Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hating Brett Favre

As long as I can remember, I've always hated Brett Favre.* I grew up watching him lead the Packers to two Super Bowls (winning one) and being a perennial MVP candidate. He played for the Vikings biggest rival, and while he was leading the Packers to winning season after winning season the Vikings were lucky to earn a wildcard birth. So naturally I spent my childhood hating Brett Favre.

*Hate is a strong word. I don't truly 'hate' anyone, and it's pretty hard to hate someone you've never actually met. But I would say Brett Favre was as close as any athlete in my lifetime to me actually hating.

Then the Packers rightfully chose Aaron Rodgers over Favre after he tried to unretire, traded him to the Jets, and eventually after a season in New York Favre finally got what he wanted; he was going to sign with the Vikings. On the day the Vikings signed Favre, many Vikings fans were excited, some were angry, and others took a wait and see approach. I had no problem with the move, because the Vikings clearly weren't going to be contenders with Tarvaris Jackson at the helm. But I still didn't like Favre.

What's come out about Favre this year in regards to the Jenn Sterger stuff isn't all that surprising. There had been rumblings for years that Favre had a different woman in basically every city, but again the Vikings signed Favre to play quarterback, not to be a great role model for fans. Despite hating Favre my whole life, his 2009 season made it easy to like watching him play. It was easy to put up with the drama, the attention-seeking, and the spats with his head coach and certain players because quite frankly he was putting up MVP caliber numbers. Then he threw that interception in the NFC Championship game and it was all downhill from there.

However, despite my strong dislike for Brett Favre, I will always respect him as a football player. The guy played in 297 straight games as a quarterback. He went from 'out' to 'questionable' the day of a Monday Night Game, when the Vikings were already mathematically eliminated. Maybe he didn't want his last throw to be an interception. Maybe he wanted all the attention one more time. But most likely he just wanted to get back out there and play, and that's what he did.

After the game, Favre apparently told Julius Peppers "Go beat the Packers in a couple of weeks." The Bears have already won the division, so they may not even play a lot of their starters in that week 17 game, but it's clear Favre still has a strong dislike towards Ted Thompson and the Packers organization. Pro Football Talk, the site I linked to, seems to think this is just another sign of Favre's selfishness that in a season that has gone so terribly wrong all Favre is thinking about is watching the Packers lose. That seems unfair to me. I do believe Favre wanted nothing more than to win a Super Bowl with the Vikes this year, so he could stick it to Ted Thompson. It didn't work out. Ted Thompson is paid to make personnel decisions, Favre is paid to play, and with how well Aaron Rodgers has played since Favre left, it's clear the Packers made the right choice.

But Favre is still human. He feels that he did enough for that franchise to determine on his own terms when he wanted to walk away. And I think the Packers were going to give him that opportunity, until he retired and then tried to come back after the playbook had been slightly modified to better suit Rodgers' strengths. Regardless of why it happened, Favre getting traded clearly bothered him. Being forced out of a place you thought was your home is something that would leave anyone bitter, just because Favre is a hall-of-fame QB doesn't mean he's immune to those feelings.

It frustrates me quite a bit to read that Favre wanting the Bears to beat the Packers is a glimpse into his character. Anyone that has competed at a high level is naturally more competitive than the average person. I think most athletes would feel the same way Favre does, and as a matter of fact I bet the average person would even feel that way. We all hold grudges. If you've ever been fired, dumped or used, chances are you held a grudge against your boss or your ex. Some of you still hold that grudge. Brett Favre is no different than the average person in this situation.

Brett Favre has done a lot of foolish things over his career, but telling Julius Peppers to beat the team that essentially fired him is not foolish. It's human nature, it's the way most of us are built, and suggesting that Favre's bitterness is a glimpse into his character really bothers me. He's not a great person, he's been a terrible QB all season, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with him wanting to stick it to the people that he feels screwed him over. It happens every day, at every job, with every kind of person. Brett Favre is no exception, so let's please stop trying to analyze every little thing the former great does. Just let him ride off into the sunset, for everyone's sake.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Twins Foolishly Trade JJ Hardy

When the Twins won the bidding for exclusive negotiation rights with Japanese shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka, many people connected the dots and assumed it would mean the team was going to trade JJ Hardy to free up some salary to make it happen. That's precisely what the team did last week, trading Hardy to the Baltimore Orioles for two hard-throwing minor league pitchers. Brett Jacobson is a 24-year-old with a mid-high 90's fastball, and the Twins undoubtedly are hoping he can be a power arm for them this coming season and for years to come. James Hoey will be 28 in a few weeks, but his minor league strikeout and walk numbers were impressive enough that the Twins clearly think he can be a cog in their bullpen as well.

Unfortunately, neither pitcher is considered even an above-average prospect. The Twins are really trusting their scouts*, as they always tend to do, rather than looking at the stats that would make it apparent neither player is likely to be a great reliever. Jacobson has never pitched above A-ball, despite being old for every level he's played at, so while his sub-3 ERA and 9.0 K/9 are impressive, they're not nearly as dominant as you would expect from a pitcher repeating the same level with mid-90's gas. Hoey's minor league numbers last year were more impressive, as he struck out 70 batters in just over 50 innings between AA and AAA. Of course, Anthony Slama has better numbers than Hoey over that time and is still slightly younger, but because Slama doesn't have mid-90's heat the team has shown over the last year and a half they don't think Slama is for real.

*I'm sure when I write I come off as pro-stats and anti-scouts, but that's not the case. I use stats because obviously there aren't scouting reports of these players available from my computer. I think scouts are massively important, and the Twins have done a very good job with their philosophies over the last decade. I remember when the Twins traded AJ Pierzysnki to the Giants, my initial thought was that they got nothing of real value.

I was like 13 or 14, though, and didn't seem to care because it meant Joe Mauer was going to be the starting catcher. I decided just now to look at Nathan, Liriano and Bonser's numbers to that point prior to the trade, just to see if the Twins scouts picked out gems or if the stats had also suggested potential greatness. Joe Nathan didn't 'break-out' at least from a national perspective until he arrived in Minnesota, but the year prior to coming to Minnesota Nathan was great, posting a 2.96 ERA in 79 innings, striking out 83 and walking just 33. The stats and scouts agreed. Liriano wasn't as clear as Nathan, and the scouts deserve credit for him, although I think most people would have only needed to see Liriano throw once or twice to know what he had. He had a great year as an 18-year-old in 2002, striking out 85 in 80 innings in low A before pitching just 18 innings in 2003 after being injured. Still, I think looking at just his minor league stats it would be apparent he had an injury history but a chance to be dominant. Not as dominant as he was for that stretch in 2006, but still top-of-the-rotation type numbers. Boof Bonser was pushed as the centerpiece of the trade by some, because he was a former first rounder whose minor league ERA looked solid. He posted a 3.75 ERA between AA and AAA as a 21-year-old, but his strikeout and walk rates didn't suggest anything more than bottom-of-the-rotation starter, albeit sometime soon. He eventually had one solid year for the Twins before having arm troubles and bouncing around the league.

The point of that random tangent was hopefully to show an example of when scouting was much more important than stats, but it actually had a reverse-effect and instead showed anyone with knowledge of stats back then would have come to likely more correct conclusions on the three players than the scouts did. Interesting, if nothing else.

Hoey and Jacobson at least have the power arms to suggest dominance is possible, and Rick Anderson has done some amazing things with project starters and relievers over the years as the team's pitching coach, but this return for Hardy is underwhelming to say the least. I've already explained that Hardy is an above-average shortstop, with a chance to be elite if he can stay healthy. Basically, when you have a middle infielder on a one-year contract, someone like Hardy is ideal. If he performs like he has the last two years, he's above average, and if he hits like he did after allowing his wrist to heal, he truly is elite. For a team that's willing to be in the top 10 in payroll for the foreseeable future, paying $6 or $7MM for one year of that kind of play is hardly a burden and actually is extremely likely to be a bargain.

Now, most people see that Hardy is coming off a season in which he hit just .268, while the player the Twins replaced him with hit .346 in Japan last year. These people will naturally assume that they have upgraded the position, and there's nothing wrong with that assumption. I understand not everyone cares nearly as much as I do about stats, but there is a lot of flawed logic in simply looking at Hardy and Nishioka's batting averages last year.

One problem with this logic is that Hardy hit .268 in the best league in the World, while Nishioka hit .346 in a very good but still inferior Japanese league. Seeing that Nishioka was the first player since Ichiro to lead his league in hits with more than 200, and knowing that Ichiro has been one of the best lead-off hitters in baseball history, the assumption would be that the Twins have added at least an all-star caliber player. Again, that assumption is likely to be off-base.

There's no doubting that Nishioka had a great year last year, but as I've mentioned here before, it's worrisome  that he has shown little to no power even while in Japan. The comparable middle infielders that have come over all had great power numbers, like Kaz Matsui and Akinori Iwamura. Iwamura went from a 35+ HR hitter in Japan to a speedy, slap type hitter with little power here in the states. Matsui was probably the biggest free agent flop of the last ten years, at least based on the hype he had when coming over. Most expected him to become an all-star, and he's been just replacement level pretty much his whole career.

What makes Nishioka even more worrisome is that his previous three seasons prior to 2010 were below average years even in Japan. Trading a shortstop who has proven over the years to be above-average to elite and replacing him with a shortstop who has defensive questions, little power and whose 2010 season may be an outlier based on his previous performance in Japan is likely going to cost the Twins multiple wins this coming season.

Taking Hardy's loss a step further, the Twins organization doesn't seem to understand the correlation between infield defense and ground ball pitchers, or outfield defense and fly ball pitchers. The Twins are the favorites to re-sign Carl Pavano, likely for two years with a third year option, and while I wouldn't be upset to see Pavano leave he has been good and it's not the end of the world to bring back the team's second best pitcher last year. Unfortunately, Pavano is an extremely ground ball heavy starter, and trading one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball is not going to help Pavano's contract look like a great deal. Much like last off-season when I said the Twins were foolishly going to start below average defenders throughout their outfield despite having one of the most fly-ball heavy staffs in baseball, the Twins are now trading a fantastic defensive infielder while at the SAME TIME working on bringing back a veteran starter who relies heavily on great infield defense. The Twins outfield defense deserves at least some of the blame for Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn's struggles last season, and while I don't think Pavano is going to go from a solid #2 starter to a #5 starter because of a lack of Hardy's defense, it's possible he becomes another mid-rotation type starter without an elite defensive shortstop**.

**The Twins were apparently interested in acquiring Brendan Ryan from the Cardinals , and while I would have obviously preferred Hardy to Ryan because Hardy is a much better hitter, Ryan is the best defensive shortstop in baseball. So if the Twins had decided to go with a Ryan/Yoshi middle infield, while not as good as it would have been with Hardy, adding Ryan would have been a great move and one that would have made a Pavano return even better. Unfortunately, Ryan was sent to Seattle yesterday, so there really isn't a capable replacement available. Sigh.

Regardless of what happens, the Twins to this point seem to have simply made their team worse, despite promising more spending this off-season. While this hasn't been a fun off-season, the team should remain in contention for the division title next season if nothing else, and then a ton of money is coming off the books before next off-season. That could mean we see the Twins make their first real big free agent signing at this time next year. I'm guessing that player won't be JJ Hardy, though.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dedication: Parents, Jeter and the Yanks

Baseball has been one of the biggest influences in my life for as long as I can remember. My dad was always a big sports fan, and despite being the first captain of Tom Saterdalen's legendary high school hockey coaching career at Bloomington Jefferson, as well as eventually having a chance to be drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, he always says he loved baseball more than hockey. My dad chose to simply quit hockey, rather than be drafted and re-assigned to the then EHL, which in my dad’s words was a dirty league that just “didn’t seem like much fun.” Instead he got married and started a family, and when he tells me he doesn't regret for a minute the decision, I believe him.

When I was about three years old, my dad and I started playing catch on a near daily basis in the summer. As a three-year-old, it was the highlight of my day. At 5:00 every night I would sit in either my living room window that overlooked our driveway, or I’d sit out on the front step with two baseball gloves and a ball. Sometimes my dad would come home at 5, but almost always he wouldn’t get home until 7 at the earliest. No matter what time he got home, he always simply went to his room and changed into some shorts and a t-shirt, and he took me into the backyard. This was absolutely the highlight of my day from the time I was two or three until I was about eight. Here was a man that would go into work at 6 or 7 AM every day of the week, and oftentimes stay until 7 at night, because he worked on commission and he wanted to provide for his family. As I look back on that today, almost twenty years later, I’m blown away. Not only did he work his ass off for 12 hours or more on a daily basis, he never said no to me. Even on his worst days, regardless of how tired he was, he always made time for me, and once my brother showed an interest in playing catch, for him too.

My dad also coached most of my traveling teams growing up, at least from the time I was 10 until I was about 14. We practiced an awful lot, almost daily when we didn't have games, and there’s no doubting it made us a better team. We were always among the top 10 teams in the state, and the dedication my dad and the other parents that helped out had to us kids was something we didn't appreciate then. However, I feel fairly confident saying every one of us kids appreciates what all those parents did for us so many years back, and I can’t thank my dad enough for the time he put in to things he really didn't need to. Sure, we argued, and disagreed as I got older, but that comes with the territory. I was a teenager who was always right, and even if my dad was right (which he was more times than I gave him credit for) I’d still usually find something to argue about being the jackass that I was. It never left the field though, and when we got home everything was always just fine.

Parents are the most dedicated people on this earth, and we don’t give them enough credit, even as we get older. I will never be able to repay my dad for the time he spent with me over the years, or my mom for the things she did for me. But I know they don’t expect that. All they want is to know they’ve raised someone they can be proud of, and someone who will spend the same amount of time with his kids that they did. I strive to be that person every day because I know I owe it to my parents for everything they’ve ever done for me.

This trip down memory lane for me and hopefully most of you leads me to one person: Derek Jeter. Jeter came into the league at about the same time I actually remember watching the World Series, so when I see Derek Jeter I have a million memories from my childhood. Jeter is the kid who got spoiled right away, and the Yankees are his rich parents. He came up in 1996, the same year the Yankees began their ridiculous stretch of four World Series titles in five years. Now, it’d be silly of me to just say Jeter was lucky to be called up when he was, because obviously he had an awful lot to do with those great Yankee teams. But he got called up with Andy Pettite, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, who are all still Yankees. (Except Pettite at the moment but most expect him to re-sign soon.) Jeter was paid nearly $200MM over fifteen years, went to the playoffs every year but one, and won five World Series’ Championships. Five.

We all know Jeter struggled this year. He still posted a slightly above average OPS for his position, at .710. For comparison’s sake, JJ Hardy’s OPS was .713 although he played in less games. Of course, Jeter’s defense ranked as well below average (don’t let that Gold Glove fool you) too, so he actually was below league average last year for shortstops. As a 36-year-old, it looks like his career is entering its twilight years. 

His contract was up this off-season, and after paying him about $19MM a year for the last ten years, there was little doubt that Jeter’s on-field performance and advanced age were going to lead to a reduced salary in 2011. It was tricky though because he still is Derek Jeter, and much like a parent with their own kid, Derek Jeter will always be worth more to the New York Yankees than any team in sports until he retires. The Yankees reportedly started the bidding at $15MM a year over three years, so not too much of a pay-cut. Then Jeter apparently countered with a ridiculous 5 or 6-year contract worth $23MM or more a season. Eventually the two sides met and Jeter agreed to a 3-year, $51MM contract that could be four years if Jeter meets certain incentives over the next three years. 

I don’t care how much Derek Jeter makes, though. The Yankees allegedly pride themselves on being the 'premier organization in sports' yet they had no problems negotiating through the media to put Derek Jeter in an awkward position. $50MM or close to it is a ton of money, and the average people who aren’t agents or professional athletes will never understand how someone could turn down that kind of money. Many people say “Once you get that high, it doesn’t even matter how much more money you make!” Those people are right, to an extent, but to Jeter this wasn’t about providing for his family. No, this was about pride. Jeter is the face of the New York Yankees and has been, honestly, since 1996. When his agent compared him to Babe Ruth, I didn’t even flinch. Ruth was a superior player in every facet, no doubt, but his agent was pointing out that ‘Derek Jeter’ is as much Yankee as ‘Babe Ruth.’ He’s right.

The Yankees didn’t need to go public with any of the negotiations though. Jeter mentioned at his press conference after signing the new contract that he was upset with how public they got, and I don’t blame him. Here’s a guy who has spent most of his career priding himself on staying out of trouble, doing things the right way, and being a stand-up person both on and off the field. Derek Jeter is the captain of arguably the most famous team in the world, and he spent most of his prime as a bachelor in New York City. The guy was absolutely taking home whoever he wanted whenever he wanted, but we never heard bad stories about the guy. Even when he’s taking random girls back to his apartment on a nightly basis, he does it with such grace that nobody even cares.*

*Well, the guys care, but in a God-he’s-fucking-awesome kind of way.

Derek Jeter will be fine, and the $17MM a year he’s getting should help him get over any anger issues he has stemming from the public negotiations. He’s making more than AJ Burnett, so that’s not an embarrassment he needs to worry about either. But Jeter learned that regardless of what you do for your team, or your city, professional sports will always be strictly a business. Jeter has brought joy and grace to a fan base that hadn’t seen it in quite some time, he’s helped lead a once proud franchise back to that status, and yet when it’s time for a new contract the Yankees low ball their captain and then leak that he’s greedy to the press.

Derek Jeter is the perfect example of what we want in a baseball player: Talented. Humble. Charismatic. He’s clutch. Most importantly he's not an asshole.

The New York Yankees as an organization are the perfect example of what is wrong in baseball: Cocky. Entitled. They have a hall-of-fame infield that, not counting the catcher, is making $80MM. Four positions; $80MM. Prior to last season, the Twins had never spent that much money on an entire team, yet the Yankees are doing it for four players. Of course, the Yankees organization has worked incredibly hard over the years to market their brand, to take advantage of their gigantic market, and they've done that successfully.

It’s almost like the Yankees organization spent so much time working to make money so they knew that when this day came, and Derek Jeter needed to be taken care of, they could vastly outspend any team regardless of Jeter's on-field production, because of what he did in the past. So while Jeter may be upset that the negotiations became public, he needs to realize like many of us, that his ‘parents’ still did what was best for him and his career. It’s clear the Yankees are dedicated to Derek Jeter, and I’m sure sometime in the next three years, Jeter will find a way to say thank you. 

Now if I can just find a way to thank my parents...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gophers Hire... Jerry Kill?

When I first saw that Joe Schmit had tweeted that Jerry Kill was likely the next Gopher football head coach, I just figured this was another early leak by him that would ultimately be proven wrong, just like when he said Joe Mauer had agreed to a 10-year contract extension about a month before he actually signed an 8-year one. It wasn't because I think Joe Schmit is bad at his job, but rather because to me Jerry Kill made no sense for the Gophers. Joel Maturi, after striking out in 2007 by hiring Tim Brewster, needed to make a big hire to get some excitement around the program again. He had even said that he was "going on the road looking for another Tubby Smith." Jerry Kill is not a 'Tubby Smith-like hire' by any means.

It was clear when the team confirmed that Kill was the coach that there was simply no  way he was Maturi's first choice. Maturi admitted as much today, saying Kill wasn't his first choice but everyone he talked to kept bringing his name up. Kill was the best man in TCU coach Gary Patterson's wedding, and considering Maturi made a real push to bring Patterson here in '07 before Brewster, I don't doubt that Patterson was pushing Kill big time for our Gophers. Maturi has said before he thinks very highly of Patterson, and Patterson put in a good word for his good friend and Maturi started to dig deeper.

Jerry Kill has won at every school he's been at. There's no arguing that. He went 38-14 at Saginaw State, 11-11 at Emporia State, 55-32 at Southern Illinois and then most recently 23-16 at Northern Illinois. 127 wins is nothing to scoff at, but since arriving at Northern Illinois Kill's team was just 2-12 against ranked teams. That's not surprising, considering Northern Illinois isn't in the same tier as ranked teams, but it's still enough to make me worry. Kill has been great at winning the games his team is supposed to win, and after watching Tim Brewster lead our Gophers to losses against teams they should have easily beaten, winning the games they're supposed to is undoubtedly an upgrade. My only worry is that the Gophers don't have nearly as many games a year that they 'should win' like Northern Illinois, so Kill is going to need to bring in more talent than he was able to at Northern Illinois (that shouldn't be too tough) if they're going to compete in the Big Ten.*

*Are we going to rename the conferences anytime soon? It's fairly ridiculous to me that the Big Ten now has 12 teams, but will continue to be called the Big Ten, while the Big 12 has ten teams and will be called the Big 12 still. Obviously just switching the conference names would confuse everyone, but there has to be a solution to this idiocy.

I watched Kill's introductory press conference, and he was more charismatic than I thought he'd be. He was engaging, funny at times, and he didn't sound as dumb as Brewster did four years ago. All positives. One of his funniest lines was that he was able to convince his wife to marry him, so he should have no problems convincing kids to play for him. He has a point, because he's a very strange looking man, but I need to see a picture of his wife before I agree with him. If he overachieved, and she's far out of his league, then I'll have faith that the Gophers are in good hands. If she looks like Janet Reno, well then Maturi might as well start packing his bags now because he'll be fired with Kill within three years. The point of course is that if he can convince players that are considered 'out of Minnesota's league' to come here the team will win and win big. If he needs to convince the borderline D-1 high school players in this state to come to Minnesota, then they'll continue to lose.

For now, I'm willing to give the new coach the benefit of the doubt. Kill isn't the sexy hire, as he isn't a big-name, and his track record while solid is hardly super impressive. Maturi has screwed up every major decision he's made regarding basketball and football since he took over as AD except hiring Tubby Smith, so it's natural for us fans to just assume the worst. Especially when a guy who looks like one of those creeps on 'To Catch a Predator' is the new hire from a small school. I asked my buddy Jenks to talk me off the ledge when Kill was announced, and he did a good job. Apparently Kill's offense is perfectly suited for Gray, his assistants are loyal and that creates stability at coordinator positions (something Brewster never had) and even at Northern Illinois he was competitive against Big Ten teams on the road.

Some have said a best-case scenario is that the Gophers just hired Glen Mason 2.0. While I think the ceiling for the Kill era is certainly higher than that, if he becomes a new version of Glen Mason it won't be the end of the world after watching Brewster lead this program into the ground for four years. Jerry Kill, you have my support, even if my initial reaction was that your hire was a huge mistake.


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