Thursday, May 28, 2009

This Friday....The World as We Know it Will Change

Matt Wieters is:

(a) God
(b) a switch-hitting catcher that Baltimore fans hope will be a cornerstone for a new Oriole dynasty
(c) an over-hyped prospect destined to fail in some critics eyes unless he wins the Rookie of the Year, MVP and triple crown
(d) a 23 year old kid from Goose Creek, South Carolina who may struggle from time to time as he adjusts to major league pitching
(e) all of the above
(f) all they above except a

So it’s time. The week began with a call up of one super-hyped prospect (David Price) and will end with the call up of young Mr. Wieters. The 2007 first round draft pick will join recent call ups Brad Bergesen, Nolan Reimold and Jason Berken Friday when he is scheduled to debut against the Detroit Tigers. If anything it should boost attendance for the last place club.

There was an argument that he could have made the club out of spring training. However, as Rays fans know from last year’s Evan Longoria saga, the extra month on the roster would have cost the O’s a year of control over Wieters thanks to the convoluted “Super 2” free agent / arbitration rules. Unlike Longoria I don’t foresee the young catcher signing a long term deal a week after he is called up. Why you ask? Scott Boras I would answer. The celebrity agent has made his feelings about long term deals prior to free agency well known.

Those conversations are best saved for discussions many years from now. Now we (O’s fans) get to see a line-up that has made us giddy thinking about it for over a year. A line up that includes Wieters, blossoming super star Adam Jones, old reliable Brian Roberts, Nick “the Greek God of Eutaw Street” Markakis and walk off superstar Reimold.

There really aren’t too many position players on the doorstep in the minors for the O’s so we’ll be seeing the players that will be making up the core of the team for the next few seasons. Following Wieters call up the only top 10 position player prospect left in the minors will be third baseman Billy Rowell. Aubrey Huff could be gone this season, used as trade material for more prospects. Melvin Mora, who is enjoying another steady season, will probably play out his contract and then Rowell should be ready to take over.

For Wieters, who signed a club record $6,000,000 bonus in 2007, the pressure will be immense. The days of a prospect getting called up and having a grace period with fans and critics are long gone. People will expect results from day one and won’t hesitate to call him a bust after his first 0-10 slump.

Not only will he have to worry about his hitting, he will also have to learn a pitching staff that is young. In the Detroit series the Oriole starters are David Hernandez, Brad Bergesen, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jason Berken. The combined number of major league starts for that quartet is 75 which isn’t bad until you see that 67 of those starts are by Guthrie. He will also have to deal with a Japanese pitcher with a limited grasp of English once Koji Uehara returns from the DL.

It will be interesting to see how he is used once he is called up. Will Dave Trembley throw him into the fire and have him as the number one catcher day in and day out? Will he spot start him against weaker pitching? Will he keep Gregg Zaun as his number one catcher, but have Wieters DH?

Based on early comments from GM Andy McPhail, the dynamic young hitter is being called up to play every day. “The line up is up to the manger, but we didn’t bring him up here to sit.” The GM told the Baltimore Sun on Wednesday. That’s all well and good in theory, but how long will his leash be. If he starts off 2-20 with 10 strikeouts does Trembley keep running him out there?

At this point in the season he might as well. Despite their thumping of the slumping Blue Jays this week the O’s are still mired in last place. With their young pitching staff, and the stiff competition they face within their own division, they will probably stay in last place for the rest of the season. Disappointing for the fans and the players, but at least all of the signs are pointing to the future.

No longer are the O’s struggling to finish fourth with aging, middle of the road free agent signings. No longer are they trying to compete with clubs like New York or Boston on the free agent market, instead they are adopting the build from within strategies that have proved productive for clubs like Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Oakland. Even the offer they made to Mark Teixeira in the off-season hinted at appeasing the fans. They knew he didn’t want to play here and they didn’t want to pay the amount of money it would have taken to sign him. Instead they used that money on Roberts and Markakis.

So I know it’s not in the nature of the internet generation, but give the kid a chance. Don’t judge him on one game or one week or even one month. See where he is after 50 games or so. I have a feeling you won’t be disappointed.

Oh and the answer to the question is (f). After all, everyone knows Clapton is God.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Let's Hold Off on That Hall of Fame Plaque For a Bit

Well, that went well, eh? Three and 1/3 innings, 5 walks, 100 pitches (57 strikes) and 2 runs allowed. That was the box score for David Price’s first start of 2009. There were some high notes - 6 strikeouts and hitting 98 mph on the gun. He did mix in a few change-ups which, at 86 mph were devastating when following one of his heaters.

Unfortunately, his inability to get ahead of hitters (he fell behind 10 of the 19 hitters that he faced) was his undoing. He wasn’t able to locate his fastball so he wasn’t able to set up his slider or change up. When you’re walking and striking out a lot of hitters you’re pitch count is going to build in a hurray. Add in a lot of full counts (6 in total) and Price’s start ended up being, well Kazmirian.

I’m not worried about Price. Despite his lack of control he showed that he belonged in the majors. I imagine he will settle down for his next start now that he will settle into a regular routine. I have a feeling he’s up to stay even when Kazmir makes his way back into the rotation,

As far as last night’s game it’s not the end of the world. They lost a game they should have won, there’s no need to lock the doors and declare the season over. They shouldn’t have won the game the week before when they were down by seven so as far as I’m concerned they’re even on the season. Over all they are five games back of the Red Sox with more than 4 months to go.

So is it time to panic yet? Not really. Even though they are 5 games back, none of the teams in front of them look unbeatable. The Yankees still have questions in their bullpen and the Red Sox have had their struggles as well. Toronto had a good start to the season when they were beating up on the AL Central and AL West. Now that they’re playing their own division they’ve dropped back to the pack.

The Rays have a few more games against Cleveland then games against Kansas City and Minnesota. If they win both of those series they’ll be right back into the thick of things. After that, the red hot Yankees and Angels loom - more stiff competition. They need to get their act together by then or else the season will really be in jeopardy.

So what do they need to do to get their act together? First string together some solid starts from their staff. Right now Matt Garza is their only reliable starter. With the rest of the staff (including Shields) struggling to get out of the fifth inning they are putting tremendous pressure on their bullpen. When that happens you end up with games like Monday night against the Indians.

BJ Upton needs to start hitting. The good news is that he is hitting 30 points higher in May than he was in April. The bad news is that he only hit .177 in April. The good news is that when he does get on he usually scores. Twenty-nine runs in 39 games isn’t that bad. Imagine what would happen if he gets his OBP up closer to his career average of .359.

With the loss of Aki! do you move him down to second in the line up? Common sense would dictate that Bartlett leads off when he returns to the lineup with Aki!’s replacement taking up a spot in the bottom of the lineup. Perhaps if Upton starts hitting with a runner on first he’ll focus on hitting to the right side which can only help his swing.

That being said, offense hasn’t been a problem with this year’s club. At least it hasn’t been this month. Carlos Pena , Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria have carried the team this far. Now it’s time for Shields, Sonnanstine, Price and Jeff Neiman to step up. If the starters pick their game up then the bullpen will sort itself out.

If Bartlett goes on the 15 day DL then it looks like they are going to need their bench to step up. Does this mean Reid Brignac is the starter or do they go with Zobrist. While Zo-Rilla may be Mr. Dramatic this year it doesn’t translate into day-to-day performance. I believe they’ll go with Zobrist at short and Aybar at second for now. It’s too bad they couldn’t have held onto Adam Kennedy for another week or so.

They are 14 and 10 this month so there are signs that things are moving in the right direction. You have to remember that the season is a marathon not a sprint. It’s easy to rant and rave after a disastrous loss. You can criticize Maddon’s tactics from sitting starters to mixing and matching pitchers, but remember a manager should be judged on what happens over the whole season not over five games.

There were plenty of doubters last season that he proved wrong so he earns the benefit of the doubt. If resting Bartlett or Pena in April pays off with improved performance in September then I’ll take it. There is no doubt that by the time the Rays made it to the playoffs they were a tired team - the World Series is proof of that.

Maddon and Andrew Freidman are big picture thinkers. They do not scrap their plans based on one loss or being five games behind in May. They will look to fix a problem, but not at the expense of their over all plan. They won’t trade a prospect like Desmond Jennings for a rent-a-bullpen pitcher. The rest of the TBA may be clamoring for change, but they won’t bow to the pressure. That’s a good thing folks, if you don’t think it is take a look at the Lightning’s 2008-09 season. The Rays are going to win or loss with the players on the roster right now - don’t expect any blockbuster deals.

So lets see where this team is on June 5th when they start a series with the Yankees.

New feature - favorite local radio quotes!

5/26/09 - Steve Duemig “The only reason he’s (Joe Maddon) doing it this year is because it worked last year. Well BFD!”

That’s right Steve-O let’s not do anything that worked last year!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pack Review - The Return of Collector's Choice!

So I was weak. I broke down. I stopped by the card store and picked up a box - a box of 2008-09 Upper Deck Collectors Choice. As a collector whose financial situation has changed in the last month this product is right up my alley. The local brick and mortar store has packs for 89 cents and a 36 pack box for $25.00. So it was just a bit of a relapse.

I grabbed one pack out of the box to give you an idea of what the set has to offer. All photos are from UD's site. As of now I still haven't gotten around to buying a scanner.

Sidney Crosby - Pittsburgh Penguins. Sid the Kid, The Next One, Cindy Crosby, whatever you want to call him he is one of the poster children of the new NHL (as well as the cover boy for this set).

David Booth - The Florida Panthers. As a Lightning fan I refuse to say anything nice about a Stinkin’ Panther.

Calgary Flames 3 Star Selections (Jarome Iginla, Miika Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf) - Perhaps my favorite part of the set. Each team has a card that pictures three influential players. Sadly I did not pull a Lightning card from the box.

Johan Franzen - Detroit Red Wings (Choice Reserve) - Advertised as “1 Choice Reserve Foil Parrallel Card in Every Pack” and sure enough there is one in every pack, even the pack with the other parrallel’s. Yes I know that's not Mr. Franzen. UD didn't have a photo of the choice reserve's so you got the only other photo that was on my desktop - Fabio from Top Chef.

Markus Naslund - New York Rangers Cupquest (Semi Finals) - Similar to the StarQuest cards that have made a comeback in Upper Deck’s releases this year. It looks like each card has four different levels (First Round, Second Round, Semi-Finals, Stanley Cup).

Other than the stickers this is really the only insert the set offers. No patches or autographs as far as I can see. This set is definitely geared towards younger collectors or those looking for a cheap set to complete.

Alex Tanguay - Montreal Canadians. How'd that 100th anniversary season turn out?

Opening the box was fun. I knew there wasn’t going to be a big “hit” so I was able to open the packs without expectations. I actually enjoyed seeing what players I got in the pack instead of worrying if there was a thick relic or auto card in the pack. If you’re looking for a set without all the drama or fuss - check this one out.

The fact that I scored a Steven Stamkos rookie in the box didn’t hurt either. Hope you enjoyed the quick recap.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Miles Away from Ordinary

No this isn’t a post about Corona…a beer that’s made it’s living on a fictional ideal rather than it’s taste - kind of like the Mexican version of Bud Light. I’ve just decided to make this post about something other than sports.

One of my projects lately has been to load all of my CD’s into iTunes. Why am I doing this? Well other then having a shocking amouny of free time, I figure if I have them all on the computer (and backed up) I can get rid of the cd's and clear out a ton of space in our office / temporary bedroom.

I just burned all of our Beatles CD’s and that led me to ponder the following questions. What are the best Beatles songs of all time? Then I realized that idea has been done to death. Just go ahead and do a quick internet search for that and let someone else tell you what the best is.

Not wanting to let go of the topic I decided to go with a slightly different question. What are the five best Beatles covers out there?

Now I know what the purists will say - no one did it better than the Beatles!!!!! Excellent point, but not what we’re talking about here. Trust me I’ve heard enough bad bands playing bad versions in bad bars to know that the original is better than a copy. What we’re looking for here are known performers that do justice to the original and offer their own take of the classic songs.

So without further adieu - here we go!

Honorable Mention:

Floyd from the Muppet Show - While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I found this one during my search for another version of this song. The only reason it didn’t make it to the top five was the fact that it was only about a minute long. This did lead to about 30 minutes of watching Muppet versions of songs. Have I told anyone how much I love youtube?

Number 5 - Jeff Healy - While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The aforementioned video that I was looking for. A gloriously 90's update to the George Harrison penned classic by the blind guy from Roadhouse. It wasn’t until after I saw Roadhouse that I realized Healy was a pretty respected musician in his own right. He definitely knew how to rock the mullet back in the day.

Number 4 - Jim Sturgess - I’ve Just Seen a Face

From the Beatles inspired motion picture Across the Universe. If there is a better song ever written about the early moments of falling for a girl I haven’t heard it yet. Say what you will about the movie (personally, except for Bono’s performance’s I liked it) you can almost hear the smile in Sturgess’ voice as he sings this.

Number 3 - Michael Jackson - Come Together

I was more than ready to slot Aerosmith’s version here until I stumbled across this forgotten gem. It comes from the greatness that was “Moonwalker” Michael Jackson is at the apex of his career here. I mean leather pants and a championship belt? You cannot get better than that. He also injects a swaggering snarl into the stream of consciousness John Lennon lyrics that makes the song his own. In case you didn’t know Lennon had written this song for Timothy Leary’s campaign for governor of California. Leary was soon busted for pot possesion, Ronald Regan won and this song reached number one in the US Billboard Charts.

Number 2 - Noel Gallagher - Help

One half of the volatile brothers from Oasis does true justice to the lyrics of one of Lennon’s most revealing songs. Of course the studio didn’t think that it would be good for the hottest band in the world to release a slow ballad of insecurity and helplessness so they had the band play it as the up-tempo hit that everyone has come to know and love.

Number 1 - Eddie Vedder - You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away

The first song I ever downloaded from iTunes, Vedder lends his unique voice to Lennon’s ode to a mistress (or Brian Epstein's sexual orientations depending on what legend you choose to believe). Some covers veer too far away from the original and others are carbon copies that don’t add anything to the original. This one, through Vedder’s ragged voice, seems to enhance the intimacy of the song.

Feel free to discuss amongst yourself. Do you like the list? Are there others out there that I missed?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Yea a Trip To The Flea Market!!!

So one of the things I told myself was that I was going to cut out on buying new cards until things righted themselves financially. That plan lasted exactly 11 days. The good news is that instead of dropping $150 at Dave and Adams, or even $40 at the local shop, I managed to limit my spending to a cool $5.00.

For that sawbuck I picked up 24 new cards, twenty of which were needed in my quest to complete the 2008 Allen & Ginter set. For 10 cents a card I put a series dent into the cards needed section (see the rest here). I even managed to pick up 4 short prints that I needed.

The other four cards were:

Brad Bergerson 2005 Bowman First Year. The advanced scout for the oncoming pitching army in the O's organization. The young right hander is 1-0 in four starts for the O's this season.

Nick Markakis 2009 Upper Deck A Piece of History. It was the only Markakis card I saw the whole day so I felt obliged to pick it up.

2002 Topps Tribute Jim Palmer and Frank Robinson. Hey I like shiny cards. Especially shiny cards that remind me of the glory days of the Baltmore organization (even if I wasn't around for those days).

So there you go. A couple of hours spent sorting through 5000 count boxes and I'm a happy camper.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Run Carl RUN!!!!!

First of all, thank you to everyone who sent condolences on my recent career change. The search for what I want to do when I grow up is on and it will be interesting to see how it goes. Now back to regular programming.

This morning Mario over at Wax Heaven wrote a quick post on Carl Crawford and offered to his multitude of readers the question, “Do you think Carl Crawford will steal 100 bases this season?” Never one to miss an opportunity to expound on someone else’s idea I decided to borrow that post for mine. And by the way, if you’re into collecting make sure that Mario’s site is on your list of daily reads, no one in the business is more informed.

As for the main question, I believe that Crawford has the best chance in the last 20 years to break the century mark in stolen bases. He has so many positive factors going for him, the number one being that he seems to be 100% healthy for the first time in two seasons. Leg issues limited him to a career low of 25 steals last year.

This year he has been a demon on the base paths. Twenty steals in 29 games, highlighted by a 6 steal effort against Boston last weekend. The fact that he hasn’t been thrown out yet this season is almost as impressive as the number of bases he’s swiped. In fact several times he’s slid into second with nary a throw from the catcher.

So how is he going to do it? Well, first of all, he needs to keep getting on base. His OBP is currently at .374, more than 40 points higher than his career average. His .302 average is helping him get on base, but what is really helping is that he is walking more in his career than he ever has. Over his career he has 208 walks in 4185 plate appearances, averaging a walk every 20 at bats or so. This season he has 12 walks in 131 plate appearances, which breaks down to one every nine at bats.

It appears after 7 full seasons he is maturing as a hitter. Taking more walks makes him more of a threat then ever. In Crawford’s case a walk is almost as good as a double. He is hitting a respectable .256 against lefties this year, no longer trying to pull everything against southpaws. Several times this year we have seen him lay the bat on the ball and shoot a ground ball into left.

Blessed with above average speed he is also becoming a better base runner. Early in his career, he stole bases primarily with raw natural speed. Now he uses that speed along with his knowledge to a much greater effect. Even if a pitcher guess correctly and attempts a pickoff or a pitchout he has the speed to “outrun” the ball.

What about his adversary - the catcher? After all Jorge Posada is throwing out 35% of the runners who are stealing on him. Well sure, but Jason Varitek and Gregg Zaun are only throwing out 20% of their would be base stealers. The Toronto catchers are fairing a bit better nailing 25% of the runners. Crawford has a ton of games against his AL East rivals, thus a ton of opportunities to run wild.

Manager Joe Maddon has always stated the Crawford is one of the players that has the green light to steal in all situations. Three times this season Crawford has swiped third base. A risky proposition when he has Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena hitting behind him. After all, with his speed he will score from second as easily as he can score from third.

Speaking of Longoria and Pena, their hot starts is aiding Crawford’s quest for 100. Pitchers can’t afford to get behind to either of those hitters by pitching out. Plus with Crawford dancing around on the bases the pitchers’ attention are definitely divided. When a pitcher can’t focus entirely on the hitter he has a tendency to make bad pitches. Bad pitches tend to go pretty far off of the bats of Longo and Pena.

Crawford is third on the team with 17 runs scored which doesn’t seem like a high amount. However, he has scored six times in the last seven games, all games in which he has had a stolen base. You might wonder why he hasn’t been moved to the leadoff role, especially since BJ Upton is struggling so far this season. The leftfielder has mentioned in the past that he doesn’t like leading off, as a matter of fact he prefers to hit third. Also, Maddon is stubborn (or loyal depending on your point of view) and he is determined to let Upton fight his way out of the slump. I don’t disagree with him. Upton is showing signs of life and once he starts reaching base opponents will be faced with the dire possibility of facing both him and Crawford on the base paths.

Overall, does his proficiency on the base paths help or hurt the Rays? Some saber metric/ money ball experts will say that the stolen base doesn’t help a team out and that the risk isn’t worth the reward. I don’t know if I agree with that in Crawford’s case. He swipes bases at a greater than 80% success rate so it’s not like he’s getting thrown out every other attempt.

The Rays play an up-tempo game that is predicated on putting pressure on the defense. Stealing bases is key to that. For example, during Tuesday’s game against the Orioles Crawford stole second, a bad throw from Zaun allowed him to advance to third. While he was on his way to third, O’s centerfielder Adam Jones sailed a throw into the dugout and CC was able to waltz home. One pitch and a run scored. For a team that struggles to drive in runners from time to time it’s nice to be able to score without swinging the bat.

Crawford stole 5 bases in the teams first 15 games. Over that time the team was 6-9. With 15 steals in the next 14 games the Rays have gone 7-7. Coincidence? Possibly. The Rays have been getting more offense lately, and their bullpen has shown signs of life as well. However, you could make the argument that Houston native’s thievery could be sparking the recent improved play.

It is a long season, there are over 120 games left in the season. Playing on the turf, no matter how close to the real stuff it seems, is going to take a toll on Crawford. As the games become more meaningful, will he steal more or less? If he goes into a prolonged slump will he be able to get on base enough to attempt 100 steals?

The answers to those questions are going to be key in finding out if Crawford can be the first player since Vince Coleman to steal 100 bags. It will be a nice subplot to a season that has gotten off to a rocky start.