Saturday, January 26, 2013


Before we went to see Erskine Bowles on Wednesday night, DB~ and I went to Seviche for dinner.  Seviche is part of the Yves Carreau restaurant empire in Pittsburgh (and Baltimore as we later found out).  Along with Seviche, Carreau owns Sonoma Grille across the street, NOLA at Market Square in...uh, Market Square, and the new champagne and tapas bar Perle above NOLA.

Seviche is primarily a tapas bar, but they also have some full dinners and sandwiches, as well.  It has a Latino vibe, especially Cuban influences, which was surprising to hear the Euro-techno beat pumping through the speakers.  Eventually that switched over to the more appropriate Latino salsa style of music.

As the saying goes, when in Rome, so DB~ and I decided to share 4 different tapas.  We asked for them to come out as they were ready, in order to keep a continuous cycle of food moving.  First up was the Pan Con Avocado Chimichurri.  These little pieces of crostini were topped with pureed avocados, plum tomatoes, some chevre cheese, and some pieces of spinach.  This was probably our favorite tapas of the four.

Next up were the Nicaraguan chicken wings.  These were on special for $6 instead of $8, due to happy hour during the Penguin game.  Because nothing says a sport played on ice by Canadians, Americans, and Russians, like spicy chicken wings from Nicaragua.  Six came on the plate (I ate 2 before I remembered to take the picture) and they were pretty good.  They had some zip, but at the end of the day they were chicken wings similar to what you could find at any number of places.

The third and fourth appetizers came out at the same time.  One of them were the Corn and Goat Cheese Croquettas.  These were like a fritter, with the goat cheese perfectly creamy inside when broken open.  We both agreed these were our second favorite of the bunch.

The final tapas was the pork empenada.  The empenada is a fried dough stuffed with any variant of ingredients.  In this case, it's a braised and shredded pork with some chicahuaha cheese.  A salsa was placed on top.

Aside from the avocado crostini, the other three were all a little heavy.  We knew going in that croquettas and empenadas would be fried, but the flavors were heavy too, if that makes any sense.  We haven't been to Perle yet, but since it is primarily a champagne and appetizer bar, it's not germane to this discussion probably.  But I find that the other three Carreau restaurants all leave me wanting at the end of the meal.  It's as if just one component of the meal is missing.  Or as if the restaurants are masquerading as ethnicities they can't replicate.

All the folks that worked at Seviche were super nice.  We ended up talking to the female manager about Carreau's restaurant in Baltimore at the Inner Harbor called Talara.  Maybe the next time we visit family in Baltimore we'll check it out.  We also spoke the chef, Sara, who was quite interesting.  Somehow we got on the topic of molecular gastronomy and she mentioned that she used to live in Chicago, so we brought up Moto.  She had heard of it, but never tried it herself.  She wants to incorporate chemistry into cooking to enhance food -- she talked of using some type of dextrin (?) to make grated mozzarella into a smooth and creamy cheese -- but not transform it from thing to another.

That's not to say that Seviche isn't good.  It has a cool vibe to it and the food is tasty.  It's just not the top of the pyramid in Pittsburgh.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Night with Erskine Bowles

DB~ and I spent a frigid January night last night at Heinz Hall, attending a lecture given by economist and political animal, Erskine Bowles.  Going into the lecture, we both thought it was going to be a dry lecture on economics from some dour guy.  Quite the contrary.  Bowles turned out to be quite affable, with his North Carolina drawl, folksy humor, and ability to take broad concepts (like how to cut $4 TRILLION from the national debt) and make them accessible for the whole audience.

The focus of the lecture was the Simpson-Bowles plan to cut the aforementioned $4T from the U.S. National Debt by 2020.  The study was approved by the 18 member board by a majority, but it was ultimately rejected by President Obama in December 2010.  The plan has 5 facets to save the money:

1.  Defense -- Bowles said something that I have felt for quite a while.  "The United States can no longer afford to be the world's policeman."  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of our involvement in other conflicts, have taken too great a toll on that nation's finances.  The United States spends more on defense than the next 17 countries combined.

2.  Health Care -- The premiums in the country, big pharmaceutical companies, and name brand drugs are ruining the health care system.

3.  Interest on the debt -- Right now, with the ultra low interest rates, the U.S. pays around $240 billion of interest on our debt.  Once rates go up in the near future, coupled with the increasing debt itself, the U.S. is projected to spend $1 trillion just on interest.

4.  Social Security -- This is a big money item, consuming nearly $1 trillion itself.  Bowles proposed raising the retirement age by 1 year, then to age 68 nearly 30 years from now.  He said this resulted in getting death threats.

5.  Tax Code -- "If I asked the economics depart at UNC to make a more complicated tax code, they couldn't make it worse than the current one."  Bowles contends that by eliminating loopholes and spending associated with the tax code, $1 trillion could be saved.  Tax rates would drop and businesses would be taxed more uniformly.

Bowles was quite entertaining in the Q&A session, too.  His wife's name is Crandall and his is Erskine, "which explains why our children are named Sam, Annie, and Bill."  As chief of staff for Clinton for 2 years, he also had some insights on the gregarious ex-President.  He spends his time now, after retiring as President of UNC in 2011, running the organization Fix the Debt.  His ideas are patriotic, grounded, and sensible.  He deserves another bite at the apple and we need to listen to reasonable people to fix this mess we are in.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Avocado Fries

I like avocados.  I like fries.  But until DB~ found a recipe for avocado fries, I never thought of enjoying these two taste sensations together.  It's almost counter-intuitive to think about breading and frying something as soft as an avocado.  But the recipe that DB~ found was so easy that we decided to give it a shot.

We pitted an avocado and took the skin off.  Then the avocado was sliced into small wedges, placed in a milk-egg wash, then rolled in Panko bread crumbs.  Once the oil in the pan was hot (just medium-high), they were placed en masse into the skillet for only 20-30 seconds each side.  I tossed a little pepper on them as they were draining.

The taste was really interesting, with the exterior crunch of the breading disguising the softness of the avocado underneath.  These were paired with our ever-present kale chips as the sides for our also new main dish.

For the main dish, I boiled 4 lasagna noodles.  After draining them, I spread them on a cutting board and spooned ricotta cheese along their entire length -- leaving about 1 inch free on either end.  On top of the ricotta, I placed some diced tomatoes and spinach leaves.  I sprinkled some pepper and oregano on top of the whole entity and then rolled them up.

I baked them in the oven at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.  When they came out, I spooned on some basil cream sauce that I prepared separately.  The fries were quite tasty and easy to make.  We'll probably do them again this week.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jeff Karstens - The Psychologically Battered Ex-Wife of the Pirates

After the Francisco Liriano deal surprisingly fell through this past week, due to Liriano's arm injury to his non-throwing arm prior to signing his deal, the Pirates went back to a known commodity in the form of Jeffrey Wayne Karstens (Jeff to his friends).  This back-and-forth between the Pirates and Karstens is nothing new to either party.  In fact, if you look at it in its totality, it's somewhat comical how badly the Pirates have treated Karstens --- yet he keeps coming back to them.

Karstens came to the Pirates in July 2008 from the Yankees in the Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte trade.  He was part of a 4 person package meant to bolster the god-awful AAA team left behind by Littlefield with the hope that in 2008 and beyond the players could contribute to the Pirates.  The four players were Karstens, Daniel McCutchen, Ross Ohlendorf, and fallen star-prospect Jose Tabata.  Tabata was seen as the gem of the deal, a 20 year old OF prospect with huge potential.  Ross Ohlendorf was seen as a middle of the rotation starter or a power reliever.  McCutchen was going to be a back of the rotation guy.  Karstens was...the 4th guy.  He was a starter, but didn't have a "wow" pitch or a high ceiling.

In Karstens' 2nd start with the Pirates in August 2008, he nearly pitched a no-hitter.  He went the distance in a 2 hit shutout of the Diamondbacks.  In 2009, he was a swingman for the Pirates as he appeared in 39 games (13 starts) and pitched 105 innings -- most in long relief.  He was 4-6 with a 5.42 ERA.  His peripherals of 3.48 BB/9 and only 4.3 K/9 were hardly inspiring, especially considering he was 26 years old.

The 2009 season made such a non-impression on the Pirates' front office that they designated him for assignment after the season and took Karstens off the 40 man roster.  To put that in perspective, the Pirates didn't feel that Karstens was either worthy of being on the Major League roster or being one of the 15 others most likely to be called up heading into what would become a 57-105 season.

Karstens started 2010 in Triple A, but injuries soon brought him up to the Majors in late April.  From that point on, Karstens finished the season with 122 IP in 19 starts (and 7 other appearances) with a 3-10 record and a 4.92 ERA.  His peripherals improved a bit, with a 2.0 BB/9 and 5.3 K/9.

Karstens moved into 2011 without a guaranteed spot in the rotation, but he battled in Spring Training and lost out eventually at the end.  He moved into the rotation very early after fellow piece of the Yankee trade, Ross Ohlendorf, became injured and missed the remainder of the season from early April onwards.  Karstens turned in his finest season as a pro and sort of became emblematic o f the surprising 2011 Pirates season.  He went 9-9 with a 3.38 ERA in 162 IP, but his secondary figures showed that he was the recipient of some good luck (77% left on base rate -- 70% is typical) and a 4.29 FIP.  Karstens achieved his great season with guile, as his 89 mph fastball didn't scare anyone.  But his dizzying array of curveballs, each slower than the next at times, kept hitters off balance for the majority of the year.

For the 2012 campaign, there wasn't a whole lot of discussion about Karstens going into the season.  2012 was his arb-2 campaign and there was some minor grumbling about his potential $3 million salary, but all in all $3M for a #3-4 pitcher wasn't too bad.  For the first time in his career, there were expectations for Karstens to perform.  He was seen as a dependable mid-rotation piece.

And 3 starts into the 2012 season that fell apart.  One inning into his 3rd start, Karstens developed a inflammation in his right shoulder that kept him out for 2 months.  When he returned in late June, Karstens provided 2 months of solid, if unspectacular, pitching for the rotation.  He was nowhere near as effective as 2011.

In late August, with the Pirates started their historic downward spiral, Karstens took the mound against Milwaukee and lasted only 1/3 of an inning.  He left with a hip flexor issue and taxed an already overworked bullpen for 8-2/3 innings.  Management, both Hurdle and Huntington, were not pleased by Karstens taking the mound in a pre-injured state.  When Karstens returned in mid-September, he made 4 appearances out of the bullpen in what would be a 90 IP season.

In November, the Pirates non-tendered Karstens who was projected to make around $4 million in his final year of arbitration.  At Piratefest, Neal Huntington said the team tried to work out a deal for less with Karstens, then tried to trade him.  When both options failed, they non-tendered him and made him a free agent.  Huntington freely admitted that if healthy, the decision on Karstens could backfire on him if Karstens pitched well for another team.  But it came down to health.

Karstens received only passing interest from the Rockies this offseason and was not connected with any other teams.  When the Liriano deal fell through, he and the Pirates re-upped on a $2.5 million contract.  No word on whether Huntington was wearing a white wife beater and promising him that "it would be different this time".

I'm not thrilled that Karstens is back.  I think he is a wholly fungible pitcher that has an injury history that makes him unreliable.  If Locke or McPherson get the 5th spot and Cole shows he is ready at mid-season, it wouldn't surprise me to see Karstens get relegated to the bullpen yet again.  It just seems to be his fate at this point.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Buster Posey and the Butterfly Effect

Back in 2008, right after the Pirates drafted Pedro Alvarez, I posted at Only Bucs a thread called "Did anyone else want Buster Posey -- or just me?" (or something like that).  My contention was that Posey was a potential 5-tool catcher who was good enough to play some shortstop at Florida State.  At no point did I envision him becoming the uber-stud that he is today, but I thought he had a lot of potential to be a #3 hitter and give you 15-20 HR's and a .290 average from the catcher position.

I was, for the most part, met with resistance on the idea.  A few people wondered if his power would translate to the majors and one guy called him a "one year wonder" at FSU.  Needless to say, one Rookie of the Year and one MVP later, it's clear that Posey would have been the correct choice.

If the Pirates selected Posey in 2008, how would that have affected recent Pirate history?

For starters, the Pirates would not have selected Tony "Lightning Rod" Sanchez in 2009.  Perhaps they would have gone with a "safe, signable" pick like Zack Wheeler (my personal 2nd favorite for the Pirates that year behind Tyler Matzek [whoops]).  I think 2010 would have still seen Taillon be the #2 choice, as the Pirates needed impact pitchers in the system and the front office wants to stock up on pitching.  In 2011, things probably would have gone the same with the Gerrit Cole pick, too, as the top 4 selections were all pitchers.  With Rendon injured, those were the 4 players in the first tier of talent (Cole, Hultzen, Bauer, Bundy).

By the time 2012 would have rolled around, assuming normal health the same in this theoretical exercise, what would the farm have looked like prior to draft day?  If Wheeler were drafted in 2009, he would have started 2010 in Low A, 2011 in High A with a late season bump to AA, and then 2012 would have pitched in Double A.  2013 would see Wheeler on the precipice of joining the Majors in June/July, along with Cole.  Taillon would be one level behind at AA.  With Heredia also in the fold, that would give the Pirates a quartet of #1 or #2 caliber pitchers.

I would like to think that the Pirates, with that stock of pitchers and paucity of hitters, would not have selected Mark Appel in the 2012 draft.  Yes, he was probably the "best available" talent at the time, but I think they would have been looking hitter.  It was widely rumored that the Pirates had a pre-draft deal with David Dahl in place, but there is something about him that doesn't show me success.  Rumors of not having a good baseball "motor" scared me off a little.  I would like to think the Pirates would go for Addison Russell, the SS selected out of high school by the A's.

Assuming the Pirates went for Posey in 2008 and put him in High A in 2009 with a late-season promotion to AA, then a Double AA/Triple AAA assignment in 2010, Posey would have potentially started in the majors in mid-2011.  Most likely in 2012 Posey would have been the #5 hitter, or perhaps even the cleanup hitter thanks to his switch-hitting ability to break up a lineup.  Posey is a better pure hitter than McCutchen, but both of them are pure #3's.  There's an outside chance that with all the struggles at leadoff that Hurdle would have put Cutch at #1 and Posey at #3 at some point in the season.

So the question is....who would play 3B for the Pirates in this scenario?  The easy answer would be that Neil Walker, moved off of catcher due to wearing down in the minor league seasons and the "presence" of Ronny Paulino, was doing quite well as a 3B in the minors.  It wasn't until the cleanup and utter implosion of Aki Iwamura that Walker was shifted to 2B, due to Andy Laroche at the majors and Alvarez in the minors.

Walker does not have prototypical power for a 3B, but who's to say that he wouldn't try to bulk up once he knew that 3B was his home for the foreseeable future?  Maybe someone like Mercer or d'Arnaud would be the 2B...or even the erstwhile Brock Holt.

Here's something else to consider -- if the Pirates did have Cole, Wheeler, Taillon, and Heredia in the farm, perhaps they would have been more willing to deal one of them in a deadline trade to acquire an impact bat in 2012?  It's an embarrassment of riches to have 4 pitchers of their caliber...surely they could have moved one in the right deal -- maybe for a Justin Upton-type of player?

Ultimately, it's just a daydream on a dull, dreary January day prior to start of another trek by the Pirates to escape the hinterlands of sub .500 baseball.  But it's still fun to think about the possibility.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Summing Up the Pirates Offseason So Far

I've been relatively quiet about the Pirates' offseason on this blog.  With January upon us and the Pirates' estimated 2013 Opening Day Payroll at $66.5M, it seems as if the Pirates' major moves are done.  The Pirates made three major moves so far:

1.  Signed Russell Martin to a 2 year/$17M deal.  The Mayans may have been wrong, but a sign of a future apocalypse may be that the Pirates outbid the Yankees for Martin's services.  The 2 year deal tells me that the Pirates are hedging their bets on Tony Sanchez being a full-time starter, which is disappointing.  Martin's $8.5M average annual value is steep, but if he is a 1.5-2.0 WAR player it's worth it.  His defense should be an upgrade over Rod Barajas and he is more athletic.  The offense may be a push, as Martin's power will drop from New Yankee Stadium to PNC Park.

2.  Signed Francisco Liriano to a 2 year/$12.75M deal.  Liriano is still awaiting his physical and official announcement, but barring something goofy this will get done.  Liriano on a 1 year deal would be great, so I'm not wild about the 2nd year for someone as volatile as Liriano.  During this year, Liriano will make 5 starts in which he looks like the best pitcher in the NL, 5 where he looks like the worst, and 10 others that will make you want to throw something at your TV because he is frustrating.  He may also miss 5 starts, too.  Liriano as a 4th starter, behind Burnett, Rodriguez, and McDonald, is a good option.

3.  Traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox for 4 players.  Once the Pirates signed Liriano, it was almost a fait accompli that the Pirates would re-allocate Hanrahan's estimated $7M salary to the signing of Liriano.  The Pirates tossed Brock Holt into the deal and got Ivan Dejesus back, too, but that's basically a trade of utility guys.  The 3 main guys received from the Red Sox are RHP Stolmy Pimentel, 1B/OF Jerry Sands, and future setup man Mark Melancon.  Melancon will take the 8th role as Grilli's setup man.  If the trade was Melancon for Hanrahan, it would still be a decent deal as Melancon has 4 years of control opposed to Hanrahan's 1 year.

Keep in mind that Hanrahan had a bum-clenching year most of last year due to his 5.4 BB/9 and harrowing 9th innings at times.  If Pimentel develops as a starter in the Majors, then the trade is a huge win.  If he's a reliever, it's a slight win.  I personally have no hopes for Sands, as he appears to be a Quad A Hitter and product of the Dodgers' hitter-friendly minor league affiliates.

Once the Pirates traded for Burnett last February, I predicted the Pirates would win 78 games (never been sadder to be right about a prediction).  With these moves, the Pirates seem like a 81-83 win team right now.  Hopefully they won't do something unnecessary like trade Garrett Jones, with his still affordable $4.6M estimated arb salary.

The Reds are still strong, the Cardinals are the Cardinals, the Cubs are improving, the Astros are gone.  Only the Brewers have not substantially improved this offseason.  The Pirates have proved the past two years that they're fine through 108 games.  It's just the last 54 that give them fits.