Sunday, June 30, 2013

Interesting First Half Storylines

Most teams have surpassed their 81st game by now, which is the halfway point of the baseball season.  Pretty soon it will be the All-Star Break, and from then on the summer goes by super fast, as we all know.  Here are the top 10 first half stories I will be keeping an eye on the rest of the year.

1.  Pittsburgh Pirates - for real this time?
The Pirates have stormed out of the gate the last two seasons, only to fall to a combined 30+ games below .500 after the trade deadline.  On this day, they own the best record in all of baseball at 50-30, and are the first team to reach 50 wins this season.  The NL Central has three of the top 5 teams in the game right now, so despite their great record they are still only one up in the division.  Most amazingly, they're doing it with a lot of solid contributions, but no one star leading the way.  Can Mark Melancon and Jason Grilled Cheese keep it up?  Will they finally break the longest consecutive losing season streak in all of professional sports?  Will fans still be at PNC in September after football starts?

2.  Josh Hamilton is latest Angels albatross contract
Josh Hamilton has a meager .221 average, .665 OPS, and 21 RBI in the first year of his 5 year/$125 million contract with the Angels.  The Angels have already made the mistake of giving long-term deals, or taking on the big contracts, of several players into their 30s the past few seasons, including CJ Wilson, Vernon Wells, Albert Pujols, and the aforementioned Hamilton.  This certainly isn't a trend confined to the Angels, but it is always more prevalent with big payroll teams with lots of stars on paper.  It is absolutely ridiculous that the free agent system basically rewards big money for past production to players at or past their peak.  Can the Angels get it together and put together a 2nd half like they did last year, and what will this team be like in a couple years?  After all, there can only be one DH in the lineup per game.

3.  Race for Triple Crown in AL
Miguel Cabrera is having yet another superhuman season with a .373/25/82 line, and Chris Davis leads the league in homeruns with 30.  Davis had come on the last year to become a legit force in the AL and is the first players with 30 HRs before the end of June since Barry Bonds in 2001.  Can Davis hit 60?  Can Cabrera repeat as Triple Crown or will Davis catch him?

4.  Man-Bear-Puig
22-year old Cuban defector Yasiel Puig has managed to become the star player and talk of the town in Los Angeles, a city already filled with both.  Since being called up on June 3rd, he has set a Dodgers rookie record for hits in a month with 44, and he hasn't even played the entire month.  Puig trails only Joe DiMaggio's 48 in 1939 for the all-time record.  It's completely within the realm of possibility with the way he's been playing to bang out 5 more hits today.  He is hitting a ridiculous .417 with an OPS of over 1.000.  It seems like every year there is a rookie or two that bursts onto the scene and energizes a club, and Puig is certainly in that category this year.  Can he keep it up, and is he worthy of an All-Star selection?  Note: I just checked the Dodgers box score from today, and Puig did in fact notch 4 hits to tie the record, and raise his average to .437.  Unbelievable.

5.  Jean Segura a bright spot in dismal Brewers season
The only thing I don't like about Yasiel Puig's rise to stardom is that he has taken the attention off of Brewers SS Jean Segura, who has been doing it all year.  He's 3rd in hitting, 2nd in steals, makes highlight reel defensive plays nearly every night, and leads shortstops in many categories.  He has a very realistic chance of being the Brewers lone all-star representative.  Can he also win the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove in the National League?

6.  OK Blue Jays
For no particular reason, I can never help but root for all things Canada.  In fact, if it weren't for the high cost of living and the recent economic troubles, I'd probably have been living in Toronto for awhile now.  So I was super excited with the flurry of moves they made in the offseason.  It seemed to coincide perfectly with the Red Sox identity issues and the Yankees roster being a living Old Timers' game for them to make a run.  It didn't start off good, but they stormed back recently to win 11 in a row and get right back into the race.  Clearly the roster revitalization and the 1990s retro uniforms coming back has residents of Canada and myself excited about Blue Jays baseball again.  Can they win the AL East?

7.  Matt Kemp and the Dodgers are garbage, I called it
I like to see teams with a lot of big names and large contracts struggle just like everybody else, it's the American way.  Excluding Puig, the Dodgers just have a lot of guys that are too old and/or are making way more money than they deserve.  Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are way past their prime.  Andre Ethier is like 32 now and can't hit lefthanded pitching.  Hanley Ramirez is a punk.  And don't even get me started on Matt Kemp, I just think he's absolute garbage, has there ever been a contract so big based on potential with little production, other than maybe JD Drew?  The man has had 1 1/2 good seasons and people forget that when Torre was managing, he was platooning and hitting 7th.  And now they're going to give Clayton Kershaw 7 years and $200 million, or in other words, nearly $1 million per start.  I love Greinke, but you throw his antics into the mix and you've got a good old fashioned soap opera brewing in the City of Angels.  How will this all unfold and will any of these players play out their contracts with the Dodgers?

8.  Royals going for broke?
Kansas City put it all on the table this offseason, trading one of the top prospects in baseball and a pitcher with great potential (Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi) for James Shields and Wade Davis this offseason.  The AL Central is one of the worst divisions in baseball and is very attainable.  Will they make more trades at the deadline since they've already committed so much to win now, or will they stick with their young hitters?

9.  Trade Deadline
Speaking of trades, who is most likely to move at the break?  I could easily see the Brewers trading a lot or players, I would not be at all surprised if Gallardo and K-Rod are traded, and Aramis Ramirez if he stays healthy, possibly even Weeks too.  I've got to believe Justin Morneau and The Willinghammer are gone from the Twins.  Somebody will probably will want The Big Donkey because nearly all of his hits are homeruns these days.  Alfonso Soriano's name always comes up, and his contract is actually finally, sort of, nearly over so maybe it makes sense this year.  And no doubt the Marlins shed whatever payroll is left.  The problem is with the 10 playoff teams, not a lot of sellers.

10.  Is Erik going on our Kansas City trip?
As always, game-time decision.  I've already paid for the hotel, so screw it I'm going.  Those ribs aren't going to eat themselves.

Brewers 32-47, -17.5 (4 @ Nationals, 3 v. Mets)
Reds 46-36, -5.0
(4 v. Giants, 3 v. Mariners)
Twins 36-42, -6.0 (4 v. Yankees, 3 @ Blue Jays)

Erik - 8 (+12 worked)

Peter - 20

Saturday, June 22, 2013

K-Rod Collects 300th Career Save

(photo courtesy of

Congratulations to Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Francisco Rodriguez, who moments ago picked up his 300th career save!  He became only the 25th pitcher in baseball history to reach this milestone, and with his next save will pass former closers Jason Isringhausen and Bruce Sutter to move even further up this list.  Rodriguez joins a small fraternity of closers, most notably Trevor Hoffman and Rollie Fingers, who have notched milestone saves with the Brewers.

Anybody who follows the Brewers knows that they tend to go through closers like toilet paper.  Some of them have been big name trades or free agents and some of them have been reclamation projects, but the common theme for most has been to string together a great season or two, only to fade into obscurity.  It's because of this short window of success that I have never been an advocate of expensive closer contracts.  It is so rare to have a guy like K-Rod come along who can remain effective and durable enough to collect even 100 saves, let alone 300.  I don't think it can be overlooked how monumental this accomplishment is for K-Rod, and I'm happy he got to achieve it as a Brewer.  For a guy who has not been a full time closer in over 2 years and who wasn't even on the team in spring training, it's pretty incredible.  I was fortunate to see Trevor Hoffman's 601st save, which ended up being his last.  I'm going to the Brewer game tomorrow and hope to see Franky's 301st, and here's hoping there are many more to follow.

Brewers 31-42, -15.5 (3 v. Cubs, 3 @ Pirates)
Reds 44-31, -3.5
(2 @ Athletics, 3 @ Rangers)
Twins 33-37, -6.0 (2 @ Marlins, 4 v. Royals)

Erik - 8 (+9 worked)

Peter - 17

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Return to Target Field

All photos of Minneapolis and Target Field available on Flickr.

I visited Erik this past weekend in Minneapolis, and in doing so, made my first visit to Target Field since its inaugural season three years ago.  Although we were technically both at the park on Friday, Erik was working in the suites, so somehow we are over two months into the season now and have not been to a ballgame together yet.  Target Field is one of my favorite ballparks and I was super excited to be back.  The food, the materials, the urban site, the variety of seating and public areas - just about everything at this stadium is top notch.

I entered at the #3 Killebrew gate in left-center field and did a quick lap before heading to my seat up on the sky, just to investigate if I could notice anything different from my last visit.  The major difference is the batters' eye.  There used to be evergreen trees planted behind the centerfield wall with a tall forest green wall behind that, but as is typical in a lot of parks, the players whined and moaned about it, so they took the trees out and clad the batters' eye wall in some sort of black metal panel.  The Brewers and Reds have both had to do the same thing in recent years and I think it's pretty ridiculous, but I suppose it is important to please your star athletes.  The other thing I noticed that I did not three years ago was Two Gingers Pub on the 2nd level behind home plate.  It's a bar with a direct view onto the field that is open to all fans and I ate my delicious Murray's steak sandwich there.  As I eluded to earlier and talked about in my 2010 review, one of my favorite things about Target Field are all of the standing room and public areas in the stadium.  In contrast, I have talked in the past about how unfortunate I think it is that Miller Park has all of these bars that are not only private access, but also take up most of the standing room space in the stadium.  Target Field is just the opposite - there are many plazas, bars, and gathering areas throughout the park, which are made even more impressive when you understand how tight of a squeeze it was to build on this site.  I think social spaces are very important to break up what can sometimes be a monotonous 3+ hours, and they greatly add to those intangible qualities that put a park above the rest.  The Town Ball Tavern in left field also looked to be expanded, and I spent about half the game at the bar in left field with a great spot right in the front corner by the foul pole.  It's not really related to the ballpark per se, but I also noticed that they are building a huge intermodal transit hub where the Target Field light rail station is.  Erik said that 3 light rail lines and the commuter line will all converge there, so that will be great for fans and the city, and it makes me wish Milwaukee and Miller Park shared such a luxury.

Even though the Twins lost, I had a lot of fun at Friday night's game for a couple reasons.  First off, there was a long pregame ceremony for the 2013 inductions into the Twins Hall of Fame.  Longtime Twins Media Director and official scorekeeper Tom Mee was inducted first, followed by "Everday Eddie" Guardado.  I remember Eddie's crazy antics when he was the closer for the Twins about 10 years ago and he hasn't changed much in his retirement days - including still having the ability to zip a fastball on the black, as he showed when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch.  Mee and Guardado were both clearly humbled to be a part of this Twins fraternity that includes former greats such as Tony Oliva, Rod Carew, Rick Aguilera, Brad Radke, and former manager Tom Kelly.  The other reason I had a lot of fun was when I moved down to the bar in about the 5th and yucked it up with some fans there.  Again, I can't state it enough, social spaces are a great thing at a baseball park.  I love meeting people at ballgames because inevitably it will lead to me telling stories about the '07 Tour.  I bought the cheapest seat in the house because I knew I was going to move to the bar anyways, and after the 600-lb couple standing in front of me waddled out of the way I had a great view and good time talking to Twins fans.

After the game I met up with Erik and his girlfriend Katie for the customary post-Twins game visit to Hubert's, and then we hit up some local dive on the way home.  Saturday is kind of a long story.  Let's just say we had a lot of ambitious plans and planning that day that fell through - both literally and figuratively, as part of the day included me falling through a knee-deep puddle.  I'll pause here for laughter..........ok, ready?  I typically do not handle myself well when things do not go as planned, but I recovered and we had a pretty nice little day despite the adversity.  Our main event of the day was supposed to be a drive out to Eau Claire, but a couple hours of hard rain passed through the area so we didn't chance it.  There's still about two months of Northwoods League season left so I'm sure we will make it out there at some point this year.  I view it as a travesty that I am 30 years old and still have not been to every minor league field in Wisconsin yet.

Brewers 28-40, -15.5 (3 @ Astros, 3 v. Braves)
Reds 42-28, -2.5
(4 v. Pirates, 3 @ Diamondbacks)
Twins 30-36, -7.5 (3 v. White Sox, 3 @ Indians)

Erik - 8 (+7 worked)

Peter - 15

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Biogenesis Clinic Investigation "Ongoing"

Even though I don't really consider it "news" I feel obligated to address the ongoing Biogenesis/Tony Bosch/PED scandal.  A lot of people, myself included, got all bent out of shape last week when it was "revealed" that MLB was seeking to suspend around 20 players connected with the Biogenesis "anti-aging" clinic in Miami that reportedly supplied illegal performance-enhancing substances to a slew of players, most notably Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun.  I was on the phone with my parents when the news broke and it was made to sound as if Braun and A-Rod would soon be receiving 100-game suspensions, and of course I panicked and texted a lot of people.  After the dust settled, I realized it was not really breaking news, and was just like any other of these stories - just saying that the investigation was ongoing and MLB was seeking suspensions.  Well, guess what - in other news, the sky is blue.  It's no secret that MLB has been looking to crucify Ryan Braun since his overturned suspension ruling following the 2011 season.  Despite going through all the appropriate legal channels, and even though his positive test should never have been made public until after the appeal process was over, Ryan Braun was made out to be a villain, and somebody that made Bud Selig look bad.  He was booed the entire 2012 season but responded with perhaps his best statistical year yet, and in my opinion was cheated out of a repeat MVP award in part due to his association with PEDs. 

I've been a proponent of Selig's drug program and I think it's great the game is being cleaned up, and I have been vocal about my opinions of him as one of the greatest commissioners of all time.  But for MLB to resort to shady avenues to suspend Braun and other players it feels have used PEDs seems kind of irresponsible to me.  After failed subpoenas of Tony Bosch's records and interviews that have led nowhere, MLB's next step is to turn Bosch into a witness against players he previously denied associating with?  I'm not a lawyer, but even I could find more holes in that argument than Swiss cheese.  It should be pretty clear to even the most uninformed of people that Bosch is just being paid off to save his own skin.  MLB should be making its rules more stringent, not trying to cover its tracks while looking ridiculous in the process with stunts like this.  I will say that, in this age of instant digital media and breaking news, I don't envy MLB having to conduct their business amongst all the hearsay.  ESPN and MLB Network certainly are not making things any better by reporting third-hand stories and making a big deal out of hand-written notes a known criminal wrote in his drug lab.

The fact is, players are going to continue to bend the rules, as they have since the game's inception.  Before PEDs, it was amphetamines and pitchers doctoring the ball; only the style of cheating has changed.  As with all the other scandals and drugs before this, players are going to keep cheating until MLB makes its penalties more strict and/or changes the rules.  It should be a full year suspension for a first positive PED test, and a lifetime ban for a second.  If a player knows he can cheat, put up big numbers, and then get a huge contract after 50 games (i.e. Melky Cabrera, Manny Ramirez), to many it is worth the risk.  On the other side of that coin, I'm also getting sick of players being unfairly named guilty in the media until proven innocent, which is the opposite of how our judicial system is supposed to work.  As hard as it is sometimes, I believe everything Ryan Braun says wholeheartedly and am giving him the benefit of the doubt, and I hope that educated fans are willing to do the same with all the suspected players until they admit guilt or all the facts are out.  As much as I want to see A-Rod kicked out of baseball, nobody should be paying any attention to this story unless/until suspensions are handed out - but thank you for reading my rant anyways.

Brewers 25-37, -15.0 (3 @ Marlins, 3 @ Reds)
Reds 37-25, -3.0
(4 @ Cubs, 3 v. Brewers)
Twins 27-32, -7.0 (3 v. Phillies, 3 v. Tigers)

Erik - 8 (+3 worked)

Peter - 14

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Northwoods League Opening Week

All photos from the Mallards opening homestand available on Flickr.

Memorial Day is recognized throughout America as the unofficial start to summer, which for me means another exciting season of summer collegiate baseball.  Despite torrential downpours and flooding throughout the Midwest, the Northwoods League kicked off its 20th season this past Wednesday.  I'm beating a dead horse at this point when I mention that the Northwoods League and Warner Park are my favorite league and ballpark in the country, so the week of Memorial Day is always one of the more exciting times of the year for me.  It's especially exciting this year because I moved into a house a couple months ago that is 4 blocks from the park!  I can't even describe how amazing it is to be able to walk to (and stumble home from) a ballgame, and inevitably when the day comes that I move again, I don't know how I'm going to live without this convenience.  The storms predicted for Friday evening stayed to the east of Madison and I was able to take in the first game of my 7-pack in full.

The major renovation that spanned 3 offseasons may be complete, but that certainly doesn't mean a lack of improvements at the ol' ball yard.  The most notable addition this year is the ticket/team office building.  It's totally within the philosophy of Steve Schmitt and Vern Stenman to put fans first, so all these years, the Mallards' own staff has had to make do in very cramped conditions, making this additional 6,500 SF of space long overdue.  The building is clad in shiny aluminum siding and had all of its doors and windows donated by Feldco in exchange for advertising.  The second notable addition to the park is the new jumbotron, which is over 4x larger than its predecessor.  The fact that a summer collegiate team has a jumbotron at all is an accomplishment, so perhaps I shouldn't complain, but in my opinion it's not used very properly.  At Friday's game, really it was just showing the feed of the game on a 3-second delay.  Showing the live game while at the game just does not make any sense to me, unless it's in an area where some fans have restricted views.  It seems like with the way the Mallards approach a night at the ballpark that there should be more wacky animations and advertising on the board, and more player information.  Other than those two items, it's business as usual at Warner Park.  Still an amazing selection of food and craft beers, and a ridiculous promotional schedule.  I obtained a Bike Safety Maynard bobblehead and a sweet Mallards cap before hitting up the buffet and settling in for the game.  I really love my seats this year - they are one section right of homeplate, 4 rows up in the 200 level.  It sounds ridiculous, but last year I was actually so close to the field I was obstructed by the dugout.  The seating bowl is right on top of of the field at this park, perhaps illegally so if it were a minor league field.

The Mallards fell 4-3 to the Loggers.  Usually in this league, it does not take more than a couple games to figure out who the standouts of a team will be.  It was pretty clear a week into the season last year that Tyler Marincov and Jeff Zimmerman would be special players.  2B Eric Cheray was the biggest contributor on this night, with a homerun in the 4th and a couple nice defensive plays.  I've also got an eye on cleanup hitter Sam Koenig because he goes to my alma mater UW-Milwaukee.  3B Genote Jackson also looks to have some pretty good skills.  It's too early to tell but those are the players I made note of.  The day after I was there, C Mike Fitzgerald knocked in 7 on two homeruns, so he will also be a player to watch.  SP Jeff D'Amato only went 4 innings for the Mallards and managed to only give up one run despite struggling with command.  Madison made a game of it in the 9th thanks to some shotty LaCrosse defense but in the end it wasn't enough.  SP Collin Lee of the Loggers pitched very well, he struck out 6 over 6, had good movement on all of his pitches with a large variation in velocity.  Also of note from this game is that the Mallards have really sweet uniforms this year.  They're kind of like the old Astros uniforms with the multi-colored stripes in the front, and the Mallards version also features a silhouette of the Madison skyline.  I'm hoping I can obtain one of those in the team store next year for $30 like I did the jersey I have now.

Brewers 21-33, -15.5 (3 v. Athletics, 4 v. Phillies)
Reds 35-21, -2.5
(3 v. Rockies, 3 v. Cardinals)
Twins 24-29, -5.5 (3 @ Royals, 3 @ Nationals)

Erik - 8 (+3 worked)

Peter - 13