly better.

The Yankees have the clear advantage at the end of games, because they have the greatest closer of all-time in Mariano Rivera and he really hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. His late season struggles aren't a sign of him deteriorating in my opinion, and he will be his usual dominant self again if given the opportunity.

Even with the Sandman looming for the Yanks, the Jesse Crain-Brian Fuentes-Jose Mijares trio is a better bridge to get to our closer than the Joba-Kerry Wood-David Robertson trio the Yankees will use. The Twins will benefit greatly at the end of the games in my opinion because the Yankees don't have a dominating lefty to offset the Twins lefty-heavy lineup.

This is going to be a fantastic series and I'm lucky enough to get to watch the Liriano-Sabathia game first-hand tonight, and my opinion is that the Twins are going to sweep the Yankees without any real trouble. I think the Twins win game 1 4-1, game 2 3-0 and they'll finish the sweep with an 8-6 victory at Yankee Stadium. Call me crazy.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why the 'Jeter Flip' is Amazing

Writing a thoughtful, long piece about this series when everyone and their mother has done that didn't seem interesting to me. Then I got to perusing some ESPN.com articles, just to see what they were saying about the playoffs, and there were quite a few Derek Jeter articles or blurbs. I read them all. While the opinions of the writer were different in each case, one thing was common in each; the mention of Jeter's baseball smarts, his desire to win, and his heart.

As we get more advanced statistics, and as they begin to get more and more accepted among all baseball fans, intangibles become more and more obsolete. There simply isn't an interest in something that we can't prove is there.* However, as someone who admittedly loves the advanced statistics more than most, I do believe in the intangibles as well. I played the sport at a decently competitive level; nothing close to the big leagues, but definitely more competitive than most people would believe. Baseball IQ may be the most undervalued thing in the entire sport; and again I believe that's because it can't be measured from a computer screen.

*Of course, I could be describing atheists in this sentence too. I'm not a super religious person, I rarely go to Church, but I still do consider myself a Christian. The lack of faith some people have saddens me, not because I think my beliefs are superior, but because it more often than not shows this person went through a great deal of pain at one point in their life and from that point forward deemed that the only possible answer was to be certain there was no God. In this way, these people are oddly protecting the very being they claim is not real; they choose to believe there is no God because they can't fathom a God that would put someone through what they went through.*

I believe a manager values baseball IQ more than fans or front-office executives, and it's very easy to understand why. The manager is dealing with this player on a daily basis; he sees things that the average fan certainly can't see from the couch, and even the GM can't see while sitting in his suite. It's my opinion that baseball IQ can quite literally turn a .500 team into a World Series team. Now, of course, that's assuming the talent level is the same from year to year, but their are several opportunities in almost every game in which a smart player will take advantage.

An example: I hate to use another Jeter example, but earlier this year when that pitch hit the bottom of his bat but he acted like it hit his hand and he was awarded first base. Some people felt it was dishonest (obviously it was) and most believed it was wrong (it wasn't). Until baseball is going to institute a full replay system, fooling the ump will always be a part of the equation. Hell, even in the NFL and college, in which replay IS in full effect, players still try to fool the refs as often as possible. One writer wrote it was sad. Again, I disagree. Jeter helped his team when they were in the middle of a very tight divisional race. Bad calls happen all the time, it's part of the game; Jeter made sure the next bad call went in his team's favor. Can't fault a guy for that. And yes, with his struggles this year, he probably wouldn't have gotten on base any other way, so it was necessary.

If you haven't seen the Jeter Flip Play, here it is:



I remember when I watched the Jeter flip live (on TV) years ago. It was this month nine years ago, so I was just twelve years old. I understood the game pretty well then for a 12-year-old, but I hadn't played on a major-league size field, so the double cut off thing was a bit of a mystery to me.** The fact that Jeter was even there on the play is what makes it so remarkable. Yes, in that particular odd situation thanks to the stadium dimensions, Jeter was supposed to be where he was. Kind of. What makes it so amazing, then? He did what he had been taught; following directions is nice when you have a 3-year-old, but a major league player making the money Jeter made absolutely better be where he's supposed to be. Why is that amazing?

**If you're confused about this, in the play above, the runner on first is trying to score, obviously. On a ball hit to right field, there are usually two possible plays. Most common, the second baseman will run to take the first cut off from the right fielder, and the first basemen will drop back between where the second baseman positions himself and home plate. The second baseman is taught to throw the ball 'through the first baseman's head' because then if there's no play at the plate the first baseman can cut the ball off and keep the hitter from moving up to second base. If there is a play, the first baseman simply ducks or gets out of the way and the ball is at home plate usually on one hop. However, since Yankee Stadium is only 314 feet down the right field line, the Yankees rarely used the second baseman. The right fielder would usually make a throw near the first base bag; where the first baseman would cut it off no problem and make an easy throw home if needed. They had ultimately eliminated the middle man. This shouldn't matter, though, because the game was in Oakland.**

I think it's more amazing to those of us who actually played the game; at any level. We all remember being taught what to do in almost every situation; like when someone is trying to steal third, and the catcher springs up to try to throw him out, the left fielder should instantly be moving to back up third as quick as possible, in case the ball gets to the outfield. The shortstop also needs to be moving that way, but unless he's cheating a lot in the hole there's no way with how quickly major league catchers throw the ball that the shortstop would have enough time to get into position. Of course, this is really a meaningless thing to teach, because if you watch a game, no left fielders are instantly moving to back up a play. Oftentimes they only move after the ball has rolled past the third baseman and the run scores. That's because that left fielder has seen hundreds of overthrown balls in his lifetime, probably thousands, and almost every single time the runner on third scores anyways. Why do all the work if the end result is going to be exactly the same? It's frustrating if your coaching an 11-year-old team and trying to teach kids fundamentals, but as a major league manager, you understand the thought process and realize it's not worth getting upset over because it's not going to make a difference in the play.

That's how I think of the Jeter flip. Yes, he was the 'second cut' in the play, because the Yankees realized with their second baseman no longer occupying right field as a cut-man, he could cover second base and the third baseman would obviously be covering third base. That left Jeter ultimately playing a free-safety like position, reading where the throw was going (either to second, third or home) and judge if he needed to back up a poor throw. Now, I said he was 'kind of' where he was supposed to be. I say this because since the game was in Oakland, the Yankees second baseman undoubtedly should have been further down the line in right, and their first baseman should have been basically where the throw first hit the ground. However, Jeter noticed that both the second baseman and first baseman were too close. The right fielder clearly overthrows the first baseman, and Jeter could undoubtedly tell from the get-go that the throw was going to be well high of the first baseman. He takes off to try to cut the ball off, grabs it in full-stride, shovels it sideways about 45 feet still on the move to Jorge Posada at the plate and Posada makes a blind sweep tag that hits Jeremy Giambi's ankle just before he hits the plate, and the Yankees end the inning still clinging to a 1-0 lead. They never trailed in that series again.

Over the years I've heard that play be called overrated far too many times. While I still don't understand why people think running from shortstop to where he did, and making the shovel in the place he put it to Posada is 'easy' but regardless, the shovel itself, just standing still with nobody watching, is something maybe 15% of our population could do better than 1/4 of the time. It's fun to hate the Yankees, and trust me I do, but this flip play by Derek Jeter is simply among the best plays in baseball history and it deserves the credit it sometimes unfairly hasn't always received. No October funny business this year though, Jeter, please.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bring on the Yankees

As most people have expected for most of the summer, the Twins and Yankees will face-off in the first round. As almost nobody expected, the Twins will open up the series at home at beautiful Target Field. Wednesday can't come soon enough. I'll have a lot more here tomorrow and Wednesday on the series, but the short version is I think the Twins measure up very favorable with the Yankees for the first time in the playoffs, and have a lot of confidence in this team finally getting past Goliath, likely to face David in Tampa Bay.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Links for the Week

Some links for your viewing pleasure as the weekend comes at just the right time for us all...

Vin Scully is my favorite announcer in sports, and Joe Posnanski is my favorite writer period, and this piece still turned out far better than I could have imagined.

Brett Favre needs to ask Jim Thome how to handle being a 40-year-old athlete.

If you enjoy Joe Posnanski, and I make it no secret that I enjoy reading him quite a bit, check out why he compared Nolan Ryan and Ichiro.

Daunte Culpepper threw for almost 400 yards and Denny Green got his first win of the season... in the UFL. This is some kind of pseudo-2003 world we're all living and none of us realize it yet.

Ron Wright is a modern day Moonlight Graham, except Wright got to play in one game. He proceeded to hit into a triple play, a double play and striking out in 3 at bats, going 0-3 and after being so efficiently bad (He committed 6 outs on 9 pitches) he never got another shot.

I appreciate what the FBI does and understand there is always more to the story than is let on, but one of the women raided in this article was my 12th grade Government teacher. I highly doubt she's a terrorist in her free time.

Evan Longoria and David Price spoke out against their fans (or lack thereof) the other day, after an announced crowd of just over 10,000 people showed up when the Rays had a chance to clinch a playoff birth. It's time to move that team somewhere else, Florida simply doesn't deserve any professional baseball teams. The Marlins attendance has been almost as bad over the years when they're good too.

I'm glad to know Adrian Peterson feels the same way about himself as I do.

I don't know if this is sad or funny, but the last line in the whole story is my favorite. Read it all though.

HBO's new series, Boardwalk Empire, has been fantastic through two weeks and season 2 has already been green-lighted. If you haven't watched it yet I suggest you start, and long-time movie director Martin Scorsese had some interesting things to say about his new show.

Baby-making potential is absolutely the most important thing to me when I meet a girl in a bar...

And finally, rather than debate the AL MVP or Cy Young like some hack, GQ covered the 18 most memorable moments from this season.