December 22, 2004

Return of the Laptop

I realize I tend to complain about things a lot more often than I praise things, so allow me to say a few nice words about the service I just received from Hewlett-Packard.

As discussed here earlier, I was having trouble with my laptop not taking a charge. I called up HP, spoke to a very helpful person who decided it was the "pin" inside the computer that was the problem, and set up a time for my laptop to be picked up. FedEx came to my house, took the computer, gave me a receipt, and that was that. Of course, that was the easy part. Or so I thought -- it turns out the whole thing was easy.

From past experiences with computer problems, I expected to get my laptop back in a couple weeks, at the earliest. Instead, it showed up yesterday afternoon, just six days after it first left my hands. The problem is fixed, it didn't cost me a single cent since everything was under warranty, and now I can go back to spending 23.5 hours per day online. That's pretty amazing. It's like one of those feel-good stories about someone saving a baby from a burning building that sort of restores your faith in humanity a little bit, except with less fire and a 21-year-old baby.

The only real complaint I have about the entire thing (sorry, I just can't help myself) is that FedEx just rang the doorbell and left the laptop on the doorstep. Setting aside the potential for an expensive computer getting stolen (these townhouse communities in the suburbs of Minnesota are very dangerous, after all), the bigger issue is that it was under 10 degrees here yesterday. The computer was ice cold when I got it out of the box, and that is with me getting to the door about 20 seconds after it was left there. The thing would have had icicles on it if I'd have been away from the house.

With that out of the way, some other thoughts ...

  • For the past few weeks, I've been playing almost exclusively limit, ring-game poker, as opposed to the no-limit sit & go tournaments I typically play. I made the change mostly to practice for some upcoming trips to the Canterbury Park Card Club, where they play mostly limit/ring, but also just so I can become a more well-rounded gambling degenerate.

    The limit experiment started off pretty rough. I had a couple of good sessions and then a whole slew of bad ones, and found myself struggling so much that I was actually annoyed and confused (moreso than usual, I mean). I took a step back, tried to figure out exactly what I was doing wrong, and read the limit hold 'em chapter in Doyle Brunson's Super System. Then I went back to the tables and cleaned up like Winston Wolfe.

    I have had an amazing run of poker over the past few days, interestingly enough while playing on my mom's computer (she's thrilled about having Party Poker on her desktop now, I'm sure). I won $343 playing $2/$4 limit on Sunday night and then another $242 playing the same on Monday night. I was on a huge roll Monday and I think I would have really done some major damage, except Party Poker's servers went down for "routine maintenance" after a few hours. I felt like a guy who had three homers in his first three at-bats when the game was called on account of weather.

    I'm especially glad that I was playing well on Monday night, because Pauly from Tao of Poker (one of my favorite poker blogs) was apparently "watching" me play for a while. I had given him my Party Poker screen name and I would have hated to have him see me playing horribly (although I wasn't even aware he was watching at all).

    Here's what he wrote on his blog:

    I also lurked in the background and watched my favorite baseball blogger Aaron Gleeman run over his table. When I left he was up 15BB and I almost considered sitting down. Maybe later this week, Aaron.

    For those of you wondering, "15BB" means 15 "big bets." You can tell I'm not really a poker player yet, because I still say stuff like "I won $343" instead of figuring out how many big bets that is. Either that or I just stink at math.

  • I am giving some serious thought to playing in the no-limit tournament at Canterbury on January 5. I'm sure I'll have gone out there for some limit action before then, but playing in a live tournament sounds like a lot of fun. Plus, despite my nice run lately, I'm a far better no-limit player. If anyone has played in a tournament at Canterbury before, I'd love to hear what you thought of it. Not only have I never played there before, I've never played anywhere other than online before. So stuff like "get there early" or "don't eat at the buffet" would be really helpful tips.
  • I'm still trying to come to grips with the fact that I'll have to watch Luis Rivas for another year. My grief was made worse when I saw that two very solid potential second basemen were cut loose by their teams, while the Twins retained Rivas for a startling $1.625 million.

    The Dodgers non-tendered their starting second baseman, Alex Cora, while the Angels non-tendered their starting shortstop, David Eckstein (who has also played plenty of second base). Now, neither of these guys are incredibly talents or anything, but both would have made fine short-term answers at second base and both would have been upgrades over Rivas.

    2002-2004       AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
    
    Cora .264 .335 .375 .710 .245
    Eckstein .276 .344 .351 .695 .243
    Rivas .257 .300 .399 .699 .235

    We're not talking the difference between Rivas and Barry Bonds offensively or anything, but considering both Eckstein and Cora have played in a tougher ballpark for hitters than Rivas over that span, the offensive gap is significant enough to matter. Plus, unlike Rivas, both Eckstein and Cora are legitimately outstanding defensive players (while Rivas is considered outstanding by many because Ron Gardenhire told them so).

    There's no rule I know of that says a team has to play a light-hitting, slick-fielding second baseman, but if you're going to do that you can at least find someone who actually gets on base a little bit and is actually slick fielding. On the other hand, without Rivas what would I have to complain about?

    Today at The Hardball Times:

    - The "Other" Trades (by Aaron Gleeman)


  • December 21, 2004

    Bringing Everyone Back

    The Twins predictably brought all seven of their arbitration-eligible players back for 2005. I had been hoping they would cut bait on Jacque Jones and Luis Rivas, as I discussed yesterday, but I've also been hoping to win the Minnesota state lottery for the past 10 years or so and I've yet to buy a single ticket.

    With Jones, Rivas, and Matthew LeCroy returning next season, the lineup should be pretty much set. There were rumors about signing someone like Joe Randa to play third base or Jose Valentin to be a utility guy (before he signed with the Dodgers), but now the payroll appears to be pretty much at its maximum. Here's what the lineup could look like on Opening Day:

    DH   Shannon Stewart
    
    LF Lew Ford
    C Joe Mauer
    1B Justin Morneau
    CF Torii Hunter
    RF Jacque Jones
    3B Michael Cuddyer
    2B Luis Rivas
    SS Juan Castro/Jason Bartlett

    Judging from the ridiculousness that went on in the second half this season, I'm guessing Shannon Stewart will play left field and Lew Ford will be the designated hitter, despite Ford being a superior defender. And, of course, there's plenty of room for Ron Gardenhire to mess with the lineup by sticking Rivas in the #2 hole or something. In general though, that's not a bad lineup, although it could have been a lot better very easily.

    If you stick Corey Koskie at third base, move Michael Cuddyer to second base, put Rivas and Jones out on the street, and move LeCroy into the lineup at DH, there is suddenly just one offensive liability in the whole group (shortstop) and the infield defense would probably be improved to (I'd take Koskie at 3B and Cuddyer at 2B over Cuddyer at 3B and Rivas at 2B). And it all would have cost just about the same as the current setup does. Oh well.

    So we're in for yet another year of Rivas doing all the wonderful things he does and another year of watching Jones flail away against lefties. The funny thing is, if Gardenhire would just be willing to platoon Jones, LeCroy would be a perfect lefty-masher. The pitching staff that led the league in ERA is back almost in its entirety (minus guys like Aaron Fultz), and they'll have Jesse Crain (and hopefully Grant Balfour) around for a full year. Another year of pitching and defense in the HomerDome!

    This offseason (and the roster it appears the Twins will take into the season) is typical of the overall feeling I've had about the Twins over the past few years. They do some good things and some bad things, and the end result gives you a feeling that they just didn't quite take advantage of everything they could have. This is a team that will once again enter the season as the favorites in the American League Central, but they missed an opportunity to be even better.

    Today at The Hardball Times:

    - The Royals of Sir Cedric (by Steve Treder)

    - More About the Free Agents (by Studes)


    December 20, 2004

    Deadline Day

    The big story today is that arbitration-eligible players must be tendered contracts for the upcoming season by 11 p.m. tonight or they will become free agents immediately. Typically this time of year results in a sort of second wave of free agent becoming available, as teams decide various players don't fit into their plans any longer.

    For the Twins, there are some major decisions to be made. Jacque Jones, Luis Rivas, Matthew LeCroy, Johan Santana, J.C. Romero, Carlos Silva, and Kyle Lohse are all arbitration-eligible and must either be offered contracts or let go. There are different levels of arbitration eligibility and salaries based on service time, which makes some of the decisions no-brainers.

    Silva and Lohse, who combined to make around $735,000 last year, should both be retained for 2004 at reasonable salaries. And, of course, Santana will be back at whatever cost is necessary (and hopefully the team is making progress with him on a long-term deal). That leaves Jones, Rivas, Romero, and LeCroy as the real decisions, and I'd like to discuss each of them a little bit.

    Jacque Jones | 30 Years Old | Outfielder

    The basic feeling among Twins fans seems to be that the money the team "saved" by not re-signing Corey Koskie will be used on retaining Jones, but I think that would be a major mistake. Before Jason Kubel's knee injury, the idea was that he would replace Jones, allowing the Twins to cut Jones and use the money elsewhere. Kubel's injury changed that plan a bit, but even without him the Twins are just fine in the outfield -- Shannon Stewart in left, Torii Hunter in center, and Lew Ford in right.

    They do need a DH (Kubel would have played right field, pushing Stewart or Ford to DH), but spending a huge chunk of the payroll -- perhaps as much as $6 million -- on Jones would be foolish. Jones hit .254/.315/.427 in 2004, production that is far below average for a corner outfielder. He will also be 30 years old in 2005 and has yet to turn himself into anything but a liability against left-handed pitching. Even in 2003, when Jones batted an impressive-looking .304, his on-base percentage was just .333 and he slugged only .464, both merely right around average for a corner outfielder.

    On a lot of teams, re-signing Jones for $6 million wouldn't be a tough decision -- he's a good defensive player with the potential to be a solid offensive contributor. On the Twins, however, he represents a luxury they can't afford. They don't need help in the outfield as much as they need help in other places, and they certainly can't be throwing around $6 million for a guy who might be an average player at his position in a good year.

    I had hoped the Twins would shop Jones this offseason and trade him for some middle infield help or a young pitcher or something, but at this late date that's no longer an option. I'm still holding out hope that they won't commit what may end up being more than 10% of their total payroll to a guy who will probably be the team's fourth-best outfielder.

    Verdict: Let Go

    Luis Rivas | 25 Years Old | Second Baseman

    Holding on to Rivas was one thing when he was cheap -- he made right around the league minimum in his first three years and got a raise to $1.5 million this season. However, now that he's in a position to get expensive, the idea that the Twins would continue to pay him while waiting for him to cease being a bad player is really mind boggling.

    If the Twins had retained Koskie, Michael Cuddyer could have been given the second base job and Rivas could have been given his walking papers. Now that Koskie is gone, the talk is that Cuddyer will slide over the third base, leaving second base to Rivas for another year. Suffice it to say I think that would be a mistake.

    Rivas has now played four full seasons in the big leagues without showing any sort of overall offensive improvement.

    YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
    
    2001 .266 .319 .362 .682 79
    2002 .256 .305 .392 .697 86
    2003 .259 .308 .381 .689 80
    2004 .256 .283 .432 .715 82

    Rivas' raw OPS jumped over .700 for the first time as an everyday player this season, which would make it seem like he improved offensively. However, that is due to improved power (a good thing), which came along with even less plate discipline than usual (a bad thing). The end result was trading some on-base percentage for slugging, which makes your OPS look better but does nothing for your all-around value (as shown by his adjusted OPS+ staying at the same level).

    Rivas' supporters (and the herd is thinning, thankfully) have always talked up his youth and potential. At this point, he is no longer all that young (2005 will be his age-25 season) and players with tons of potentially typically show some of it by the time they have nearly 2,000 plate appearances in the major leagues.

    Rivas is what he is -- a 25-year-old whose development has stalled, perhaps in part because he was pushed too fast by the team when he was legitimately young and full of potential. Or maybe, as I've argued before, Rivas was never all that full of potential to begin with. His minor-league numbers are far from impressive, and the real reason people thought he was going to become a good player was based on his being so young.

    Well, now he's 25, he's starting to get expensive, and he's no better than he was four years ago. It's time to cut bait, but sadly I'm guessing the Twins won't.

    Verdict: Let Go

    Matthew LeCroy | 29 Years Old | Designated Hitter

    Take a look at the following two players and what they've done offensively over the past three seasons:

                    AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
    
    Player A .286 .330 .468 .798
    Player B .275 .327 .458 .785

    One of those guys is Jones and the other is LeCroy. I could tell you which is which, but for the purposes of this little exercise it doesn't much matter. Now, clearly Jones has value in areas LeCroy does not. Jones is a very good defensive player who can play any of the three outfield spots, while LeCroy is a born DH who can struggle along at first base or catcher for a few innings at a time.

    However, the Twins have three perfectly capable starting outfielders already, so their need for a hitter in the DH spot is just as strong as their need for a corner outfielder. So, if you've got all three outfield spots accounted for by solid players and you've got an opening in the lineup at DH, who is the more desirable player? I'd still go with Jones, but there is one other thing to consider: Jones will likely make about four times as much as LeCroy in 2005.

    If you can leave Stewart, Hunter, and Ford alone in the outfield and put LeCroy at DH, get 90% of the offensive production you would have gotten out of Jones, and save $3-4 million in the process, that's my idea of an easy decision. And this doesn't really have as much to do with LeCroy as it does with the fact that there are all sorts of guys capable of putting up decent numbers in the DH spot for a lot less than $6 million a year.

    LeCroy still fits into the Twins' plans for the very reason Jones no longer should: he's still cheap.

    Verdict: Keep

    J.C. Romero | 29 Years Old | Relief Pitcher

    I could go either way on Romero, who has been a maddeningly inconsistent player, seemingly alternating dominant performances with trips to the mound where he can't even find the plate. Still, he has been a very valuable reliever in two of the past three years, and I think he has been better than most fans give him credit for.

    I suspect a lot of the Twins' thinking behind keeping Romero would be based on the fact that he's left handed and the only other lefties the team currently have -- Santana and Terry Mulholland -- will likely begin the season in the rotation. However, as several teams have shown in recent years, having a lefty in the bullpen just to say you have a lefty in the bullpen is silly. For instance, the Angels have gone without a lefty reliever for huge parts of the past few seasons and have typically had one of the better bullpens in baseball.

    The Twins, with their assortment of right-handed power pitchers, could certainly feature a similar, lefty-barren bullpen. When you can trot out flamethrowers like Grant Balfour, Jesse Crain, and Juan Rincon in front of Joe Nathan, and perhaps even add J.D. Durbin to the mix, the lack of a lefty shouldn't be a concern at all.

    Still, even ignoring which hand Romero throws with, I think the Twins would be smart to keep him around for 2005. Without Romero, the bullpen remains a strength for the team, but it could be one of the best, most powerful, and deepest in baseball with him around. He has thrown 218.1 innings with a 3.34 ERA over the past three years, holding opponents to .234/.338/.331, and has been nearly as effective against righties (.238/.348/.364) as he has against lefties (.230/.324/.286). Unlike with Jones or Rivas, that is difficult production to replace.

    Verdict: Keep

    Today at The Hardball Times:

    - Blowing Up the A's (by Aaron Gleeman)

    - The A's/Cardinals Trade: the St. Louis Perspective (by Brian Gunn)

    - Rivals in Exile: Feeding Frenzy (by Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken)


    December 17, 2004

    Sans Laptop

    I'm still getting used to this whole writing-without-my-computer thing, so you'll have to let me off the hook with just one real article today. I'll try to be back on track for Monday, although my computer will probably just be in some HP warehouse by then. In the meantime, go check out all the good stuff we had this week at The Hardball Times.

    Oh, one quick note: I saw that the Giants are non-tendering A.J. Pierzynski, making him a free agent after one year with the team. I had two thoughts ...

    1) I wonder how much Pierzynski would want to be Joe Mauer's backup?

    2) Dealing Pierzynski is without question one of Terry Ryan's best deals, which is really saying something. He dealt what turned out to be one year of Pierzynski (and a sub par year at that) for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser.

    Pierzynski had his worst year as an everyday player, hitting just .272/.319/.410 in 510 plate appearances, ranking eighth among National League catchers in Win Shares with 13. He also alienated some of his teammates and apparently made such an impression on Felipe Alou and Brian Sabean that they went out and gave Mike Matheny a three-year contract to be their catcher.

    Nathan had 44 saves and a 1.62 ERA in 72.1 innings and established himself as one of the top closers in baseball. Liriano posted a 174-to-60 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 156.2 innings (28 starts) between Single-A and Double-A. Bonser posted a 153-to-57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 161.1 innings (28 starts) between Double-A and Triple-A.

    Almost makes up for not having Corey Koskie anymore, I guess.

    Today at The Hardball Times:

    - Free Agent Wrap-Up: The Third Wave (by Aaron Gleeman)


    December 16, 2004

    It's Raining, It's Pouring

    Have you ever noticed that when things get difficult, bad stuff tends to sort of fall out of the sky? It is the end of the semester here at the University of Minnesota, which means long-awaited (and ignored) due dates are fast approaching and dreaded finals are right around the corner. In my case, I turned in two major papers yesterday.

    All of that run-of-the-mill stress isn't nearly enough, of course, so my laptop decided to crap out on me just for the hell of it. Before I get to the complaining, I just want to say that I am a huge fan of laptops and I can't imagine ever not owning one. I love the fact that you can take them anywhere, I love the fact that they don't take up the entire surface of a desk, and I love the fact that I can surf the internet and write e-mails from my bed if that's what I want to do (and often it is).

    With that said, I've had an astounding amount of trouble with laptops, which no doubt has a lot to do with the fact that I use them constantly and like most people use a desktop. They aren't nearly as sturdy as desktops, obviously, which leads to problems. Much like what happened to me a couple years ago with my old laptop, the power cord suddenly stopped working the other day. I'd plug it into the computer, and instead of recognizing the source of power and starting to run on it, the laptop would do nothing. That meant the battery would continue to drain, meaning at some point you cease being able to use the computer at all.

    So, long story short, I am sending it in to get fixed today, and while HP claims it will be back to me, fixed, in "five to seven business days," I am expecting to see it again shortly before I graduate (which, if you haven't been paying attention, projects as sometime around 2027). Hell, even if it miraculously returns to me in a week, I'll have it just in time for winter break.

    So here I am at the end of the semester, with all sorts of papers to do and studying to be done, and my stupid laptop, which I depend upon for nearly everything in life, from school work to baseball writing, is useless. All of which is a very long way of explaining why this insufferable rant that has nothing to do with anything interesting is all I have for you to read today.

    Today at The Hardball Times:

    - Rivals in Exile: Strange Arrivals and Sad Departures (by Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken)

    - The Steroid Controversy (by Kevin Gilligan and Joseph Capizzi)


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