Monday, September 30, 2013

Rubber Ducky -- You're the One

So yesterday we went downtown to see a giant, yellow rubber ducky.  And when I say giant, I mean giant.  Like 40 foot tall kind of giant.  They actually had to deflate it from its usual 50 foot high level so that it could fit under the bridges as it sailed down the Allegheny from Millvale to the Point.

The giant rubber duck is an art project/cultural touchstone/rallying point of society designed by Florentijn Hoffman, a Dutch artist that presumably came up with this project while visiting one of Amsterdam's hash bars.

Getting the rubber duck is sort of a big deal, as Pittsburgh is the first city in the United States to be blessed by the duck's presence.  The first rubber duck display was in 2007 in France.  Most recently, it was in Hong Kong.

People downtown were ecstatic to see the rubber duck.  Docked and floating just up the Allegheny from the Point's fountain, it was like a mini Arts Festival type of crowd there on Sunday.  The merchandise booth was doing a very healthy amount of business.  You could a duck T-shirt, duck stickers, duck books....all with the placid (yet kinda sorta hint of evil) face of the yellow rubber duck.

It was cool to see the kayakers floating around the duck, like remora around a shark.  I just hesitate to see the size of Ernie that should be accompanying him.  I, for one, would like to welcome my Muppet overlord.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Liriano Must Start the Wild Card Game Against the Reds

This weekend, the Pirates and the Reds play the final three games of the 2013 regular season against each other.  Pittsburgh enters with a 1 game lead over the Reds, but it all comes down to who wins 2 out of 3 this weekend.  If the Reds win 2 of 3, they will be tied with the Pirates at 92-70, but win the tiebreaker because of winning the season series at 10 games to 9.

A part of me would be tempted to pitch Francisco Liriano on 4 days rest on Sunday if the Pirates needed to win that final game.  Pittsburgh winning would bring the Wild Card game to Pittsburgh and PNC Park, where the long, long, long-suffering fanbase would have at least one chance to see playoff baseball.  There's no guarantee in the Wild Card game that the home team wins it, especially since both road teams won the game last year.  Having a home game would really cement this season as a huge success for the Pirates and a reward for their fans.

But knowing that the Pirates will be in the Wild Card game, regardless of winning 2 of 3 this weekend or not, it is imperative that Liriano be ready for the game against the Reds on Tuesday (no matter which city it's in).

Francisco Liriano has held lefties this season to a triple slash line of .130 AVG/.175 OBP/.146 SLG (.151 wOBA).  Essentially, Liriano has made lefties as a collective hit like they are pitchers.

And as luck would have it, the Cincinnati Reds three best players (Shin-Soo Choo, Jay Bruce, and Joey Votto) are all lefties.  Choo, in particular, is quite anemic against left handed pitching.  Here's the LHP/RHP splits for each of these three players, in terms of OPS:

Choo -- 615/1019
Bruce -- 738/846
Votto -- 828/976

Choo turns into Clint Barmes against LH pitching, Bruce becomes an average hitter, and Votto becomes mortal.  Additionally, the Reds two other main hitters, Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier, have very little split between LHP/RHP so Liriano won't be affected much by them.

Phillips -- 746/691
Frazier -- 787/690

In fact, Hurdle should deviate entirely from his usual manner of starter-setup-closer and go with Liriano for 6-7 innings, then LHP Justin Wilson for 1-2, and Tony Watson for the remaining 1-2 innings.  Choo should never see a right-handed pitcher in the Wild Card game.  Keeping him off the bases is a huge plus; it may even force Dusty Baker to keep him on the bench in favor of Derrick Robinson.

The Pirates have four pitchers that I feel very comfortable turning to in the playoffs for a "real" series, especially Gerrit Cole at this point, but there's only one I want to see against the left-leaning Reds on Tuesday night.

Friday, September 20, 2013

How the City of Detroit can learn from the Houston Astros

No, not the Detroit Tigers.
I mean the actual city of Detroit.  Bear with me for a second.

For years, the Houston Astros refused to rebuild, even when faced with the specter of fading franchise icons like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Roy Oswalt, and Lance Berkman.  Their owner, Drayton McLane, refused to face the inevitable and instead through bad money after good.  At McLane's direction, the entry draft was overlooked and draft picks wasted.  Prospects were traded away for any stopgap to help try and keep the Astros afloat.

In 2011, McLane finally sold the team to Jim Crane, who brought in Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals to be his General Manager.  The edict came down swiftly from the top:

Tear it down and start all over.

Luhnow took those words to heart and then some.  Not only did he tear the figurative building down, he tore out the foundation, set fire to the property, and then is building from the ashes.  Here's the Opening Day payrolls for the Astros over the last 5 years:

2009 -- $102M
2010 -- $92M
2011 -- $76M
2012 -- $60M
2013 -- $26M

That payroll has dropped even more through the course of this year, as Bud Norris, Jose Veras, and some others have been shed.  No player on the Astros' current roster makes more than Erik Bedard's $1.1M.  Their payroll is approximately $14M of active players, with the Pirates' Wandy Rodriguez adding $5M on to that (plus $5.5M in 2014).

But all of these trades have yielded a passel of interesting prospects in return.  Additionally, the Astros have fully utilized their draft budgets to the fullest extent in recent years.  Their farm system is widely considered to be a Top 3 farm system with a great potential rotation in the minors, coupled with some recent farm graduates like Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer.  And they get to potentially draft a potential ace in Carlos Rodon next June.

So what does this have to with Detroit?

Instead of trying to hang on and make it work with patches here and there, the City of Detroit must be allowed to be torn down and start over.  The statistics are frightening:
40% of street lights are either off or not functional, so that Detroit doesn't have to pay for electricity
Buses may have wait times of 2 hours or more
911 calls are hardly ever answered on time
The population lost 200,000 people from 2000 to 2010
The city has a long term debt of $18 to $20 BILLION

Efforts are underway to shrink the city's footprint by demolishing vacant homes and turning them into green space, but these are only half measures.  There need to be a commitment to relocating and then demolishing entire neighborhoods and sectors of the city.

Shrink the city to a manageable size so that the police force (shrunk from 4,000 to 2,600 officers) can safely patrol it.  So that emergency providers can do their jobs efficiently.  Detroit needs to find an alternate industry, besides the auto industry, to build with.  Perhaps something in the green energy industry to take advantage of the abandoned manufacturing areas and workers skilled in manufacturing.

Once the city is condensed down to a population-dense size, start to rebuild new mixed income housing to attract the youth back to the city, but also give quality housing to the elderly and poor that need it.  Re-invest in the education system (a comparison to the Astros and the draft) and realize that the City of Detroit is not going to be great again for 20 years.

If Detroit (and the state of Michigan) can understand these things and commit to them, the rebuilding process can start in full.  That won't help things in 2013, but it give Detroit hope in 2033 that it will be a great city again.

Or else it will look just like the Robocop movies.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Look Ahead to the 2014 Pirates

Excuse me if you find this post premature, but I’ve been conditioned over the years to use August and September as times to look ahead to the next season for the Pirates.  This “winning” thing will take some getting used to.

Using the indispensable Cot’s Baseball Contracts for the Pirates, you can see that the Pirates have $31.875M of salary commitments for the 2014 season.  This includes buyouts and also the $13M (but only $7.5M paid by the Pirates) player option for Wandy Rodriguez.  With things looking increasingly bleak on Wandy’s elbow, it seems a near certainty that Rodriguez picks that up and rehabs on the Pirates/Astros dime.  If he doesn’t, then that corresponding amount will get deducted from 2014’s payroll and they will pop champagne on Federal Street.

Let’s take a look at the Arbitration Eligible players and try to determine who’s coming back and at what potential salary:

1B/RF  Garrett Jones (3rd yr Arb) -- probable non-tender.  His stats are down across the board and he’s looking at a potential arbitration figure of $6.5 to $7M.  The money is better allocated elsewhere.

2B  Neil Walker (2nd yr Arb) -- I definitely bring him back around $5M.  His defense has greatly improved and, when healthy, he has an above-average bat for 2B.  He need to stop switch-hitting, though.

RHP Charlie Morton (3rd yr Arb) -- Under the theory that you can never have enough pitching, I think they go one more time into the breach with Morton for around $3.5M.  If they were willing to set $2.5M on fire and give it to Karstens, they’ll definitely go $3.5M on Morton.

1B  Gaby Sanchez (2nd yr Arb) -- Sanchez has many downsides to his game, but he is the short side of a 1B platoon and he can draw a walk with some regularity, plus play a decent defensive 1B.  I would bring him back at a $2.8M salary.

OF  Felix Pie (3rd yr Arb) -- non-tender candidate

3B  Pedro Alvarez (1st yr Arb) -- He’ll be retained because of the huge power potential and decent defense, but he’s reminding me of Mark Reynolds.  His first year should mimic Reynolds’ first year of being arb-eligible and I’ll put Alvarez at $4.5M.

RHP  Vin Mazzaro (1st yr Arb) -- In a season full of surprises, Mazzaro’s great work out of the bullpen ranks near the top.  I would bring him back for $1M, as his previous work to date in the majors will help suppress his value to an arbitrator.

RHP  Mark Melancon (1st yr Arb) -- Melancon is definitely coming back, but his value is a little tricky to identify.  He was a closer, then he failed in Boston, came here as a setup guy and assumed the closer role for a spell.  He’s probably closer to Heath Bell’s salary path, but I’ll bump him up to $2.2M.

RF  Travis Snider (1st yr Arb) -- Very tough call for me on this one.  He won’t be making much money, so it’s almost a waste to not bring him back.  But on the other hand, with Marte/McCutchen as definites and Tabata’s contract needing a spot, plus Polanco knocking on the door and Lambo still available, playing time will be limited.  I think the Pirates give him one final shot in 2014 at a salary of $1.2M, but a non-tender wouldn’t surprise me.

The total from the arbitration-eligible that I would retain is $20.2M.  Combined with the $31.875M of commitments, that brings the total to $52.075M.

There’s also one player with a Vesting Option that I think the Pirates will welcome back -- Francisco Liriano.  He has a very complicated vesting schedule, but I’m going to assume that between the vesting and the bonuses, he’ll get the full $8M.

So before an offer is extended to a single free agent, the payroll is at $60.075M in this scenario.  What positions will the Pirates need to fill?

C -- Martin
1B -- (open)
2B -- Walker
SS -- Mercer
3B -- Alvarez
LF -- Marte
CF -- McCutchen
RF -- Tabata

Bench -- T. Sanchez, G. Sanchez, Snider, Lambo, (middle infielder)

SP1 -- Liriano
SP2 -- Cole
SP3 -- Locke
SP4 -- Morton
SP5 -- (many internal candidates such as Cumpton, Irwin, Pimentel, Taillon)

Bullpen --Grilli, Melancon, Wilson, Mazzaro, Gomez, Watson, Morris

So the Pirates need a starting 1B, a backup middle infielder, and a starter if they don’t feel confident in going with just the internal candidates.  The $60.025M represents a figure just below the Opening Day 2013 payroll of $66M, so it appears as if the Pirates don’t have a lot of wiggle room.  However, remember that the new national TV deals kick in next year and each team will have additional $27M coming their way.

That money could be use to lure A.J. Burnett back for one more year at $14M, get a backup infielder for $2M, and put the rest towards either obtaining a 1B in free agency or via trade.  The Pirates have been connected with Cuban defector Jose Dariel Abreu and he’s thought to be in the $12M/year range of a contract.

Either way, things are looking very stable for the Pirates going into 2014.  They’re no longer building for the future, now they can just tweak the roster.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cuidad Valdeluz, Spanish Ghost Town

If you're like me, you have thought of Spain as a decently well-put together country.  Fun party areas, cool cities like Madrid and Barcelona, good weather.  Unfortunately, the worldwide recession has hit Spain particularly hard.  It's one of the "PIGS" (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) that are dragging the European Union down economically.

Spain's unemployment rate stands around 26.9% (May 2013 rate), which is....atrocious.  So needless to say, some stuff is tore up in Spain.

My brother-in-law told me about an episode of Top Gear he saw on BBC America where the guys went to a Spanish ghost town called Cuidad Valdeluz.  The Top Gear were able to squat in half built or completely built housing units that were never filled as a result of the economy going pear-shaped in 2008.

Cuidad Valdeluz was intended to one of many satellite cities built around Madrid and served by high-speed rail to the main metro area.  It was built out for 30,000 people.  Today, around 3,000 people live there.  There's no grocery store and very few amenities for the people.  There are construction cranes sitting idle for years at half-built apartment buildings.  The roadway network and utilities are fully built, but just...sitting there.  There are huge tracts of undeveloped land still.

It's described as looking like an abandoned movie set.  Will it be populated once Spain's economy improves?  Maybe, but when will that be?  I can't see an economy like Spain's rebounding for at least 5 years.  Could you live in eerie isolation like that?  With hoodlums roaming around ripping copper and anything else out of buildings for scrap money?

In the United States, there are plenty of housing developments (large and small) that are vastly underpopulated or abandoned.  But not whole towns built for 30,000 people.  Viva la Spain!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Exorcising The Demons

"We feel that Bryan Bullington can be a good #3 pitcher for us."

I'm not sure what else Dave Littlefield said after that during his news conference announcing that with the 1st overall pick they picked Bryan Bullington.  It was hard to hear over the pulsing of blood through the throbbing veins in my forehead.

Randall Simon once playfully bopped a sausage on the head during the Miller Park Sausage Race.  The sausage went down like he got shot from a grassy knoll.  Simon got charged criminally with an assault charge.

Derek Bell infamously declared Operation Shutdown after the Pirates had the gall to make him compete for a job.  After batting .173/.237/.288 (576 OPS), of course.  He promptly retired and is living his days out on a houseboat, smoking crack, picking up skeezy girls.

Raul Mondesi lost his desire to play baseball after coming to the Pirates and retired.  For a whole 30 days until the Angels offered him a deal, of course.

John Russell was an animatronic robot.

Jim Tracy was a rambling egomaniac.

Lloyd McClendon famously stole a base in a fit after an argument with an umpire.

Jason Kendall, on track for a Hall of Fame career, blew out his ankle trying to beat a grounder out at 1st.  He rehabbed from that and had a thumb injury two years later that sapped all his power.  His 6 year/$60M contract became a millstone on the franchise.

Aramis Ramirez was traded in a pure salary dump to the Cubs in 2003 because the Pirates were exceeding their debt-to-revenue limit deemed by MLB.  That was after Kris Benson (the Tin Man) hurt his elbow and couldn't be traded instead.

Daniel Moskos with the 4th overall pick.

The historic collapse of 2012 after being 62-46, only to end up 79-83.

And yet, here in 2013, the Pirates are going to eliminate 20 seasons of awful memories.  They're on the precipice of not only a winning season (81-58 at the time of this writing), but looking like a team that could do some real damage in the playoffs.

Maybe PNC Park isn't built on Indian burial grounds after all.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

El Burro

Today I went out to lunch with our IT guy and the rest of the nerd herd that went to Nicky's Thai Kitchen last year.  There was a new nerd-in-training in our midst, a nascent member of our tribe, in the form of their new intern.

They've been telling me about this great Mexican place called El Burro on the North Side, right on Federal Street around the block from the closed down art-nouveau film house known as the Garden Theater.  With the Garden finally acquired by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, it should only be a matter of time until this sector is turned around and maybe into a mini East Liberty.

The interior of El Burro is simple -- yellow walls with sparse wall hangings -- in a narrow space.  The menu is prominently displayed on the back wall and there is just counter style seating.  On the way down, one of the IT guys was hyping up the "rolled tacos".  I was very intrigued by them, but wanted to see all the other options.

There were "street tacos" (a standard style taco) with six different options -- shredded beef, shredded chicken, chorizo, carnitas, carne asada, and potato.  But I wanted something different.  The burritos sure looked tasty (same fillings as above) and they even had a breakfast burrito and something called a California burrito.

But in the end, the rolled tacos were calling my name because I've never had one.  You can get them with chicken, beef, or potato.  I went with chicken.  They are kinda sorta like taquitos, in the fact that they are small rolled up shells that are quickly deep fried.  They're then topped with an avocado salsa and cheese, with a pico de gallo mix on the side.

You get four of them and it was a nice lunch portion.  We were all kind of separated because of the counter seating, but if I would have shared the 2 person portion-sized order of chips and salsa, that would have been the right amount of food.

El Burro had Mexican coke, but I was really hoping for some Horchata like at Smoke in Homestead.  Maybe they'll add it at a later date.  El Burro is definitely a place I'll be taking DB~ to try in the near future.