Saturday, May 31, 2014

June Schedule Lightens Up for the Pirates

Perhaps the Pirates are just trying to add some degree of difficulty to their year.  Maybe working with the third lowest payroll in Major League Baseball is not enough of a challenge for them.  The Pirates dug themselves a hole in April, going 9-16, to enter May with a 10-16 record (March opening days are weird).  They've righted the ship, so to speak, in May with a 15-13 record to give a glimmer of hope that they can still make a run.
Their schedule heretofore has been brutal.  Of the 54 games they have played, only 20 have been against teams with losing records.  The combined record of the other teams they've played in those 34 games is 208-159, good for a .567 winning percentage.  In those games, the Pirates have gone just 15-19, with most of the damage due to the old nemesis of the Milwaukee Brewers (2-8).  The Pirates have fared better against the sub .500 teams (Cubs, Reds, Mets, Nationals), going 10-10 so far.
The good news is that better days lie ahead in June.  Hopefully, unlike their namesake pirates of the seas, the call of better days does not cause a shipwreck against craggy rocks.  In June, the Pirates play 27 games.  Of those 27 games, 20 are against teams with a losing record currently.  The seven games against winning teams are: the final game against the Dodgers in the current series, 3 on the road at Miami, and 3 at home against Milwaukee.  As the records stand right now, the Pirates wouldn't play a winning team in the month of June after the 15th.
The split between home and road games is fairly even for the Pirates -- 13 on the road and 14 at home.  So far this year, the Pirates have been abysmal on the road, so hopefully the lesser competition will start to build their confidence in that regard.
June 1st is far too early to start worrying about the playoffs.  July is when a team will typically decide whether to fish or cut bait, ahead of the July 31st trade deadline, but you also can't allow yourself to get too far under water.  The first thing the Pirates need to do is get back to .500; no team makes the playoffs under .500.  In recent years, 89 wins has been the magic number to secure a playoff spot.  The Pirates would have to go on a tear to achieve that, but maybe they won't have to this year.
If you set aside the current division leaders of Milwaukee, Atlanta, and San Francisco, there are no other teams really putting up strong records yet.  The Cardinals are 3 games over .500.  The Marlins, who are a prime candidate to swoon in the summer, are just 2 games over.  The Dodgers are spinning their wheels and just 2 games over.  The Rockies are already scheduling their return trip to Earth and 2 games above the break-even mark.
It's looking to me like maybe 86 wins could be enough to sneak into the 2nd Wild Card slot this year.  For the Pirates to do that, they would have to go 61-47 in their final 108 games (.564 winning percentage), which is essentially the Atlanta Braves current winning percentage.  Last year, when they went 94-68, the Pirates had a .580 winning percentage, so it's definitely in their wheelhouse to pull off.
So do not abandon all hope ye who enter.  At least until July 1st.  Aaargh.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Port Authority Looking for Public Input

By nature, I'm pretty cynical about things.  So when I read that the Port Authority put up an online survey and discussion board site, it sounded like a fluffy public input box that they were checking off.

However, when I went to the site, I was impressed by the layout and format of it.  I saw that some key people such as the CEO of Port Authority, Ellen McLean, and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald were viewing the comments and even adding their two cents.

I submitted my conversion of I-279 North's HOV lane idea to the site, but I don't expect it to fly very far.  There were some good low-hanging-fruit ideas like offering real time bus/rail tracking at the stops and offering multiple pay lanes at T stops to improve service.

It's good that Port Authority is at least putting forth the effort.  They desperately need to connect with a younger, tech-savvy demographic.  People want apps and transparency in all facets of an operation nowadays.  Someone over there is recognizing that.

Go over and put your two cents in on the future of mass transit in Allegheny County.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

White Chicken Chili

DB~ has been on a roll lately.  This one was an instant-favorite and will be put in the semi-frequent rotation.

First, I sauteed a clove of garlic with some white onion in olive oil.  I added some salt, pepper, and cumin once they were soft.  Next, I added one can (2 cups) of chicken stock to the pan along with one can (drained) of navy beans.

While that was simmering for about 15 minutes, I cooked a chicken breast that I lightly seasoned with chili powder, salt, and pepper.  When it was cooked, I shredded it up into thin shreds that would be capable of absorbing liquid.

After the beans and stock had simmered for 15 minutes, I added 1/2 jar of salsa verde to the mix and got that simmering.  Once that was complete, I tossed in the shredded chicken to mingle for 5 additional minutes.

In those 5 minutes, here's the accouterments that I prepared to go in each serving bowl:

  • Chunk of avocado
  • Cilantro leaves
  • Sour cream dollop
I ladled the white chicken chili into each bowl and put the cilantro leaves throughout, the avocado on the side, and the sour cream on top.  It definitely had some kick, thanks to the salsa verde, but we loved it.  It was much better than a typical, heavy ground meat based chili.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Here's Why Polanco is Not in Pittsburgh Yet

RF Travis Snider is hitting .211 with a 623 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
Platoon mate RF Jose Tabata is hitting .247 with a 605 OPS.  Every other ball seems to be a grounder to shortstop.
In Triple A Indianapolis, uber-prospect RF Gregory Polanco is hitting .395 with a 1057 OPS.  He has power (4 HR) and speed (7 SB), two things that Tabata is not showing and one thing that Snider (the speed) does not have.  By all accounts, he would be an upgrade over these two.  The added bonus is that he has no platoon splits (979 OPS v. LHP, 1092 OPS v. RHP).  So why isn't he up in Pittsburgh yet?
Let's take a look at some of the reasons, of varying degrees of legitimacy, why Polanco is not in Pittsburgh:
A spot would need to be cleared on the 25-man roster.  I find it hard to believe the Pirates would carry five outfielders, especially without the need for a platoon partner for Polanco, so that means that one of either Tabata or Snider would have to go.  I know what most of you are saying -- "OK.  Don't let the door hit your rear end on the way out," but it's not that easy.  The Pirates do not have options remaining on either Tabata or Snider, so they would have to Designate For Assignment (DFA) one of them.  If one of them were claimed during this 10-day waiver period, the Pirates would lose that player for nothing.
To the Pirates, that is a terrible offense.  They like to squeeze every last bit of value out of a player, so you can be assured that Neal Huntington is feverishly working the phones trying to trade one of them, even if it is for a low-level reliever.  A trade could be worked out during the 10-day DFA window, but those are not as common.  Because of Jose Tabata's long-term guaranteed contract ($3.1M in 2014, $4.1M in 2015, $4.6M in 2016) he seems very unlikely to be traded unless the Pirates ate a bunch of that money.  That means Snider and his $1.2M in 2014 is the better candidate.  Snider has two more years of control after this, but a team could non-tender him at the end of 2014 and not cost themselves any additional money.  There are plenty of teams out there with awful outfielders that might be interested in a flyer on Snider or Tabata.
He hasn't experienced any adversity yet.  This one always irks me, but the reasoning is that the Pirates need to see how a player responds to a rough patch.  They would rather see him work through a 1 for 32 stretch in Indy than in Pittsburgh against the best pitchers in the world.  This answer is part of the mythological "player checklist" that every team says a player has to complete before getting promoted.
The Pirates want to avoid the Super 2 Deadline.  And now we come to our portion of the program that really matters.  Essentially, if a player gets into the top 17% of service time for players in his service time class between 2 years and 3 years of service, he gets to go to arbitration four times instead of three.  This can mean an additional cost of $10-$15M of salary for a team over that time period.
This is a real, tangible thing for a team.  Not just the Pirates, either.  Many teams are wary of their top prospects getting to Super 2 status.  The rough threshold to promote is with 130 days left in the season (this year there are 181 days).  That outer threshold is around May 21st.  However, most years the threshold falls into the 118-125 range, so allow for a couple of extra weeks to be safe.  That puts the date around June 3rd.
It will be interesting to see how many top prospects around the league magically "complete their checklists" and are ready to be promoted in early to mid-June.  It's amazing how many of the top guys are always ready around the same time of the year.
When Polanco does get promoted, he can't be expected to be a miracle worker or savior.  Just because he's ripping the cover off the ball in Triple A does not mean that will translate to the Majors.  The class of competition is dramatically better.  I do think he will be an improvement over what the Pirates have in RF now, but where I expect the greatest improvement to occur is in the leadoff spot.
Polanco has greater plate discipline than Starling Marte or any of the other players the Pirates have penciled in to the spot so far this year.  Right now, the aggregate leadoff hitters are triple slashing .222 BA/.290 OBP/.310 SLG (600 OPS) with 1 HR and 7 SB's.  Polanco, even if he struggles out of the gate, should be able to exceed that very low bar that has been set.
Gregory Polanco will get here, probably within the next month, so be patient.  Once he gets here, he's not going anywhere for a long time.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Pasta with Creamy Garlic Sauce and Langostinos

Yesterday was a Strip District kind of day, so DB~ asked if we could make a run.  We got down there at high noon exactly, so after looking for a free spot in vain on Penn Avenue, we parked in that huge lot behind the warehouses for $6.  Aside from our usual fun of "eat the street", which yesterday consisted of egg rolls, Reyna's tacos, and a peanut butter/chocolate crepe, we were on the hunt for a different dinner.

As it usually does, our journey took us into Wholey's.  When I was a kid, I hated Wholey's.  My dad tells me that a fishmonger handed me a fish, as if it were a lollipop, and I got freaked out.  It always smelled bad (which it kind of still does).  But back then, it was just a fish market.  Now they've made it a fun destination with a sushi bar, market for groceries, and plenty of free samples of lobster crab bisque.  There are always tons of kids in there now.

This time langostinos caught our eye.  I've always thought of them as faux-lobsters, but as DB~ researched they are more akin to hermit crabs.  We got an 8 oz. frozen box of them for $8.99.  DB~ had the excellent idea to serve them over pasta, so my mind went to a garlic-infused cream sauce.  After we got a couple of other things at Wholey's, we made our way to Penn Mac.

At Penn Mac, we didn't even dally at the cheese counter and see ol' Dearheart.  We went straight for the fresh pasta stand.  Although not as good or as many choices as Ohio Pasta at the West End Market in Cleveland, they still had probably a dozen selections.  We went with the Rosemary Linguini.  DB~ selected a tiny loaf of bread, as well.  Two bundles of fresh pasta and a mini loaf of bread?  That will be $3.76, please.

When it was time for dinner, I put two cups of heavy cream into a large skillet and put it on medium heat.  I diced up three cloves of garlic, sprinkled in some black pepper, and a sundried tomato seasoning.  Once it started to simmer and bubble, I turned it down to medium-low.  The langostinos needed to thaw for 10 minutes in cold water and then be patted dry.  After sampling the sauce, I added the juice from half of a lemon to it.  It gave the sauce a nice finish after the garlic led the way.

Fresh pasta only takes a couple of minutes to cook, so I got the water going and dropped it in.  I added the langostinos and let them get to know the sauce for about five minutes.  Once the pasta was drained, I spooned on the sauce and combined it very well.  I served this with some roasted eggplant and the bread.

It was surprisingly good and "restaurant quality" as we both agreed.  Hermit crab, fake lobster, whatever...langostinos are a good substitute.