Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Commissioner Manfred Already Making His Mark

Robert D. Manfred Jr. was elected the 10th commissioner of baseball on August 14th, 2014, and took office on January 25th following the retirement of Bud Selig.  Many assumed he would continue the groundwork laid by predecessor Selig, namely because Manfred has had full support from most owners and Selig himself from the beginning.  Although Selig had brought baseball to unprecedented heights and instituted important changes that have changed the game for the better, one could not deny the deliberate pace of which he did things, to put it nicely.  Not 12 hours into his campaign as Commissioner, Manfred was already making it clear he was going to be nothing like his predecessor with the announcement of a slew of proposed changes.

Some of these changes fly so much in the face of common sense and tradition that I wonder if Manfred really even likes baseball.  Bud Selig has a lifelong history in the game and although many disagreed with him, his love and respect for the game were never wavering and always admirable.  Rob Manfred, on the other hand, comes from an Ivy League lawyer background and sort of fell into MLB as a collective bargaining consultant.  This contrast in backgrounds is very clear in some of the changes Manfred presents, such as eliminating defensive shifts, adding the designated hitter to both leagues, and pitch clocks.  These things all fall under a larger umbrella of injecting more offense into the game and speeding up pace of play to appease the fans, which I can understand the reasoning.  Average runs per game has gone down and average time of game has gone up just about every year in the last 15.  But at the same time, revenues and attendance at the ballpark has never been higher and there is no evidence low scoring long games has affected baseball's bottom line.  Also I think these measures are for the casual fan and are a knee-jerk reaction to alter the game's natural evolution.  There is a certain amount of strategy involved in baseball that most true fans appreciate and I think would really hurt the game if things like managing a pitcher in your batting order or playing sabermetric percentages were removed.  I also think if you like baseball, you invest the time in going to a game - shaving a game down to 2:40 instead of 3 hours is not going to make people who already don't like baseball suddenly start showing interest.  The NFL is the country's most popular sport and is even longer than baseball.  People go for the social experience of being at the ballpark and I don't think get too wrapped up in the time of the game unless we're talking like a 17-inning affair.  If the commissioner really wants to make the game go quicker, the easiest change to make is to enforce the strike zone like it is truly written in the rule book: from just below the knee to just above the belt.  Wider strike zones mean hitters swing more, which in turn means shorter games.  I will say that I do agree with his simple change of eliminating lag time after TV timeouts.  30-60 seconds times 18 half innings goes a long way.  But to make a pitcher throw a ball after X number of seconds or prevent a batter from stepping out of the box is removing part of the strategy that makes this game great.

I don't want to completely write off Manfred before he even gets his feet wet in office.  I get that he wants to make his mark on the game and it's unfair to judge too much before things play out over the course of a season or two.  And there are a lot of things he talks about that just make a lot of sense - continuing to embrace technology, expanding youth and international outreach, and continuing to improve player safety, to name a few.  But so far what I am seeing are superficial things that are unnecessarily tinkering with the game I love, and I am skeptical.  At the same time, I realize that skepticism is kind of the point - in a game that has historically been so resistant to change, maybe mixing things up for its own sake from a man who comes from a completely different perspective is just what baseball needs, whether we as die-hard fans realize it or not.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Tour 2015

It was an exciting moment when the Brewers announced their longtime AAA affiliate, the Nashville Sounds, were finally replacing the dated Greer Stadium.  The Brewers stuck with the Sounds much longer than they probably should have because of promises of a new facility.  First Tennessee Park broke ground in January 2014 and all but cemented a trip for us to be there for the inaugural season.  Unfortunately, the Sounds did not reciprocate that same loyalty and dumped the Brewers for the Athletics in September.  A shiny new facility in a great city brought a lot of suitors calling and left the Brewers on the short end of the stick, undoubtedly due to having one of the worst ranked farm systems in the league the last few years.  This has not deterred us from a visit and I still look forward to spending some time in the Music City this summer.  So far this is slated for a 4th of July weekend trip with Megan and my family, and I'm giddy to cross this city off my US travel bucket list.

Another big trip that is looking less likely but is still on the radar is an Arizona Fall League trip.  This has been in my long term plans pretty much since I went to spring training in 2011, but other monetary and life obligations might postpone this trip.  Novembers are usually so depressing after the season ends and it sure would be great if we could make this happen.  If it doesn't, Erik and I for sure will find some trip to go on.  He is taking his bar exams in July, so we have about a one-month window to squeeze something in.  Thunder Bay/Duluth, Quad Cities renovation, Wausau renovation, and southwest Michigan have all been discussed.  I will also for sure get to the new St. Paul Saints park this year.  I've been in Minnesota a lot for work in the last few months and every time I drive by it on I-94, I get more and more excited.  I'm really curious to see what a ballpark design by a non-ballpark architect is going to look like and I expect no less from the Saints to think outside of the box.

Stay tuned!  Pitchers and catchers report in only 10 days!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Postseason 2014

The postseason could not get here soon enough for me this year.  While I am disappointed the Brewers have failed to make the playoffs for the 3rd consecutive season, with the way they have been playing the last month I am more than ready to start watching some exciting competitive baseball.  Every year there is seemingly at least one team that people may not have expected to win, or was maybe a dark horse pick by some experts/myself, and this year that team is the Kansas City Royals.  They ended MLB's longest active postseason drought at 29 years with an 89-win season and a wild card birth.  I'm glad they at least get to play that one game at home in front of the KC fans, even though statistically they are a much better team on the road.  And it's certainly really great to see Ned Yost finally make it to the postseason after getting canned towards the end of the '08 Brewers run.  The A's managed to avoid an epic Brewers-style collapse to play KC in the Wild Card matchup, and they would definitely be a team to watch with their stacked rotation and the fact that they won't have to play the nemesis Tigers in the first 2 rounds.  The torch for longest playoff drought will now pass to the Toronto Blue Jays, who have not made the playoffs since they went all the way in 1993.  Another team I would put in the "surprise" category is the Angels, who led all of baseball with 98 wins.  Despite an aging middle of the lineup and rotation, an RBI title from Mike Trout and a nice bounce-back year from Albert Pujols, along with a strong bullpen, led this team to the postseason for the first time in 5 years. 

I picked the Dodgers to win the World Series this year, and I'm sticking to that, although I will be rooting for a Nats-Royals series.  Even though I only lived in DC for about 7 months, the Nationals will always have a spot in my heart since I was there for their inaugural season.

NL Wild Card - #4 Pirates v. #5 Giants
NLDS - #1 Nationals v. WC winner
#2 Dodgers v. #3 Cardinals

AL Wild Card - #4 Royals v. #5 Athletics
ALDS - #1 Angels v. WC winner
#2 Orioles v. #3 Tigers

World Series Prediction: Dodgers defeat O's in 6
Rooting for: Nationals v. Royals

Preseason Predictions
#1 Dodgers
#2 Nationals
#3 Cardinals
#4 Brewers
#5 Braves
Dodgers defeat Nationals in NLCS

#1 Athletics
#2 Tigers
#3 Orioles
#4 Yankees
#5 Royals
Orioles defeat Athletics in ALCS

World Series - Dodgers defeat O's in 6

Brewers 82-80, -8.0, 3rd NL Central
Reds 76-86, -14.0, 4th NL Central
Twins 70-92, -20.0, last AL Central

Erik - 7 (+26 worked)

Peter - 40

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Derek Jeter Farewell Tour Nearing the End

It's looking like the Yankees will miss the playoffs this year, which means that there are only 5 more precious games after tonight in which fans will have a chance to see Derek Jeter play.  He is a future Hall-of-Famer, leads the Yankees in just about every statistical hitting category including games played, is the all-time MLB leader in hits by a shortstop, and is 6th all time in hits as of tonight with 3,462.  He is without question one of the best players I have grown up watching and I'm really glad I got to see him play 3 games in Milwaukee this past May.  Despite all of that, or perhaps because of it, I am more than ready for this Derek Jeter Lovefest to be over.  Don't get me wrong, I love all of of the tribute commercials as much as the next man, but tonight was the last straw when I turned on ESPN and saw the Yankees were wearing a #2 emblem on their hats and sleeves.  It's so ridiculous and self-serving that it is hard to even write.  He's not dead, he's still playing!  It's probably the most Yankee thing the Yankees have ever done - this is over the top even for them.  It is so misguided to be honoring a player on a daily basis who is not at all helping his team win, and for a team that is not even that good I might add.  It gets to the point where Joe Girardi has been stuck balancing Farewell Tour Manager with Field Manager, and often times forcing himself to write down Jeter's name in his familiar #2 spot in the lineup just so that fans can see him play.  

What disturbs me the most about it is that any other 40-year old in the league would be coming off the bench, and any other .250 hitter with no power would be hitting 7th in the lineup, but because he is Derek Jeter he gets special treatment.  Case in point, another player on their own team - Ichiro Suzuki.  Ichiro is the same age as Jeter yet still playing at a high level, and he gets lost in the shuffle as the 4th outfielder.  I can't help but think how many games it has cost the Yankees because Jeter is in the lineup everyday.  But what is Girardi to do, not play him?  He would probably get lynched by the New York crowd.  I do understand that at the moment the Yankees have no better option at SS, but they are in fact the Yankees - they could pick up whoever they want.  

Jeter's situation is a much more difficult situation than farewell tours of years' past, in particular the last two years with Mariano Rivera and Chipper Jones.  Unlike Jeter, Rivera and Jones were still contributing to their teams in their final seasons and didn't put the managers in much of a bind, other than dealing with Chipper's ailing knees.  One could even argue that Mariano had one of his best seasons ever as his swan song.  Honoring a player retiring at the end of the season for the entire year is seemingly becoming the trend, but it's cases like Jeter's that really make you realize how self-centered and money-driven these things really are, both for the player and for the baseball in general.  If the Yankees really were serious about winning the pennant this year instead of pandering to Jeter's ego, they would have made a move for a shortstop in the offseason instead of signing Stephen Drew off the couch in July.  I expect as much from an organization steeped in tradition like the Yankees, but seeing this spectacle unfold this year has really changed my opinion of Derek Jeter.  Before this year, I would have thought if and when he retired that he would be the last guy to want all the pomp and circumstance of a Farewell Tour.  Now it seems to me that there is no star athlete out there that doesn't crave attention.  

Although, I didn't see Paul Konerko and Jason Giambi getting any canoes this year.

Brewers 80-77, -8.0, eliminated (3 @ Reds, 3 v. Cubs)
Reds 73-84, -15.0, eliminated (3 v. Brewers, 3 v. Pirates)
Twins 66-90, -20.0, eliminated (3 v. Diamondbacks, 4 @ Tigers)

Erik - 7 (+26 worked)

Peter - 38

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Brewers in the Midst of Epic Collapse

Three weeks ago, the Brewers were a game and a half up in the NL Central and about to close out their 5th straight month in first place.  Since then, they are 4-13 including an embarrassing 9 game losing streak.  The dreaded St. Louis Cardinals of all teams have grabbed a 5 game lead in the division and the Brewers are on the outside looking in just for a Wild Card spot at this point.  While early in the season they seemed to be catching all the breaks, these days they are finding every which way to lose a game.  Ryan Braun's nagging thumb injury seems to finally be catching up with him, as he has hit .220 since the All-Star Break.  Jonathan Lucroy, once an MVP frontrunner, has also seen his batting average drop almost 40 points since the break.  Carlos Gomez, Matt Garza, and Aramis Ramirez have all missed a substantial amount of time on the DL.  The defense has at times looked like a little league team.  The starting rotation that was once among league leaders and an anchor of the team has cooled considerably, particularly Wily Peralta, who looked like he was all but a lock to be a 20-game winner a month ago, and Yovani Gallardo, who for some reason is still referred to as the Brewers' "ace."  Will Smith and Zach Duke spent much of the year with ERAs under 1.00 and now are both just awful.  Just as I write this now Smith gave up a 2-run homer.  Really, newly acquired Jonathan Broxton and Francisco Rodriguez are the only reliable arms that manager Ron Roenicke has to rely on in the bullpen, and even Rodriguez blew a pretty important game on Tuesday.  

The thing is, every game is now important, which is what makes every loss that much more crushing.  Every team goes through bad slides like this - the Crew had one leading into the break as well, and the A's are going through the same thing we are - but now is the worst possible time because tensions are high and so much is at stake.  Losing streaks in May are easy to come back from, but losing streaks in September cause people to lose their jobs.  That's what I'm mostly concerned about.  I would hate for an ill-timed losing streak to cause Roenicke his job.  The players seem to respond to him very well and I love his aggressive style, it fits really well with the personnel.  That being said, a 7-game swing in the standings cannot be ignored, and since you can't cut realistically 25 players I'm sure a few coaches will be at risk.  There are still 16 games left, all against divisional opponents, so there is still hope, and I honestly believe this team has what it takes to get back into the race and go far in the playoffs.  All Brewer fans have seen how well this team plays when everything is clicking.  But it has to be now, or I fear this team will be majorly reconstructed in the offseason.

On the bright side, Miller Park now has self-serve beer machines.

Brewers 76-71, -4.0, -1.5 WC(3 v. Reds, 3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Pirates)
Reds 70-77, -10.0, -7.5 WC (3 @ Brewers, 3 @ Cubs, 3 @ Cardinals)
Twins 62-84, -19.0, eliminated (3 @ White Sox, 3 v. Tigers, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 7 (+26 worked)

Peter - 38

Monday, September 1, 2014

For the Cubs, the Future is Now

If I was a Cubs fan, I would be pretty excited about the future of their team.  Now, I know that has been said just about every year for the last 100, but I think next year the Cubs actually have a legitimate chance of contending for the division for the first time in nearly a decade.  As a fan of a team in the same division, I can't help but notice their dramatic improvement this season, and I am already not looking forward to playing them 19+ times next year.  Since the beginning of August, the Cubs have called up 3 of their top 10 prospects in Arismendy Alcantra, Javier Baez, and most recently Jorge Soler, all of whom have made a huge impact.  Baez hit 3 homeruns in his first two professional games and although he has a vicious swing should be a great middle-of-the-order hitter after some coaching next spring.  Soler earned a callup by hitting over .600 in his brief stint in AAA and has continued that trend into the big leagues.  Rookie Kyle Hendricks has made a splash in the rotation with an ERA under 2.00 in his rookie season.  Jake Arrieta looks to finally be realizing the potential the Orioles were counting on for many years, and has become the Cubs' defacto ace since the Jeff Samardzija trade.  Anthony Rizzo is emerging as one of the game's elite first basemen and is among the league leaders in homeruns, as well as a first-time all-star this season.  It feels like Starlin Castro has been on the team forever but is still only 24 and has provided longterm stability at the shortstop position.  

All of these players may not have translated to much in the standings, but anybody who watches this team on a regular basis can tell they are much improved and the future is bright.  And this doesn't even include September callups.  I would expect Cubs super-prospect Kris Bryant and recent acquisition in the Samardzija-Hammel deal, Addison Russell, to both be up for a cup of coffee this week.  Both of these players are not just top Cubs prospects, but also #3 and #4 in all of baseball, respectively.  Addison may need a little more seasoning, but Bryant has hit well over .300 and 40 homeruns each of his last two minor league seasons and has nothing left to prove.  The hardest part for the organization will honestly be where to fit all of these players, as Castro, Russell, Baez, and Soler are all natural shortstops.  Baez has been playing mostly 2B and Soler in the outfield since their callups.  If the Cubs can somehow dump the Edwin Jackson contract and pick up a couple of arms next year, this team is going to be stacked and dangerous, and definitely a team you do not want to face this year if you are in a pennant race like the Brewers are.

Some if not most of this success can be attributed to bringing in wunderkind Theo Epstein as president and his former partner with the Red Sox, Jed Hoyer, as GM.  After signing in the 2011-12 offseason to 5-year contracts, myself and many experts expected that the Cubs would be relevant and legitimate World Series contenders by the end of that term, and it looks like those predictions are right on track.  The window of time in which the Brewers have to beat down the Cubs is growing shorter by the day.  When all is said and done, Epstein will have completely overhauled two historic franchises and renovated two crumbling stadiums, and will have all but cemented his place in Cooperstown, all before the age of 40.  As much as it pains me to say, a World Series title is becoming more of a goal than a faint hope in Chicago.

Brewers 73-63, --, -- WC(3 @ Cubs, 4 v. Cardinals, 4 v. Marlins)
Reds 66-71, -7.5, -7.5 WC (3 @ Orioles, 3 v. Mets, 4 v. Cardinals)
Twins 59-77, -15.5, -15.0 WC (2 v. White Sox, 4 v. Angels, 3 @ Indians)

Erik - 7 (+24 worked)

Peter - 36 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chinooks Capture Best Record, First Northwoods League Title

All photos of NWL South Division Playoffs Game 2 available on Flickr.

Congratulations to the Lakeshore Chinooks in winning the Northwoods League Summer Collegiate World Series!  The Chinooks had just about as easy a path to a title as possible, dominating the league with a ridiculous winning percentage of over .700.  They finished the regular season with the best record in the league at 50-21, won both halves of the South Division, and swept the playoffs with a perfect 4-0 record.  I was in attendance at Game 2 of the South Division finals in Mequon, in which the Chinooks advanced to the NWL Championship with a thrilling 2-1 victory over the Wisconsin Woodchucks in 10 innings.  The starter for the Chinooks, Shaun Anderson, threw just about the best pitching performance I've seen in the Northwoods League, or in any game for that matter.  He gave up only 1 run with 6 strikeouts and nearly went the distance, getting removed from the game after 26 outs.  Zack Bowers had a big series for Lakeshore, notching the game-winning hit in both games of the sweep.  The Chinooks would then go on to defeat the Mankato Moondogs for their first title in only the 3rd year of the franchise.  I've now been fortunate enough to witness championship campaigns in both of what I consider my "home" ballparks, Madison and Mequon, in consecutive years.  The end of the Northwoods League season is always one of the first signs that summer is almost over, and I am already looking forward to next season.

Brewers 71-56, +1.5, (3 v. Pirates, 3 @ Padres, 3 @ Giants)
Reds 61-67, -10.5, -7.0 WC (4 v. Braves, 3 v. Cubs, 3 @ Pirates)
Twins 56-70, -14.0, -12.5 WC (4 v. Tigers, 3 @ Royals, 4 @ Orioles)

Erik - 6 (+24 worked)

Peter - 35