December 19, 2014

Restaurant Review: Spoon and Stable

I'm not and will never be a "foodie," but I like to eat (a little too much of late, unfortunately) and since moving to Minneapolis last winter I've gone to a lot of restaurants for the first time, so when one stands out as an especially good dining experience I thought it would be worthwhile to write a review. This might become a regular feature and it might be my last review ever, so apologies in advance to anyone not interested.

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Gavin Kaysen grew up in Bloomington, Minnesota and went on to travel the globe becoming a Michelin starred, James Beard Award-winning chef, making a substantial name for himself in New York working under world renowned chef Daniel Boulud at Café Boulud. So when news broke in June that Kaysen was moving back to Minnesota and opening his own restaurant in Minneapolis there was a ton of excitement in the "people who like to eat cool food" community.

Spoon and Stable was booked up so fast that my December 16 reservation was made a month in advance and required taking the not-so-coveted 5:00 p.m. slot. Yet at 4:50 p.m. there were early birds waiting outside with their noses pressed against the window watching as the bartenders and servers finished their last-minute prep. They kept the doors locked until five o'clock on the dot, but a hostess did come outside and offer a free shot of hot chocolate to combat the cold.

Once inside we walked past a nice bar area to the main dining room, where we were seated at a cozy two-person table next to the clear-windowed wine room and just a few yards from the open kitchen where Kaysen was running things all night. It was fun to watch him manage the chaos, tasting various spoonfuls and expediting dishes at the pass. There was no Gordon Ramsey-style screaming and he projected a sense of calm, frequently re-arranging his station to keep it tidy.

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Oh, and the food was amazing.

Spoon and Stable has a small menu consisting of six sections with three dishes apiece: Garden, Chilled, Pasta, Sea, Land, and Sides. There's also an extensive wine list, a good selection of beer including local "Gleeman and The Geek" friends Summit and Sociable Cider Werks, and custom cocktails priced at $13. I ordered my usual Jack and Coke, but switched to Buffalo Trace when the server realized they don't have Jack Daniels. That's basically the only strike against the place.

I chose Cider Glazed Chicken ($25), my girlfriend chose Slow Cooked Atlantic Cod ($25), and we split a small Pappardelle ($12) and Crispy Potatoes ($8). I wasn't sure what to expect for portion sizes given the relatively high prices and Kaysen's sterling rep, but each dish had plenty of food and was presented beautifully. In retrospect we probably didn't need to eat the complimentary bread and butter served on slabs of unused marble from the construction, but we did.

The crispy potatoes were like souped-up potato wedges with a great, subtle garlic seasoning and perfectly crisp skin. For only $8 it was an outstanding side-turned-appetizer and something I could definitely see myself ordering from the bar menu another night. The pasta was handmade and rustic, with big pappardelle noodles covered in a not-too-rich goat ragu. Even a half-order split two ways was lots of food.

My dish was the juiciest, most tender chicken I've ever eaten. I made that proclamation after one bite, forced my girlfriend to try it herself to see if I was lying, and got a "wow" response. And then later she snagged another bite because the chicken (and the thyme jus) was so damn good. The fennel sausage and roasted carrots were also very tasty and in perhaps the highest compliment I can give a chef even the brussels sprout were good.

She also said it was "the best couscous I've ever had" and on top was perfectly cooked cod, with Mediterranean spices that meshed extremely well together. A tight presentation hid what was a very solid amount of food. For dessert we split a Chocolate Chiboust ($10) that brought together ice cream, sliced bananas, a mousse-like rich chocolate, and a hazelnut praline sprinkled on top. I'm not usually much of a dessert eater, but it was a nice final note to the meal.

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Our server, Marcus, was fantastic. He was chatty without being annoying, knew a month-old menu like the back of his hand, actually gave some helpful tips on what to order, and even established a few running jokes with us. He got plenty of help from other servers and every person we came in contact with was extraordinarily friendly while giving off a vibe that they were happy to be there and confident you were happy to be there too.

After waiting a month to get a table and hearing other positive reviews from people who got in there before me it's possible I was so hyped up to eat at Spoon and Stable that any sort of decent experience would thrill me, but I genuinely had an amazing meal and it's right up there with any first-time dining experience I've ever had. The food was high level without being pretentious, the service was flawless, and the atmosphere was sleek, intimate, and welcoming.

December 17, 2014

Twins Notes: Parmelee, Graham, Gilmartin, and Morales

Chris Parmelee Twins

• Needing to make room on the 40-man roster for Torii Hunter and Ervin Santana the Twins first dropped Chris Colabello--who was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays--and have now designated Chris Parmelee for assignment. Parmelee was previously dropped from the 40-man roster during spring training, but passed through waivers unclaimed, stayed in the organization, and was eventually re-added to the roster.

Parmelee was the Twins' first-round draft pick in 2006 and as a California high schooler his power potential received lots of hype, but that simply never developed. His path to the majors stalled at Double-A, where he repeated the level and hit .282/.355/.416 with 19 homers in 253 total games, but Parmelee got a September call-up in 2011 and came out of nowhere to hit .355/.443/.593 in 21 games for the Twins. Unfortunately that proved to be a mirage.

In three seasons since then Parmelee logged 813 plate appearances in the big leagues, including several stints as a lineup regular, but hit .238/.304/.371 with 20 homers and a 197/63 K/BB ratio in 252 games. During that same period his Triple-A numbers were a lot more promising and at age 27 he still has time to become a productive major leaguer, but Parmelee got a fair shake in Minnesota and just never hit enough for a mediocre defensive first baseman/corner outfielder.

• Selected by the Twins in the Rule 5 draft, J.R. Graham is a one-time top prospect whose career has been derailed by shoulder problems. Graham was the Braves' fourth-round draft pick in 2011 out of Santa Clara and moved quickly through their system, advancing to Double-A in his second pro season. He fared well there at age 22 and that offseason Baseball America ranked Graham as a top-100 prospect, praising his mid-90s fastball and ability to generate ground balls.

However, the diminutive right-hander broke down in 2013, making just eight starts, and last year Graham posted a 5.55 ERA while being limited to 71 innings back at Double-A due to more arm issues. Once on the fast track, Graham is now 25 years old and has yet to advance past Double-A, spending three years there with increasingly poor results. His fastball has dipped into the low-90s and the Braves thought so little of Graham's upside that they left him off the 40-man roster.

Rule 5 picks must remain in the majors for the entire season or be offered back to their original team. Graham has been a starter throughout his career, but shifted to the bullpen last year and could be stashed by the Twins in a middle relief role pretty easily. They did that with Rule 5 pick Ryan Pressly in 2013, giving him 49 low-leverage appearances, and shifting to the bullpen full time could help Graham stay healthy too.

• As part of the Rule 5 draft the Twins also lost left-hander Sean Gilmartin to the Mets. Acquired from the Braves last offseason in exchange for Ryan Doumit, the 24-year-old former first-round pick turned mediocre prospect fared well at Double-A and then struggled at Triple-A. He doesn't throw hard or generate many strikeouts and now has a 5.03 ERA in 38 starts at Triple-A, so it's tough to see Gilmartin developing into a useful starter in the majors.

However, he may still have some value in the bullpen as a situational southpaw. This past season righties hit .285 off Gilmartin, but he held lefties to a .201 batting average with zero homers and a 49/4 K/BB ratio. Once the Twins decided to keep Brian Duensing via arbitration for around $2.5 million there wasn't much room for Gilmartin in their plans and losing a potential lefty specialist in the Rule 5 draft generally isn't worth fretting about.

• As a free agent last winter Kendrys Morales turned down a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Mariners and then found zero teams interested in forfeiting a draft pick to sign him. He sat out until after the draft, signing with the Twins for $7.5 million. Morales was terrible, first for the Twins and then back with the Mariners, hitting .218/.274/.338 in 98 games as a DH. And now the defending American League champs have given him a two-year, $17 million contract.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode featured tons of Santana talk, plus our attempt to figure out Eduardo Escobar rumors and Ricky Nolasco's place in the Twins' plans.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Harry's Razors, which has a special offer for "Gleeman and The Geek" listeners who use the promo code "GleemanHoliday" on their order.

December 15, 2014

Gleeman and The Geek #174: Ervin Santana

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included the Twins signing Ervin Santana for $55 million, picking J.R. Graham in the Rule 5 draft, revisiting the Ricky Nolasco signing, using Harry's Razors for your holiday shopping, incident-free press conferences, full rotations, dropping Chris Parmelee and Chris Colabello, signing Shane Robinson, payroll debates, and Eduardo Escobar rumors.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 174

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Harry's Razors, which has a special offer for "Gleeman and The Geek" listeners who use the promo code "GleemanHoliday" on their order.

December 12, 2014

Twins sign Ervin Santana to four-year, $55 million contract

Ervin Santana Twins

Last offseason Ervin Santana turned down the Royals' one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer in order to hit the open market as a free agent. Once there he found most teams unwilling to give him a multi-year contract for big money and forfeit a top-60 draft pick, so he ended up settling for a one-year, $14.1 million deal with the Braves. He had a solid year in Atlanta, but it was worse than his 2013 season in Kansas City, yet this time around the process played out differently.

Santana again turned down a one-year qualifying offer, this time worth $15.3 million from the Braves, but instead of settling for another one-year contract the Twins forfeited a second-round draft pick and gave him a four-year, $55 million deal that includes a fifth-year option for 2019. It is now the largest free agent contract in Twins history, surpassing the four-year, $49 million deal handed out to Ricky Nolasco last offseason.

Nolasco's first season in Minnesota was a mess, but at the time of the signing last offseason his resume was relatively similar to Santana's resume now. Nolasco was 31 years old and coming off a season in the National League during which he threw 199 innings with a 3.70 ERA, 3.58 xFIP, and 165/46 K/BB ratio. Santana is 32 years old and coming off a season in the National League during which he threw 196 innings with a 3.95 ERA, 3.47 xFIP, and 179/63 K/BB ratio.

Back then Nolasco had a 4.37 ERA with 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, including a 4.29 ERA with 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his three most recent years. Santana has a 4.17 ERA with 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, including a 4.06 ERA with 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his three most recent years. It's not a perfect comparison. Santana has more time in the American League and throws harder, among other differences. But you get the idea.

Nolasco was not at the top of my list for preferred pitching targets last offseason, but a four-year, $49 million commitment seemed reasonable within the context of the free agent pitching market. It obviously looks terrible now in large part because Nolasco pitched hurt for much of the season while hiding the injury from the Twins, but $49 million for four seasons of a previously durable mid-rotation starter was more or less the going rate.

And now the same is true of $55 million for four seasons of Santana, who has started at least 30 games and thrown at least 175 innings in five consecutive seasons. In four of those five years he posted an ERA under 4.00, with the exception being a miserable 2012 season with the Angels book-ended by two solid years on both sides. His fastball velocity has remained stable at 91-93 miles per hour and he leans very heavily on a low-80s slider, particularly as a strikeout pitch.

Among the 101 starters with at least 250 innings during the past two seasons Santana ranks 48th in ERA, 38th in xFIP, 45th in strikeout rate, 54th in walk rate, and 55th in ground-ball rate. Toss in durability and Santana has fit solidly into the No. 2 or No. 3 starter category depending on your definition of that label. His control can be spotty and as a fly-ball pitcher keeping the ball in the ballpark can be an issue, which is how Santana allowed an MLB-high 39 homers in 2012.

Santana signing for $55 million now, much like Nolasco signing for $49 million then, are examples of the Twins paying reasonable, market rates for good but not great veteran players to address an area of clear weakness for the present team. That doesn't mean the signings will necessarily work out positively, as Nolasco has shown so far, and it doesn't mean the biggest investment will have the biggest payoff, as Phil Hughes and his three-year, $24 million contract has shown so far.

Santana makes the Twins better and while it's possible to quibble about whether he's worth $55 million versus, say, $40 million or $70 million, they haven't come close to maximizing payroll in recent years anyway. Giving up a draft pick to make a four-year commitment to a 32-year-old is the risk, particularly with Hughes, Santana, and Nolasco locked up for multiple years in a rotation that may soon want to make room for guys like Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios, and Trevor May.

In the short term the rotation seems set. Hughes, Santana, and Nolasco have multi-year deals, Kyle Gibson isn't going anywhere after a decent showing at age 26, Mike Pelfrey is still under contract for $6 million, and the Twins somewhat surprisingly tendered Tommy Milone a contract at a projected arbitration salary of $2.8 million. Barring a trade or a change of heart the Opening Day rotation looks to be Hughes, Santana, Nolasco, Gibson, and either Pelfrey or Milone.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

December 10, 2014

Twins Notes: Arbitration, defensive numbers, coaches, and Colabello

Eduardo Nunez Twins

• Faced with seven arbitration-eligible players, the Twins tendered 2015 contracts to everyone but Anthony Swarzak. Cutting ties with Swarzak makes sense given his lack of upside and mediocre performance in a low-leverage role, but in previewing their arbitration-based decisions last month Tommy Milone, Brian Duensing, and Eduardo Nunez also struck me as potential non-tender candidates. Instead they kept all three at a projected combined salary of around $6.5 million.

Nunez in particular seems to serve little purpose given that he's 27 years old and hits like a utility infielder without actually being able to play defense like one. His projected $1.2 million salary is inconsequential, but it's hard to imagine the Twins not being able to find a better use of a roster spot. Trevor Plouffe and Casey Fien were no-brainers to keep and rightly or wrongly the Twins probably felt retaining Jordan Schafer for around $1.5 million was an easy call as well.

In keeping six of the seven arbitration-eligible players and signing Torii Hunter for $10.5 million the Twins have around $90 million committed for 2015 based on guaranteed contracts, projected arbitration salaries, and minimum salaries needed to fill out the roster. That's already more than they spent in 2013 or 2014 and there's been little indication that a large increase in spending is planned for 2015. And the roster also looks relatively set barring trades.

• In the wake of the Hunter signing Terry Ryan was asked again about defensive statistics and again downplayed their importance while reiterating that the Twins rely on their eyes to evaluate defense. Meanwhile, in losing 90-plus games each year from 2011-2014 the Twins' defense was 98 runs below average according to Ultimate Zone Rating, 107 runs below average according to Plus/Minus, and 115 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved.

Ryan repeatedly saying the Twins need to pitch better and repeatedly denying the Twins' defense has been awful is a weird, frustrating disconnect. Their outfield defense rated particularly poorly, yet when asked about that Ryan scoffs at the numbers and insists guys like Josh Willingham were perfectly adequate. He also scoffed at the numbers all rating Hunter as 15-25 runs below average during the past two seasons, saying:

I saw him, I think, maybe seven games or so [in 2014]. His defense for me was more than adequate. He's not the type of guy that you're going to say, "Oh, he can go over there and play center for a length of time," but I would guarantee you he could go out and play center field for a couple days and you wouldn't really miss too much. ...

You can use the metrics or you can use the eye, and you should use both. In this instance, I think we've seen him play probably 30-35 games as an evaluation process this year, and for the most part the lowest grade we had on him was average range. That's pretty good.

Twins scouts watched Hunter for 30-35 games and graded him average or better defensively, so that's what Ryan and the front office relied on rather than trusting the defensive numbers that all agree he was somewhere between bad and horrendous. By the way, Hunter had about two balls hit to him per game this year, so evaluating his defense based on watching 30-35 games is like evaluating a hitter based on watching 60-70 at-bats.

It's one thing to pay little attention to defensive numbers if your scouting department is doing an amazing job evaluating defense with their eyes, but in the Twins' case that seemingly hasn't been true for a while now. Ryan saying "I would guarantee you he could go out and play center field for a couple days and you wouldn't really miss too much" about a 39-year-old Hunter is crazy talk and the type of thing that makes me question a whole lot about the Twins behind the scenes.

• To round out Paul Molitor's coaching staff the Twins hired Butch Davis as first base coach. He spent 20 years coaching in the minors for the Orioles and joins pitching coach Neil Allen as the only coaches without previous Twins tiesTom Brunansky and Joe Vavra were with Molitor on Ron Gardenhire's staff, Gene Glynn was Rochester's manager, Rudy Hernandez coached 14 years in the organization, and Eddie Guardado pitched 12 years for the Twins.

• According to Darren Wolfson of 1500-ESPN the Twins reached out to fired Cubs manager Rick Renteria about becoming Molitor's bench coach, but "he rejected the overture immediately" and they eventually settled on Vavra. And according to Bob Nightingale of USA Today they wanted to hire Delino DeShields first base coach, but he chose instead to manage at Triple-A for the Reds and the job went to Davis.

Chris Colabello was dropped from the 40-man roster and claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays. He followed up a big April for the Twins by slumping horribly and getting demoted to Triple-A, and Colabello later admitted that he played most of the season with a significant thumb injury. At age 31 and with little defensive value it's hard to fault the Twins for giving up on Colabello after he hit .214/.284/.364 with a 124/34 K/BB ratio in 114 games.

Shane Robinson agreed to a minor-league deal with the Twins after spending the first nine years of his career in the Cardinals organization. Robinson has good speed and enough range to handle center field defensively, but he's hit just .231/.303/.308 in 452 plate appearances spread over parts of five seasons in the majors. He's shown a bit more offensive promise at Triple-A, but at age 30 he's strictly a backup option in what currently looks like a crowded outfield.

Danny Santana played mostly center field as a rookie despite never playing there regularly in the minors, but Molitor indicated that the Twins view him as an infielder for 2015. That seemingly makes them more likely to pursue center fielders in trades and free agency--Schafer, Robinson, and Aaron Hicks are the current in-house options--and could mean Eduardo Escobar is headed for a bench role after being an above-average starting shortstop in 2014.

• Willingham, whom the Twins traded to the Royals in August for minor leaguer Jason Adam, announced his retirement at age 35. Willingham had a great first year in Minnesota, but ended up hitting .232/.353/.446 and missing 116 of a possible 440 games for the Twins during a three-year, $21 million contract. Helluva career, though. Despite not getting his first extended chance in the majors until age 27 he posted an .823 OPS with 195 homers in 1,147 games.

Francisco Liriano, who posted a 3.20 ERA with 338 strikeouts in 323 innings for the Pirates during the past two years, re-signed for three years and $39 million. By comparison, the Twins have Ricky Nolasco signed for another three years and $37 million.

• Hunter debuted for the Twins on August 22, 1997 by pinch-running for Terry Steinbach in a loss to the Orioles. In that game Molitor was the Twins' designated hitter, batting third versus Baltimore starting pitcher Scott Erickson.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode was recorded at Sociable Cider Werks and we talked Hunter, Hunter, and more Hunter.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

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