Friday, January 29, 2010

Andrew McCutchen's new nickname

Nicknaming people by their first initial and first syllable of their last name is passe. It's so late 90's/early 00's.....

Calling Andrew McCutchen A-Mac just cheapens him. He needs his own name to stake out his territory.

Now let me preface this by saying that I'm probably not the first person in the world to come up with this nickname for Andrew McCutchen. But I either contribute or browse a good deal of Pirate blogs and have not heard it mentioned yet, so I'll claiming ownership of the intellectual property!!

As with most of my good ideas, I came up with this one in the shower this morning. So, at least to me, from this point forth I will refer to Andrew McCutchen as:


It's got his name, his number, and a book reference all right there. (Heller's classic Catch-22....jeez, read a book every once in a while!)

New nickname. Soon to be everywhere. Book it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ranking the farm systems - DBS Style

This is the time of year when top of the line pubs like Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus start to put out their rankings of the 30 MLB teams' farm systems. And then every yahoo with a website gets in on it, too. So this yahoo decided to post his thoughts on the farms as well.

My criteria for a good farm system may be a little different from the national guys. I'm a pretty practical and straight-forward person. Something either works or it doesn't. If it doesn't, my real-life job is to fix it and make it work.

When I rank prospects and, by extension, farm systems I go by a 60% performance/40% potential. You can draft all the 18 year olds and sign 16 year old Latinos, but eventually they need to learn how to hit a curveball or throw a good changeup.

I believe that having talent in the upper minors (AAA and AA) bears more weight than what a rookie does in short season or low A. You need to have prospects at the key positions of C, SS, and CF. You need good strike zone discipline, both your K rate and BB rate, for a batter. You need to miss bats as a pitcher. And you need to be age appropriate.

A farm system should either help supply the ML team with cost-controlled talent or provide the GM with adequate chips to make trades at the ML level.

With all my criteria laid out, let's get to the rankings, in reverse order. My assessments are based on the Baseball America Top 10's for each team only.

30. Diamondbacks - Their #1 prospect, Jarrod Parker, is out all of 2010 after TJ surgery. They have 7 2009 draft picks in their top 10. This is a young unproven system with little hope for help to the major league squad in 2010.

29. Astros - Considering that last year the Astros would have ranked 42nd out of 30 teams, this is a huge improvement for them. Jason Castro looks like a major league catcher and Jordan Lyles could be a nice middle of the rotation starter (MORS). The rest of their 10 consists of relievers, back of rotation starters (BORS), or OF with poor K/BB rates.

28. Cardinals - When you have a HS player drafted that year as your #1 prospect, that is typically not a good sign, especially when Shelby Miller was maybe the 4th best HS pitcher in the draft. This is a very old top 10, with two 27 year olds and a 26 year old (Craig, Freese, Hawksworth). There is not a lot of interesting pieces here.

27. Angels - There are 4 2009 draft picks in this top 10 and their #1 is an injury prone catcher that may not stay at catcher. Which is a problem when Conger's bat won't translate to many other positions. Lot of future relievers in this list.

26. White Sox - Trader Kenny Williams really takes my 2nd rule of a farm system to heart. He uses the farm more than any other team, even the Yankees, to get the ML talent he wants. This has left him with a decent top 3, but Hudson is a MORS at best and Tyler Flowers may not stay at C. There are 3 2009's on here, highlighted by #1 Jared Mitchell, so this is a somewhat unproven system.

25. Mets - For all of their wealth and ML payroll, the Mets are very cheap when it comes to the draft. This has led to a barren system for some time. They have relied on international FA's in recent years to bolster it. Top 2 players Jenry Mejia and Wilmer Flores are proof of that. Mejia could be a top of rotation starter (TORS)/MORS, but the rest of the list profiles a lot of future relievers, middle infielders that won't hit enough at the ML level (Havens, Tejada) and overrated players like Davis and F-Mart.

24. Blue Jays - Believe it or not, but the Blue Jays went UP as a result of the Halladay trade. They may have challenged the D-Backs and Astros for the bottom, which happens when you don't sign 3 of your 4 draft picks in 2009 and your system is barren to start. Most of the Jays problems stem from a really failed draft year of Jackson, Tolisano, Aherns. This was to be their infield of the future. It won't be. From the Phils help arrived in the form of Drabek, Taylor (flipped to OAK for Brett Wallace), and Travis D'Arnaud. It is slim after that.

23. Padres - A great way to rejuvenate this farm would be to trade Adrian Gonzalez, but I covered that one already. This list is a head scratcher. I like Simon Castro at 2, but don't like Tate at 1. They specialize in plate discipline in SD (Forsythe, Darnell, Decker) but aren't real good at defensive positions...or speed. Tate, to me, has the makings of an epic bust.

22. Nationals - Welcome to the Strasburg Carnival Ride. He boosted this system 3-4 spots just by himself as the rest of the 10 has the fantastic Derek Norris at C and Drew Storen ready to contribute, but then nothing at all after that. It is filled with players that lack the most important of the 5 tools...the hit tool. Marrero, Burgess, and Hood all can't make contact. The middle infielders are uninspiring.

21. Brewers - Alcides Escobar still qualifies as a rook by a couple of AB's and good thing. He raised this mediocre list 1-2 spots. Lawrie and Gamel took steps backwards and Cain was hurt this year. Braddock and Heckathorn will be relievers and there are 3 2009's on here.

20. Yankees - Land of the catchers. The Yanks have 4 catchers in their Top 10, the most of any team. Odds that 2 of the 4 stay at catcher? 25% at best. Montero is a man-child and on any team would be starting in 2010 at 1B or DH. I prefer Vizcaino and Banuelos at 2 and 3. The presence of Brackman on this list is frightening.

19. Tigers - Turner and Crosby, although young and still not AA-tested, are a nice 1-2 punch at the top. Jackson and Schlereth were a nice get in the Granderson trade, but neither will be impact players. They'll get contributions from Avila, Ramirez, and Sizemore in 2010, but none are guys you feel comfortable paying once they hit arbitration most likely.

18. Cubs - Perhaps one of the most divisive farms. BA will invariably rank the Cubs higher than this because of the insane amount of hype leveled on Starlin Castro. Only 4 of the Cubs' Top 10 have reached AA to date. Castro and Vitters, especially Vitters, have poor K/BB rates. There is not much power in this 10 and there are multiple future relievers. It's an untested and flawed system.

17. Reds - They get a boost from the Chapman signing, but only 1 or 2 spots. This is a very unspectacular system, but it is more "battle ready" than other systems. Aside from Chapman, there is little upside, but they will get cost-controlled contributions starting in 2010 from Frazier and Heisey. Alonso is over-rated and can't hit lefties.

16. Phillies - They dropped after the Halladay trade, as the loss of Drabek/Taylor/D'Arnaud was not mitigated by Aumont/Gillies/Ramirez from SEA. Dominic Brown is intriguing, but still needs refinement. From #5 to 10, only 1 guy was above Low A in 2009, so it's young.

15. Mariners - Ackley is a pure hitter on the fast track and Saunders and Moore (#1, 2, 3) should contribute in 2010. That said, Truinfel is severely over-rated and Halman/Cortes/Martinez are wild cards due to K's/makeup/youth, respectively.

14. Royals - Next to the Cubs, I predict that this system will be drastically over-rated pre-season and shown to not be ready for prime time by the end. Only 1 of their 10 has made AA yet (#10, Lough, the definition of a tweener) and with the late arrival of Arguelles from Cuba, Lough won't even be on here. So none of their 10 will have made AA. They have a great collection of arms with Montgomery, Arguelles, Crow, Duffy, Melville, and Lamb but they need to be tested. Hosmer and Moustakas need to prove themselves.

13. Marlins - Stanton is a total beast, but I'm troubled by his K rate. I don't Morrison will hit for enough power to be a ML 1B. Skipworth is already a bust and Galloway and Cousins have disturbing K/BB rates.

12. Twins - The Twins are always a very blah system, with seemingly little in terms of impact. This year is no different. Hicks gets a lot of hype, but has not produced yet. Gibson has some injury concerns. Sano and Kepler are both 17 in 2010. Revere will not be a starter as a result of his lack of power and rag arm. Bromberg and Guterriez seem like BORS to me.

11. Orioles - Even with the graduation of Tillman, the O's still have some nice arms. Matusz could be a TORS (#2-type) or MORS at worst. Britton and Arrieta are both starters in the making, as well. Erbe and Mickolio will be relievers, but power ones. Snyder, like Morrison from FLA, won't hit enough to be a ML 1B.

10. Braves - Jason Heyward is the best hitter in the game, as a result of his combination of age (20), position (RF), power and plate discipline. Freeman has always been a twin brother to Morrison of FLA for me. Teheran and Delgado have nice TORS/MORS upside, but Minor is a BORS. Kimbrel is a reliever with serious control issues and Cody Johnson will not be a major leaguer.

9. Pirates - Yes, the Pirates. The Pirates have an impact 3B in Alvarez, a C prospect in Sanchez, a potential TORS (#2-level) in Lincoln, toolsy OF's in Marte and Tabata, MORS in Owens and Alderson, a starting SS with a great K/BB rate in D'Arnaud and upside in 2009 pick ZVR. A deep system that will contribute in 2010.

8. Rockies - If you're going to have a 2009 HS'er be your #1, at least have the best HS'er in Tyler Matzek. He and Friedrich are a killer 1-2 with plenty of heat. Wilin Rosario at C is promising and Chacin should be a MORS. They have 4 total 2009's on here, so they get dinged for that, but Wheeler and Brothers are very solid. Gomez and Young, Jr. provide the middle infield help.

7. Red Sox - 6 of their top 10 have not hit AA, but at least unlike the Royals, the Red Sox prospects achieved success at their levels in 2009. Looking at Kelly's numbers, though, I see a MORS not a TORS, especially when his FB sits 89-92. Rizzo, ranked lower than Lars Anderson, may be better than him right now.

6. Dodgers - When I sat down to evaluate the order, the Dodgers jumped up the most. Dee Gordon at 1 has some flaws and needs work, but his numbers were very impressive last year. But it's their arms that I like. Withrow, Martin, and Miller could all be TORS. Lindblom and Elbert are power arms in bullpen in 2010. Their #7 thru 10 have some real question marks, but their upside and present production is encouraging. Very underrated.

5. A's - Billy Beane is getting weird in recent years, but at least his farm still has some fruit on it. Carter and Taylor are power studs and are ready to go in 2010. Stassi and Green are untested, but are at key positions of C and SS and should stay there. Figueroa and Ross are MORS and Weeks/Cardenas are solid if unspectualar middle infielders. Desme retired, which dents the system a tad.

4. Indians - Through recent trades in the past 2 years, the Indians have revitalized a farm that was filled with LF/1B/DH types. There are now some impact arms and bats. Santana is a huge stud at C; hopefully the hand won't be sapped of strength. Hagadone and Knapp have injury concerns but could be TORS. Brantley is miscast as a corner OF, but his K/BB rate and speed will make up for it. Rondon and Carrasco are BORS.

3. Giants - Buster Posey is a stud at C and Bumgarner is a power lefty that is a true TORS. I like Neal, California League and all, as a corner OF. Wheeler is a 2009 HS pitcher, but his arsenal is very solid. Runzler is a reliever only and Crawford/Pegeuro have K/BB issues. This system is buoyed by Posey/Bumgarner/Neal for me.

2. Rangers - Not sure it gets too much better than Feliz/Smoak/Perez as a 1-2-3. The controversial Scheppers at 4 should be used until his arm inevitably falls off. It tiers after Scheppers at #4, with Kiker/Ross/Font most likely relievers long term but still valid options in the rotation. They lack bats in the system.

1. Rays - Jennings is an animal ready to be unleashed in 2010. His upside is a hair better than Andrew McCutchen's, in my opinion, due to better defense. The Rays have an impressive collection of TORS behind him in Hellickson (a long-time personal favorite), Davis, Moore (if he gets the control under control), McGee (back from surgery), and under the radar Colome. Torres and Barnese should be MORS. Brignac and Beckham provide options at SS, even though each star has faded on them slightly.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

WAR - it is good for something after all (Part 3)

Part 1 of this mini-series explained the concept of WAR and part 2 showed the level of accuracy of WAR in forecasting the final records of all 30 teams in 2009.

This final part will use WAR to preview the potential win total of the Pirates in 2010, by breaking down each person on the presumed 25 man roster.

I did not run simulations on how many AB's, home runs, doubles, an estimated range and arm strength, etc. Nor did I attempt to calculate the FIP for each pitcher and how many innings they would pitch.

Using Fangraphs' player profiles (and clicking on the "Value" tab), I simply looked at their previous WAR history and adjusted accordingly. I did use some judgment calls, which I will explain when they come up. Also, for those new to WAR, a WAR of 2 to 2.5 is considered to be an average/slightly above average player at his position.

C Doumit -- 2 WAR (he's ranged from 1.8 to the mid 3's, so this seemed safe)
1B Clement -- 0.5 WAR
2B Iwamura -- 2 WAR
SS Cedeno -- 1 WAR
3B Laroche (1/3 of season)/Alvarez (2/3 season) -- 3.5 WAR (every other position in this exercise has just one player, but we all now Pedro Is Coming. I gave 1 WAR to Laroche and 2.5 WAR to Alvarez)
LF Milledge -- 2 WAR (I actually am buying into the hype about him, but held back)
CF McCutchen -- 4 WAR (it's been a long time since the Pirates had a consistent 4 WAR player)
RF Jones -- 2.5 WAR (welcome back to Earth, but he'll still be good)

Bench Church -- 0.5 WAR
Bench Pearce -- -0.5 WAR
Bench Crosby -- -0.5 WAR
Bench Vasquez -- 0 WAR
Bench Jaramillo -- 0.5 WAR

SP1 Maholm -- 3 WAR (he's pretty consistent at this point)
SP2 Ohlendorf -- 2 WAR (WAR is not kind to non K pitchers, I would love to say he's a 3 WAR)
SP3 Duke -- 2 WAR
SP4 Morton -- 1.5 WAR
SP5 McCutchen -- 0.5 WAR

About the bullpen...WAR devalues relief pitchers (as they should be), so if these all seem low that's why. Recently, Dave Cameron had an article of Fangraphs explaining the "chaining effect" of a bullpen, meaning that if Dotel is hurt, Hanrahan will move in and not a call-up from AAA to close the games.

CL Dotel -- 1 WAR
SET Hanrahan -- 0.5 WAR
SET Meek -- 0.5 WAR
BUL Donnelly -- 0.5 WAR
BUL Carrasco -- 0.5 WAR
BUL Lopez -- 0 WAR
BUL Hart -- 0 WAR

Let's total it up:
48 baseline wins
17.5 starting batters
0 bench bats
9 starting pitchers
3 bullpen

77.5 wins
So WAR says a 78 win season...hmmm...using the +/- 4 win threshold, I'll feel more comfortable predicting a 76 win season in 2010 for the Pirates.

There you have it. Numbers don't lie. If the Pirates don't win 76, it's not math's's the players. All of this keeps the Pirates on track to break .500 in 2011 as I've predicted for a couple of years now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

WAR - it is good for something after all (Part 2)

OK, in the last post I gave a quick primer on the concept of WAR so let's dive into this topic....
How did WAR do as a model, based on the final win totals for 2009?

The concept of WAR gauges how each player can do against his potential replacement by a AAAA-level player...a player that is too good for AAA, but never good enough to play in the majors.

It is assumed that an entire 25 man roster of these replacement level players would win 48 games over the course of the major league season. So the 2003 Tigers (43-119) actually would have been better just playing their whole AAA team!

On you can find WAR by a whole team for both batting and pitching. So I went through a added each team's batting WAR to its pitching WAR and then added in the baseline 48 wins to find what WAR predicted each team to finish. Listed below are the results, with each team's actual wins listed first and their WAR win total calculated (baseline + bat + pitch, in that order). The number in parentheses after the WAR total is the difference between the two.

NYY 103 (48 baseline + 38.2 bat + 18.7) = 104.9 (-1.9 wins)
BOS 95 (48 + 27.4 + 23.6) = 99 (-4 wins)
TB 84 (48 + 34.1 + 16.9) = 99 (-15 wins)
TOR 75 (48 + 21 + 18.1) = 87.1 (-12.1 wins)
BAL 64 (48 + 15.5 + 7.4) = 70.9 (-6.9 wins)

MIN 87 (48 + 21.7 + 16.4) = 86.1 (+0.9 wins)
DET 86 (48 + 21.3 + 16.5) = 85.8 (+0.2 wins)
CHW 79 (48 + 10.8 + 22.6) = 81.4 (-2.4 wins)
CLE 65 (48 + 19.6 + 10.5) = 78.1 (-13.1 wins)
KC 65 (48 + 6.8 + 19.9) = 74.7 (-9.7 wins)

LAA 97 (48 + 29.5 + 16.6) = 94.1 (+2.9 wins)
TEX 87 (48 + 22 + 18.5) = 88.5 (-1.5 wins)
SEA 85 (48 + 20.6 + 16.4) = 85 (0 wins)
OAK 75 (48 + 16.9 + 19.3) = 84.2 (-9.2 wins)

PHI 93 (48 + 27.5 + 13.3) = 88.8 (+4.2 wins)
FLA 87 (48 + 19.6 + 14.1) = 81.7 (+5.3 wins)
ATL 86 (48 + 17.9 + 23.4) = 89.3 (-3.3 wins)
NYM 70 (48 + 12.1 + 7.3 ) = 67.4 (+2.6 wins)
WAS 59 (48 + 16 + 3.7) = 67.7 (-8.7 wins)

STL 91 (48 + 18.8 + 19.3) = 86.1 (+4.9 wins)
CHC 83 (48 + 12.6 + 18) = 78.6 (+4.4 wins)
MIL 80 (48 + 25.8 + 3) = 76.8 (+3.2 wins)
CIN 78 (48 + 14.4 + 10.4) = 72.8 (+5.2 wins)
HOU 74 (48 + 12.1 + 10) = 70.1 (+3.9 wins)
PGH 62 (48 + 14.2 + 8.1) = 70.3 (-8.3 wins)

LAD 95 (48 + 23.9 + 19.4) = 91.3 (+3.7 wins)
COL 92 (48 + 18.7 + 23.6) = 90.3 (+1.7 wins)
SFG 88 (48 + 12.3 + 21.7) = 82 (+6 wins)
SD 75 (48 + 15.8 + 5.9) = 69.7 (+5.3 wins)
ARI 70 (48 + 15.6 + 17.9) = 81.5 (-11.5 wins)

A few thoughts...
1. 14 of the 30 teams were plus or minus within 4 wins of their actual totals. 4 wins either way is a 2.5% margin, very reasonable in my opinion. If you expand to +/- 5 wins, over half of the league (17 teams) meets this criteria.

2. WAR really missed on each last place team. It just can't account for the unmeasurable....some teams just can't win some years.

3. Take another look at the WAR win totals by division. Aside from ARI and ATL, WAR predicted the finish of each division. To me, that is the most amazing predictive use for this stat.

4. I wondered if each team's over or underachievement from the +/- 4 wins threshold was due to their defensive prowess (or gaffes). I looked at the Ultimate Zone Rating for each of these 16 teams and did not find a correlation. 8 of the teams that were outside the 4 wins threshold had a correlating good/bad UZR, while the other 8 did not. Meaning if you were the ARI Diamondbacks and underacheived by 11.5 wins, your defensive rating was a +2.5, meaning we can't blame your failures on not playing defense.

The final part of this will break down the 2010 Pirates and see what could be in store for them. Special preview -- it's better than you think.

WAR - it is good for something after all (Part 1)

Settle down, dirty hippies. I'm talking about a baseball stat.

After posting some travel thoughts, food thoughts, and deep thoughts about the state of our cities, it's time for a good old-fashioned nerdy baseball post. WARNING, WARNING!! This post contains numbers and a stat you can't find by reading the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette!

One of my favorite new-age baseball stats is WAR or Wins Above Replacement. It was developed by Dave Cameron who is the main contributor to his own blog "U.S.S. Mariner" and another great website called "Fangraphs". The main concept of WAR is to determine how many wins a certain player is than if he was replaced by a run-of-the-mill AAA player that never has achieved success at the major league level. This AAAA-type of player is called Replacement Level...a readily available commodity that can be paid the major-league minimum. For instance, Andrew McCutchen last year was a 3.4 WAR player, meaning he was worth an extra 3.4 wins to the Pirates over some typical AAAA-level scrub.

WAR is for both pitchers and batters. For batters, there are 4 main things (with a bunch of little things in each of those four things):
Positional Adjustment
Replacement Adjustment

The detailed description of these items for batters and pitchers can be found here...

...but the thumbnail sketch is this:
Batting - based on stats accrued during the season (BA, OPS, K rate, etc)
Fielding - based on a defensive metric called Ultimate Zone Rating to account for range, arm strength, errors, etc)
Positional Adj - some positions are harder to play than others and if you play one of them, you either get extra credit (SS, CF, C, 2B, 3B) or deducted (1B, DH, LF/RF)
Replacement Adj - this is based on a 600 plate appearance season, so you get a percentage of the points if you are less than 600 PA's

The same concept applies to pitchers, but primarily revolves around a metric called FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). This metric takes the defense out of the equation and sees what a pitcher's ERA would look like based on his own merit. It gauges a pitcher's strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed...all things that the pitcher is solely responsible for. Just because your SS had a bad night does not factor into FIP.

Again, consult the glossary above for more explanation.
Not only can you determine WAR for each individual player, but then you can aggregate it for the whole team and determine how many total wins that team may or may not achieve. It is a good predictive model for a season.

In my next 2 parts, I'm going to look at how WAR did as a reflection on each MLB's teams win total from 2009 and then I'm going to break down each of the players on the potential 25 man roster for the Pirates to determine the 2010 Pirates' win total.

Number crunching at its finest!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The 4 Food Groups of Prospects

When it comes to drafting talent in the June amateur draft, there are 4 food groups to select from:
High School Hitter
High School Pitcher
College Hitter
College Pitcher

In their first two drafts, Neil Huntington and the rest of the front office have signed 54 picks. The breakdown is as follows, with 2008's number and 2009's number separated in parentheses.
HS Hitter -- 7 (5, 2)
HS Pitcher -- 8 (2, 6)
College Hitter -- 20 (13, 7)
College Pitcher -- 19 (11, 8)

So roughly 72% of our signees have been from college, a very high percentage. But many college guys selected are organizational filler...soldiers you can move around to fill gaps in your system as they don't really have much of a future past AA.

As a percentage of the DBS Top 30 prospects, the HS players have a much higher representation. Of the 15 of them drafted the past two years, 7 are on my 30 (around 46%). In contrast, 6 of the 39 college players made the DBS 30 (just over 15%).

Your HS players are usually your higher impact players, especially due to their age advantage.

All of this is steering me away from thinking that the Pirates will draft a HS Pitcher as their 1st round pick (2nd overall) this upcoming June. It is presumed that Jameison Taillon is the 2nd best talent, behind Bryce Harper, but this front office does not seem inclined to spend well-over slot for a HS pitcher. Their belief, to date, is that value can be found in selecting guys that fall for signability concerns in later rounds and paying them above-slot, but not record-setting amounts.

Taillon will probably be looking for a similar deal to Jacob Turner of this past year. Turner, signed by DET, got around $4.5M as a bonus with a ML-contract worth a total of around $5.5M.

Without even delving into the lunacy of putting an 18 year old HS pitcher on the 40 man roster, that bonus does not seem to fit in with the current thought process of this front office.

My money is that we get a college bat again.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cities - our greatest achievement and our greatest failure

When I was 10 years old, my parents took me on vacation to Cancun, Mexico. While on that trip, we took a rickety old bus tour (is there any other kind in Mexico) to Chichen Itza, a site of Mayan ruins.

I remember scrambling like a billy goat up the side of the main pyramid, much to my protective mom's chagrin. I even faintly remember being inside of it. Another memory that has always stuck with me about that trip is the "sporting arena" where the Mayans would play a form of soccer for sport, except with human heads. That makes an impression on a 10 year old boy...who played soccer.

At one time, Chichen Itza was a major epicenter of Mayan culture. It's been recognized as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. And now, aside from a pyramid or two, it is a pile of rubble...overgrown with weeds and filled in with silt, sand, and stones. A faded memory from a time we only read about in dusty books. And I wonder now, looking back on it nearly 24 years later...What must that place have been like during its peak?

Will that one day be the fate of our modern human culture?

With the human race engaging in competitive homicide as each day passes, it's not inconceivable that 500 years from now there will be tour groups passing through the once-towering canyons of Manhattan, now reduced to a much smaller size after the buildings have crumbled. People will explore the rotting husks of Tokyo, London, Mexico City, and even our fair Pittsburgh and wondered "What happened? And what must these places have been like during their peak?"

With the rise of Burj Khalifa in Dubai a couple of weeks ago, that 2600+ foot-high tower is probably literally and figuratively the peak of human society. It is an architectural and engineering marvel. It is the capstone of perhaps the greatest 20 years of architecture/engineering in modern history. We have pushed and pushed on the boundaries of what science, art, and technology can combine to do with regards to the building industry.

And now with the world struggling to pull out of the worldwide recession, it seems very realistic that no skyscraper will have the financial backing and audacity to challenge the Burj Khalifa anytime soon.

That's a good thing, though. Dubai is a symbol of how this world has lost its way. We build and build and strengthen our outer skins (the suburbs where the rich escape), while letting the inner core rot (our inner cities and the poor we have forgotten).

The building in Pittsburgh that I am in love with now is 3 PNC Tower, the green-hued skyscaper being completed next to Market Square. I'm in town semi-regularly for either business or pleasure and always try to pass by it. But as I walk past it, I'm reminded of how we need to re-commit ourselves to fixing what we already have instead of building new things. The smells of sewage that waft up from the grates that portend the pending overflow into the river, the roadways filled with cracks and dotted with potholes that the City does not have the money to fix, the homeless that have given up hope because society has given up on them.

You build from the inside out. Strengthen your core and then you can work on the window dressing. The early part of this new decade can be when Pittsburgh can show the rest of the world how it is done. Let's do things that are not sexy or will win votes. Let's re-pave our roads, fix our crumbling water and sewer infrastructure, re-develop new housing zones, and extend a hand to those who need it most.

Let's not end up as part of a 10-year old boy's tour in the year 2510.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Orleans - that voodoo you do

New Orleans is just one of those cities that you have to go to at least once. For me, I'm up to 3 times (2 pre-Katrina, 1 post-Katrina) and I find myself longing to go back again.

It's a city in which voodoo is an active part for many people's lives. Not just the "I don't like my boss, so I'm going to stick him with a pin" voodoo, but voodoo also is for finding love, gaining strength, and other more mundane things as well. It's fascinating to watch people explain it and wild to take a night-time (sponsored and guided) tour of above-ground cemeteries with a voodoo-themed tour.

There is so much more to do than see the French Quarter, but you have to see the Quarter, especially on your first trip. And of course, if you're in the Quarter, you have to see Bourbon Street at night. Bourbon Street is a non-stop party, pretty much 365 days a year it seems. I have been there twice in May and once in October and you would not believe the atmosphere. I shudder to think what it is like during Mardi Gras.

The French Quarter is worth seeing just for the architecture. The balconies overlooking the streets, the prevalence of wrought iron, the color schemes, the courtyards tucked in to the majority of the all adds up to a style that you can not find anywhere else in the United States.

And the food. My love of Cajun and cooking Cajun came from my very first trip to N'awlins back during my 21st birthday in 1997. There are so many amazing restaurants down there, too numerous to name, but if you want a very affordable representative taste of New Orleans, I recommend The Gumbo Shop. It has all the major dishes -- gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish dishes, red beans and rice -- within a characteristically old structure with a courtyard.

Mulate's is another great place, although outside the Quarter closer to the Convention Center, but they feature great live zydeco music on the weekends in addition to the fantastic food.

You can not swing a dead cat without hitting a fun bar and/or a bar that features great live music (rock, zydeco, jazz) but I highly recommend Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop on the edge of the French Quarter. Lafitte was a infamous pirate during his day and this once-functional blacksmith shop bears his name as an attempt at legitimate business. At night, the place does not have any lights, just candlelight.

But if you are in New Orleans, you have to try the Hurricane drink, a wicked concoction of rum and fruit juices served in its own distinctive glass. The touchstone for this drink is Pat O'Brien's. If you have 2, you will feel no pain. 3 and you may want to cancel breakfast plans the next day. 4 and you will be traveling through time.

This is going to be one of those topics that I will make multiple posts about, as there is just so much more about N'awlins that I would like to share. Consider this the appetizer, the cup of gumbo if you will, to the rest of my thoughts about this great American city.

Gumbo Shop -
Mulate's -
Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop -

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Eve Menu

Both DB~ and I dislike New Year's Eve. For me, it's "forced fun". You're being told to have fun and get crazy specifically on this night. And if you want to go out to dinner, enjoy a reduced menu at an inflated price with a maitre'd floating over your shoulder putting you on the clock in you chew too many times. Then add in the idiots cruising around drunk behind the wheel. No thanks.

So we decided to be hermits and stay in but make an outstanding dinner just for the 2 of us.

Here's was the menu:
Spinach, Pear, Gorgonzola, Walnut salads w/ Honey Mustard Vinagrette
Whipped Sweet Potatoes with Vanilla, Brown Sugar, and chopped Walnuts
Parmasean Risotto with Pears
Grilled Quail with a Lemon, Garlic, Olive Oil brushing with various seasonings
and for dessert...
Creme Brulee

Both of us agreed that everything was fantastic, but we both enjoyed making the Creme Brulee for the fact that we got to use the little butane torch. There was a gleam in DB~'s eye when she lit it up the first time. The picture is when I was able to wrestle it out of her hands to glaze the final ramekin of creme brulee.

This meal, per person if ordered in a restaurant, would easily have been $40 or more, but we were able to make it for half that in just the food costs.

Even though it was cold and there was snow on my deck, it was worth it to taste the crispy grilled quail. Quail is like a big chicken wing, and a little pricey ($18.50 for 4 quail at Market District in Robinson), but fun to eat and present on a plate.

It was a great night and we didn't miss being out at all.