Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why the Pirates should make a trade for a run in 2011

Although not as widespread as Steeler Nation, there are pockets of Pirate fans all across the United States and around the world.

But that expansive reach also means that most are detached from living in the City of Pittsburgh itself. You can read about it online, follow on TV, call friends back home, but it is not the same as actually being here.

Pittsburgh is dying for a winner with the Pirates. The fact that after 18 losing seasons ANYONE shows up at PNC says that there are good fans here (and/or masochists). The ownership and front office of the Pirates owe it to the fans to take every advantage of this season in 2011. For a team and a front office that is not the best at public relations, this would be the signal to the cynical talk show fans that don't believe this ownership wants to win.

Life is not a binary proposition. It is possible to both keep building for 2012 and beyond AND contend in 2011. No one is saying to empty out the farm just to try and win 82 games. But it is possible to trade 1 or 2 guys, not the key guys of Taillon/Allie/Heredia (*I know they can't be traded until August -- theoretically they could be Players To Be Named Later), and get a bat or arm for a run at the NL Central.

Just because the Pirates may not be the leading contender to win the NL Central in 2011 does not mean you should just bag the season and start trading guys like Maholm and Hanrahan. At some point you can't treat the season like an Etch-a-Sketch and just erase it because you may finish in 3rd place. You need to draw a line in the sand and say "We're building from here on out".

Most of the reason for my distaste of not going for it in 2011 is The Streak. If the Pirates had a 3 or 4 year streak, I would probably agree that trading guys would be the best course of action if the team was .500 at the ASB. But this magical season has been dropped in the Pirates' lap and they can't just squander it by saying "We're not all the way there yet". It's like a musician that keeps tweaking a song and never performs it on stage. Sometimes you just need to go with it.

I like that players like d'Arnaud, Presley, and maybe in the near future Hague, have come to Pittsburgh. But if a chance to obtain a quality, established bat or arm for a stretch run comes along, it should be taken. The market on June 28 is vastly different than what will exist on July 15 or July 31. Teams will be desperate to sell and obtain prospects and salary relief. It happens EVERY year.

There are also off-field aspects that give reason to making trades to improve the team in 2011. In most cases, Perception is Reality. Most hard-core fans feel this team is on the way up, but the vast majority of Pittsburghers don't see it yet. Showing committment leads to 2011 ticket sales. It leads to 2012 season ticket sales. It helps with future free agents to see that Pittsburgh wants to win. It leads to increased sponsorship from the corporate level.

When life presents you with an opportunity, you can not squander it. You don't know when the next one will come along.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Quite a Friday for the City of Pittsburgh

Do you ever read the newspaper (does anyone besides me still read the newspaper?) and see "On This Date 10 Years Ago..." (or 25 or 100 years) and it tells you what happened in the City?

It will be fun to look back on June 24, 2011 as the day when these three things all converged on Pittsburgh:
President Obama visiting the city to tout manufacturing and robotics going on here
The Anthromorphocon (otherwise known as The Furries) Annual Convention
Red Sox Nation descending on our fair city for the Sox-Pirates weekend series

I had ties to two of these events and a morbid curiosity on the third. I'll explain which is which, rather than let you guess.

President Obama came to the National Robotics Center in Lawrenceville, underneath the 40th Street Bridge, to tour the facility and meet with 3 separate companies. One of those companies, Redzone Robotics, is a firm that I work with. They build robots that autonomously inspect sanitary sewer pipes. It has greatly sped up the work flow and the quality is great. (Aside from when one gets stuck 19 feet deep and you have to dig up someone's back yard).

As an avid Pirate fan, I was lucky enough to get tickets the first day they went online (thanks to DB~ we got tickets within the first 5 minutes!) for the Saturday night Red Sox-Pirates tilt. We were in Section 116, which is directly behind home plate and just under cover in case of rain. Perfect seats. However, thanks to a friend from Only Bucs, I was able to go to the Friday night game with my dad. They were also great seats in Section 128.

The Pirates won both games, with plenty of great baseball on display. However, this time the majority of the great baseball was done by the Pirates. Joel Hanrahan is not 100% human...he is part cyborg at this point, especially his right arm. He consistently was pumping 96-98 mph fastball in to quality batters and getting outs and strikeouts. Both nights in the 9th inning, he had to face Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Gonzalez (who will be the 2011 AL MVP). Last night he also faced David Ortiz. Only Pedroia got a hit, a double off the Clemente Wall. On Saturday night, with the score 6-4 and Pedroia at 2B and Gonzalez the tying run at the plate, he struck him out with a perfect slider.

The first two games were not only sellouts, but over sold with standing room only seats. Each game was 39,300+ in a 38,500 seat stadium. Last night was the largest crowd in PNC Park history.

And last but not least in this odd convergence of events is the Furrie Convention. At this point in my life, I'm pretty much at the "whatever makes you happy" stage, but....wow. This is weird. For those that don't know, the annual Anthromorphocon is held in Pittsburgh because we are very tolerant of their lifestyle. Pittsburgh back in the day was really known to be tolerant of much that was different, so this is interesting in and of itself.

What is a "furrie"? It's someone that likes to dress up in an animal costume and behave as if they are that animal. They adopt different animal names and when they meet someone they are interested in they scratch them (known as "yiffing", thanks 5'ish) for approval. Typically every year, there is always one or two requests for human sized litter boxes to be placed in a hotel room adjacent to the Convention Center. That poor maid.

And this isn't 10 freakazoids either...it's 5000 strong and growing every year. Not everyone dons a full head to toe costume either. Some just wear ears or a little tail...maybe paint some whiskers on. Some are there for the artwork. But there is that hard core sub-set that are truly bizarre.

Here's the weird part. I'm fascinated by the Pierogie Race at PNC Park. I regularly bet on with whoever I'm at the game with. I would love to do it sometime, somehow. But Pierogies aren't animals, so it's not weird that I want to dress up in a costume, right? There are furries, but there are already "foodies"...so what would I be if I want to dress up as a food item?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Looking back at the Trade Targets series

Last fall I felt that the Pirates should deal a package of prospects in order to improve the Major League club. I was specifically targeting pitchers with multiple years of control remaining, not expecting the starting pitching to be a strength of this team.

Here's how the four pitchers I wanted are doing this year so far:

James Shields has followed up his worst season with his best season in 2011. The Rays traded Matt Garza last off-season and hung on to Shields, probably because they realized his value was at its lowest point.
In 2010, Shields was 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA (4.24 FIP), but he had his highest K/9 (8.28/9). The problems with Shields were two-fold. First, his HR/9 was 1.50, easily the highest of his career. Second his BABIP was an ungainly .341, which was well above his career average of .304. The Rays probably saw both of these things and hung on to him.

Good thing, because he is a complete beast so far in 2011. To date he is 6-4 with a 2.60 ERA (3.43 FIP) with an 8.51 K/9. His HR/9 has receded to 1.04, his BABIP is .263 and he has pitched 4 complete games already. That's one less than he pitched his whole career coming into this season.

Scott Baker in 2010 was 12-9 with a 4.49 ERA (3.96 FIP) for the Twins. He was also coming off a career high in K/9 with 7.82, but I targeted Baker because of thoughts that the Twins may want to offset some salary because of rising contracts to Mauer and Morneau. I certainly wasn't expecting the bottom to fall out completely on their 2011 season.

In 2011, Baker is doing pretty much what Baker does. He's quietly pitching well, but this time on an awful team. He's 5-4 with a 3.24 ERA (3.65 FIP) and is in the midst of re-establishing another career high in K/9 (8.64 K/9). He would have made an excellent addition to the Pirates as well.

Ricky Nolasco was another arb-eligible pitcher that I targeted, but was then signed to an extension by the Marlins. In 2010, Nolasco's numbers dropped slightly as he went 14-9 in only 157 innings. His K/9 dropped from 9.49 to 8.39 and he became more homer prone (1.37/9 in 2010). His 2010 ERA was 4.51, with a FIP of 3.86.

In 2011, his numbers are continuing to decline in certain areas, especially K/9. This year to date he has a K/9 of 6.96, but his other numbers have improved. He is 4-3 with a 4.48 ERA (3.54 FIP). There's no noticeable change in velocities on his pitches to indicate the drastic drop in K/9. Perhaps he has been instructed to not try and strike everyone out and to pitch to contact more.

The final pitcher I targeted was Gavin Floyd. Again, I tossed him in thinking that the White Sox would want to offset some salary, not expecting them to come out flat in 2011. In 2010, Floyd was coming off another solid season. He was 10-13 with a 4.08 ERA (3.46 FIP) with a 7.26 K/9 rate.

In 2011, he has been solid again with a 6-6 record, 3.94 ERA, 3.66 FIP, but his K/9 has dropped to 6.67/9. In looking at his pitch stats, his FB velocity has dropped nearly 1.5 mph this year. It hasn't affected his FB run stats, but with his changeup remaining steady it has wreaked havoc on the effectiveness of his changup, causing it to be -3.22 runs/100 pitches to date.

So all in all, I would have been very happy if the Pirates got any of these four pitchers. The way things are shaping up with the Pirates becoming resurgent in 2011, plus the impending 40 man roster crunch after the season, it appears this could be the year that the Pirates trade some minor-league depth for additions to the Major League team.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tag(ine)..you're it

Ever since DB~ and I went to Kous Kous Cafe in Mt. Lebanon, I've been fascinated by tagines. The tagine is the popular cooking vessel in Moroccan cuisine that functions as both the place the food is cooked in and also the serving dish itself.

I've cruised around the Internets pricing them and hemming and hawing about buying a couple. I wondered how much I would really use them. I brokered a price for 2 at the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip a few months ago, but backed out when I got tagine cold feet.

My birthday was last month and sure enough The Squiggle got me 2 for my gift. She's good like that. We've been running around like madmen this past month with wedding stuff, selling my house, buying a new house, finalizing the honeymoon, so they have been patiently sitting in my basement waiting to be used.

That time was last night. I decided to go with a safe recipe, so to speak, from my tagine cookbook that DB~ also got me. It was a recipe similar to one that I had a Kous Kous Cafe when we went. It was a tomato based sauce with vegetables (in this case eggplant and yellow squash), onion, shallot, cilantro, and Moroccan-style seasonings like cumin and tumeric.

You place the tagine directly on the stove top. They are clay pots with holes at the top to allow heat to vent slightly. They can also be placed directly in the oven. Once the shallot and onion softened up in the tagine with some olive oil and butter, I added the seasonings, eggplant, squash, and canned tomatoes with their juice. I let this all cook with the lid closed for 40 minutes. After those 40 minutes, I added the fresh chopped cilantro and cooked that for 10 more minutes.

After placing a trivet down, we took the tagine directly to the table and spooned our portions out of it and on to the plates. I served couscous as a side dish, with a red pepper/feta dip and crackers as well.

I will absolutely be using the tagine more in the future, especially in the fall. I see a very hearty short rib with wine sauce and root vegetables being prepared in it. Some lamb and squash would be tasty too.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Salt of the Earth

Our present-day times have fostered an era of selfishness unseen since perhaps the 1980's "Me Generation" when everyone was all coked up and greedily trying to emulate Gordon Gekko. Everyone today thinks they are a special and unique snowflake. This mindset lends us to having everything our way, especially our food. Any food dislike can be taken off a prepared dish. Anything can be changed because the customer is always right.

Enter Salt of the Earth. This is Kevin Sousa's vision. It's his restaurant. He's not Executive Chef at Alchemy...wowing us with Molecular Gastronomy in the Bigelow. He's not Executive Chef at Red Room. He's not biding his time re-visioning Yo Rita's menu. This is his vision, we are along for the ride, and there is no room for your personal epicurean quirks.

I mentioned in the last post that 2011 may be the height of Pittsburgh's dining scene. Part of the reason for this crescendo may be Kevin Sousa. He's the closest thing to Pittsburgh's version of an Iron Chef. He was recently named Pittsburgh magazine's Chef of the Year.

Salt of the Earth was a long time coming. Sousa decided to locate Salt of the Earth in a section of town that is more often avoided, because of perceived crime problems, than explored -- Garfield. It's not named after the fuzzy orange cat. His restaurant of Penn Avenue, whether by design or not, expands the Interest Zone from neighboring East Liberty, which has started to revitalize itself through new restaurants (Spoon, Dinette, Plum, BRGR, Paris 66, Abay).

When you walk into Salt, you're staring directly into the all stainless steel open-style kitchen. When you're greeted by the hostess you are staring directly into and up at the 20 foot high chalkboard that serves as the menu for Salt. There are no paper menus. If you are seated right adjacent to the chalkboard, you feel as if you are in the front row of a movie theater looking up at the screen.

The walls are a soothing sage/celery green. There are three long communal wooden tables with square, backless chairs. There is also a mezzanine above you with standard tables, which is where the reservations are seated.

The menu is like what I imagine goes on inside the mind of noted mash-up artist Girl Talk -- a bunch of random things jammed together that ends up coming out great. Have you ever wondered what scallops, cauliflower, banana, lobster roe, and sesame would taste like together? Well, that's one of the apps.

DB~ and I went with her aunt and her's aunt's friend to Salt on Tuesday. This was their 4th time to "Salt" as they only call it. We got there at 7:45 p.m. on a Tuesday and it was comfortably busy. A very underrated part of Salt is their drink menu. Much like Embury, Salt does Prohibition era cocktails (in addition to a massive beer and wine list). DB~ had "Vodka" -- Boyd and Blair potato vodka, Creme Yvette, rose, elderflower. I'll admit I only know what Boyd and Blair is. Her aunt had "Gin" (a cucumber mint drink) and I had "Punch" -- kind of a Planter's punch-esque drink. Her aunt's friend had a beer.

As for dinner, both DB~ and her aunt's friend had the Halibut dish. They both said it was flavorful and perfectly executed. It was served with avacado and tamarind on a bed of buckwheat.

DB~'s aunt had the softshell crab (of course we talked about DB~'s SSC experience!) which had a deep-fried crust on a bed of seaweed with a delicate dollop of tartar.

I had the flank steak, served on a puree of black-eyed pea with a zone of chimichurri that I couldn't get enough. I wanted to rub it on like a skin moisturizer and let it soak into my pores. There were just the tips of asparagus, which is even better than a bakery that just does muffin tops (who eats just the stumps?). I usually order steak as medium-well, but of course at Salt you get what the chef makes. That meant a medium-rare for max chef-ing flavor. I was OK with that because you have to accept that you are placing your dining hands into the hands of the chef.

Sousa wasn't there...not sure how much he actively cooks, especially on a Tuesday night. Salt of the Earth, and Kevin Sousa in particular, should be commended for being a worthy addition to the Pittsburgh dining scene.

Monday, June 6, 2011

All Hail Gerrit Cole

At a few minutes after 7 p.m. tonight, the Pirates called Gerrit Cole's name as the 1st overall pick of the 2011 MLB draft. For months leading up to the draft, it was assumed/hoped/demanded that the Pirates select Anthony Rendon, the power hitting/smooth fielding 3B from Rice. A couple of problems happened though -- Rendon lost his power and was a DH for nearly the whole year. Rendon had a shoulder injury at the start of the year (he said from overstretching) that prevented him from playing 3B and sapped his prodigious home run power.

His medical records were released over the weekend and the diagnosis was severe enough to cause Rendon to drop all the way to 6th overall to the Nationals. He will most likely need some sort of surgical procedure -- the only determination is the severity level of it.

But enough about what could have been. Time to discuss what is in front of us.

Gerrit Cole was a late 1st round pick by the Yankees back in 2008. The only reason he fell to the tail end of the 1st round were his high bonus demands. The Yankees took him and offered him $3M, but Cole decided at the last minute to forgo that bonus and go to UCLA. What was even stranger is that the Yankees were a young Gerrit Cole's favorite team growing up. There is a famous photo of a young Cole holding a sign at the 2001 World Series that reads "Yankee Fan Today Tomorrow Forever". So the fact that he turned down life-changing money and the chance to play for his childhood team was striking.

Even more striking is Cole's current arsenal of pitches. It starts with his fastball which sits 96-97 and touches 100. It is complemented by a plus changeup and a great slider. The bugaboo with Cole in 2011 is that his stats did not reflect the level of his stuff. He finished 6-8 with a 3.31 ERA in 16 starts. In 114 IP, Cole allowed 103 H, 24 BB, and recorded 119 K's. Those are very good, but not eye-popping numbers, especially compared to rotation mate Trevor Bauer who had 203 K's in 136 IP, with a 13-2 record and 1.25 ERA.

Cole's 6 foot 4 inch frame is the perfect pitcher's frame. It is said that his less than awesome stats were due to a mechanical flaw, most likely his front shoulder opening up too early and causing his stuff to flatten out. The Pirates front office are confident that it can be resolved.

With Cole's selection, he becomes the top prospect in the Pirates' system, even ahead of uber-prospect Jameson Taillon. The reasoning is that Cole's stuff at age 20 is a half-step better than Taillon's present stuff at age 19.

Cole will debut in 2012 in the minor leagues; his negotiations this summer will go right down to the wire with "advisor" Scott Boras. Most likely he will get a $7M signing bonus as part of a $10M+ major-league contract. Cole's progression could very well be:

2012 - High A/Double A split year
2013 - Triple A/debut in Pittsburgh mid-season

If all goes well with Taillon, he could be on a very similar timeline to Cole. In July 2013, the Pirates rotation could very well be Cole, Taillon, McDonald, Morton, and a fifth starter from Owens/Locke/Lincoln/Wilson/Morris. I drooled a little bit just thinking about it.

Brighter days are here for the Pirates, with blindingly good days around the corner. Now about that hitting....

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Is this the height of Pittsburgh's dining scene

This month Pittsburgh Magazine unveiled its annual Top 25 Best Restaurants issue. If you could have gone to Vegas and put money on who Pittsburgh Magazine would have named as its Chef of the Year, the odds on favorite would have been Kevin Sousa. His Salt of the Earth is the most talked about restaurant of the year in the City of Pittsburgh. (DBS Blog Preview -- DB~ and I will be meeting people at Salt of the Earth on Tuesday)

DB~ and I went through the Top 25 restaurants and came up with 14 restaurants that each of us has been to. About 10 of them we have been to together, with the other in the pre-history of the two of us.

The list of restaurants is so electic and chef-driven, with such passion and drive and dedication to the food. When I was growing up, it seemed the only places that were high end restaurants were on Mount Washington (LeMont, Tin Angel, Pasquerelli's, Shiloh Inn) or in the City (Top of the Triangle, Carlton, Grand Concourse). They were stuffy, white tablecloth style places. Now a restaurant isn't worth its salt unless it features locally grown produce, regional meats, stripped down table settings, and a chilled out vibe.

The types of restaurants in the City are no longer singled out for being "that Thai place" or "that place that does Indian". Now the term Latin-Asian Fusion is part of the lexicon, a Mexican place is set up next to a Pan-Asian restaurant, a French restaurant is no longer an oddity.

All of the great restaurants sous chefs or chef de cuisine are branching out and starting their own visions for a restaurant. It is easier to find an investor who believes in you to fund your vision than ever before.

We are living at the height of Pittsburgh cuisine. Great restaurants occur in every part of the city and even in the suburbs, ranging from East Liberty to Lawrenceville to Shadyside to Upper St. Clair. But if we are at the height, that means that we are due for a regression. Unless we are still climbing that mountain and there is another peak to find. Perhaps the next great untapped frontier is the mobile food cart to add to the chef-driven restaurant explosion.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June 1st and the Pirates are still interesting

As I type this, the Pirates are on the verge of winning against the Mets and will go to 26-28 on the year. As this is the 54th game, they are now exactly 1/3 of the way through the season.

Using the DBS Project-o-meter, my highly advanced math skills tell me that the Pirates are on pace to go 78-84 on the year. That would be a 21 game improvement on last year's Exxon Valdez-esque season of 57-105. Even more interesting is that tonight's road win at Citi Field would be the 17th of the season. While that by itself is not news worthy, it is when the 2010 Pirates went 17-64 on the road last year. Do you know how hard that is to suck that bad at something like the Pirates did on the road?

That abysmal road record says to me that there was no leadership in the clubhouse to get young players ready to play while outside their comfort zone. The robotic Russeltron 3000 and his coaches must have had no ability to stave off losing streaks on the road.

At the end of May last year the Pirates were 21-31, so the Pirates have improved by 4 games from last year's record. But that doesn't tell the whole story, as the 2010 Pirates had an eye-popping run differential of -127. By comparison the 2011 Pirates (if the score holds at 9-3 tonight) will have a -1 run differential. That's a 126 run improvement in one year. That tells you how atrocious the Pirates were last year and how much better they have played this year.

The starting pitching is the reason. After tonight's game, Pirate starters will have allowed 2 earned runs or less in 13 straight games, which is the longest stretch since 1968!. Kevin Correia has been one of the best free agent signings of the past offseason. For the affordable price of $4M/year, he has already given the Pirates 8 wins, 7 of which are on the road. Again, to compare to last year...Paul Maholm lead the 2010 Pirates with 9 wins all...year.

The starting pitching will regress, of course, but the Pirates are also doing this well with a less than vibrant offense. All of the Core Four (McCutchen, Walker, Tabata, and Alvarez) have slumped through long stretches at times this season. Alvarez has been a huge disappointment with the bat this year and is currently injured with a sore quad.

If the Pirates get through the soul-crushing experience known as Interleague Play (they were 2-15 last year) at the end of June, it may be time to re-adjust expectations for this team. In 1997 (the terribly named "Freak Show" team), the Pirates were rewarded for their efforts by getting Shawnon Dunston in a late season trade to help push them to the NL Central title. It would be nice for the players (and the fans) to have their hard work rewarded in 2011 with a similar trade if they are flirting with .500. The Pirates don't have to trade a top prospect to get some help here -- there will be plenty of teams looking to dump a bad contract for a low-level player in order to save a few million.

But we have many miles to travel in order to dream about that. Or 1 month. Whichever comes first.