April 18, 2011

Twins replace Nathan with Capps as closer, call up Hoey from Triple-A

Joe Nathan reclaimed the closer role despite missing all of last season following elbow surgery and posting an 11.05 ERA with diminished velocity during spring training, but the Twins have now stripped him of ninth-inning duties after back-to-back blown saves against the Rays. Matt Capps, who joined Nathan in blowing a save Friday and also allowed a run in the eighth inning Saturday, will take over as closer.

Nathan has gradually increased his velocity after initially throwing in the high-80s during spring training, as his fastball clocked in at 88-91 miles per hour early on and has more often been at 91-93 miles per hour recently. That's still a significant dropoff from throwing 93-95 mph before surgery, but shaky command has contributed to Nathan's struggles every bit as much as lost velocity and both are to be expected from pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery.

While much of the fan and media focus is on whether Ron Gardenhire should have handed the closer job back to Nathan right away, realistically his choice was between a high-leverage role or a low-leverage role. He could have started Nathan off as a middle reliever, giving him mostly inconsequential work in a Jeff Manship/Alex Burnett-like role. However, once he opted to give Nathan meaningful work resuming closer duties made as much sense as anything.

Capps could have begun the season closing, with Nathan setting him up, but leads are just as easily blown in the eighth inning and the closer role allowed Nathan to start innings fresh and know exactly when he'd be pitching. Gardenhire uses his closer in such a way that it restricts their overall workload to 65-75 innings, whereas through three weeks as a setup man Capps was on a 95-inning pace that the Twins wouldn't have wanted Nathan duplicating anyway.

Believing he should be brought back gradually in a low-leverage role was perfectly reasonable, but believing a high-leverage role was fine while also quibbling over closing or setting up was mostly pointless. If you thought he was ready for meaningful work, closing was logical. And if you thought he wasn't ready for closing Nathan should have been in middle relief, because the fact that you can't get a "save" in the eighth inning doesn't make the three outs any easier.

Whatever the case, it's clear now that Nathan wasn't ready for a high-leverage role 12 months after surgery. He resembles his old self more than Francisco Liriano or Pat Neshek did at this same stage of their Tommy John recoveries, but getting outs in the late innings of tight games is a tall order with a low-90s fastball and shaky command. In his first 130 post-surgery pitches, his fastball and slider were down 2.4 and 0.9 mph, and batters made 32 percent more contact.

If he can stay healthy and avoid setbacks Nathan will continue to add velocity and improve his command, but whether that means he'll eventually be ready to thrive again in the late innings is much less certain. In the meantime Capps will fill the same role he did in the second half of last year for the Twins and the previous three-and-a-half years for the Nationals and Pirates. He's a perfectly solid closer, but Capps shifting roles again creates a big hole to fill.

Gardenhire was willing to deploy Capps in just about any situation as a setup man, using him in both the seventh and eighth innings, bringing him into spots with men on base, and asking him to get as many as six outs. That will change now that Capps is a closer, as he'll mostly be limited to coming into the ninth inning with the bases empty to get three outs. That means 20 percent fewer innings for Capps, with that work and those jams going to someone else.

Presumably by stripping Nathan of closer duties Gardenhire is also taking him out of the mix for other high-leverage roles, at least for now. Glen Perkins and Jose Mijares are seemingly the leading candidates to move up the bullpen ladder, as Perkins has escaped from the doghouse by beginning the year with 7.2 shutout innings and Mijares, despite joining Nathan and Capps with a poor outing Saturday, has a 2.38 ERA in 110 career innings.

Of course, Perkins' track record suggests he wouldn't be able to hang on to a late-inning role for long and Gardenhire has been reluctant to rely on Mijares as much more than a situational left-hander, with his 54 appearances since the beginning of last year totaling just 37.2 innings. All of which leaves the door wide open for Jim Hoey to grab hold of a setup man role after the Twins called him up from Triple-A to replace Manship following yesterday's game.

Acquired from Baltimore as part of the J.J. Hardy deal, Hoey spent all of 2009 and 2010 in the minors following shoulder surgery in 2008.  He failed to beat out Manship for the final bullpen spot during spring training because of control problems and the coaching staff's familiarity with Manship, but Hoey has the hardest fastball in the entire Twins organization and piled up eight strikeouts versus just one walk in 6.2 innings at Triple-A to earn the call-up.

Prior to surgery Hoey appeared in 35 games for the Orioles in 2006 and 2007, averaging 95.5 mph with his fastball, and four seasons later the 28-year-old right-hander has recovered all of that velocity and then some. Hoey had a 3.25 ERA, .196 opponents' batting average, and 70 strikeouts in 53 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year, but also walked 34 batters and uncorked seven wild pitches.

His mid-90s fastball and hard slider give Hoey the raw stuff to dominate in the late innings, but for that to matter he must throw strikes more consistently than he's been able to so far before or after surgery. Counting on improved control at age 28 is usually foolish, but pitching coach Rick Anderson is certainly the man for the job even if most of his staffs full of strike-throwers over the years have relied on fastballs as slow as Hoey's slider.

April 15, 2011

Joe Mauer placed on the disabled list with bilateral leg weakness

For a brief time last night Joe Nathan and Matt Capps both blowing saves against the Rays to waste Carl Pavano's eight shutout innings seemed like a pretty big deal. And then the Twins announced after the loss that Joe Mauer has been placed on the disabled list with what they are calling bilateral leg weakness. Details on the injury are somewhat scarce for now, but he'll be examined by a specialist in Baltimore early next week and it certainly doesn't sound good.

Mauer, who clearly hadn't looked like his usual self while hitting .235/.289/.265 in nine games, has apparently been experiencing significant soreness in his hip and shoulder in addition to his surgically repaired knee. According to manager Ron Gardenhire "compensating for weakness in his upper leg ... is causing a lot of other problems" and after initially trying to play through the pain Mauer asked out of the lineup last week before missing the past two games.

From asking around and doing a bit of Google digging there are some extremely scary aspects of bilateral leg weakness, but it doesn't make much sense to speculate on anything until he's seen the specialist next week and more details are known. However, it certainly doesn't sound like Mauer will be back from the disabled list anytime soon and unfortunately after trading both Wilson Ramos and Jose Morales the Twins are exceptionally short on catching depth.

Drew Butera will take over as the primary catcher and the Twins have called up minor-league veteran Steve Holm from Rochester to serve as his backup. Butera is very strong defensively and Holm had a couple brief stints in the majors with the Giants in addition to 11 seasons in the minors, but there isn't a worse catching duo in the big leagues and asking them to replace the best catcher in baseball represents just about the largest possible dropoff.

Butera has hit .194/.230/.284 in the majors after batting .214/.296/.317 in the minors, making him perhaps MLB's worst hitter, and Holm has hit just .249/.330/.380 in 170 games at Triple-A. Even if they collectively perform relatively well the Butera-Holm combo is likely at least 60 runs worse offensively per year than Mauer. Or at least a reasonably healthy Mauer, which despite the frequent criticisms of his durability is mostly what the Twins have gotten.

Since missing most of his 2004 rookie season after knee surgery Mauer has played an average of 134 games per year and his 3,494 plate appearances during that time lead all MLB catchers. He also leads all catchers in plate appearances since 2006, since 2007, and since 2008. Not all of those plate appearances have come at catcher, but he's ranked among the league's top five in innings caught in four of the past five seasons.

Mauer has seen 12 percent of his career action elsewhere, but that's common for good-hitting catchers in the AL. For comparison, Victor Martinez is at 12 percent and Jorge Posada is at 10 percent. Mauer's overall lack of durability has largely been overstated because every injury is a huge story and many people don't appreciate that standard catcher workloads involve taking off more games than other positions. Of course, none of that feels like it matters right now.

April 14, 2011

Twins Notes: Pitching to contact, Hunt scares, upped usage, and Gatsby

• Prior to yesterday's game Ron Gardenhire reiterated something he's been saying for a while now, which is that the Twins want Francisco Liriano to "pitch to contact" rather than focusing on strikeouts. That can be a positive thing, as Liriano would definitely benefit by improving his control and going deeper in games, but it seems like an odd stance to take following a season in which he had 201 strikeouts and a team-best 3.62 ERA. Here's what Gardenhire said:

We've told him forever that he's a strikeout pitcher. We understand that he can strike people out, but if he really wants to become a pitcher, pitch to contact. Use that two-seamer and use that slider down and in every once in a while, and that changeup, but pitch to contact early. That'll get him deep into games.

Because his stuff is so good. There's times when you need to go for the strikeout. That's when you save your Mr. Nasty, as they say. You throw the nasty pitches then. But those other times you need to pitch to contact to get you deeper into games. When you want that big strikeout, maybe with a man on second, and you've got an open base, take your shot with your stuff.

Liriano followed those orders against the Royals, throwing 68 percent strikes and walking just one batter, admitting afterward: "I was throwing more fastballs than I used to. I just wanted them to put the ball in play, not try to strike out a lot of people." In doing so he also showed the downside of asking a strikeout pitcher to adopt the "pitch to contact" approach. He cruised through the first three innings, but then this nightmare unraveled in the fourth inning:

Single

Single

Single

Single

Single

Double

Ground out

Single

Caught stealing

Single

Strikeout

Six runs on eight hits and at most three of them were well-struck. Even the double came on a ground ball. And he needed a strikeout just to escape all the bloopers falling in and grounders getting through. Last year no defense in the league turned a lower percentage of balls in play into outs than the Twins did behind Liriano and yesterday was the same story, as a defense with Michael Cuddyer at second base and the usual lack of outfield range did him no favors.

To be clear, Liriano has not pitched well through three starts. However, he was very good last year largely because of his ability to rack up strikeouts and I'm just not sure about the wisdom of trying to force the guy with the best raw stuff on the staff into the Twins' preferred pitching mold, particularly when the defense behind him is ill-suited to actually make that approach look good. Why should Liriano trust a sub par defense more than his ability to get strikeouts?

Obviously the Twins have shown that pitching to contact can be successful, but most pitchers adopt that approach because they aren't capable of missing bats like Liriano and MLB hit .325 with a .508 slugging percentage when not striking out in 2010. Strikeouts are good, relying on the defense can often be bad, and forcing a uniquely square peg into a round hole brings back bad memories of the Twins trying to change David Ortiz into something other than a slugger.

Alex Wimmers was the Twins' first-round pick last June after winning back-to-back Big Ten pitcher of the year awards at Ohio State and ranked No. 5 on my annual list of the Twins' top prospects. After signing Wimmers debuted with a 0.57 ERA and 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk in 16 innings at high Single-A, but his first start back at Fort Myers this year couldn't have gone any worse, as he walked the first six batters before being yanked with no outs in the first inning.

Wimmers was a strike-throwing machine in college and his pro debut, but clearly this goes well beyond simple control issues. He threw just four of 28 pitches for strikes, uncorked three wild pitches in addition to the six walks, and was immediately placed on the minor-league disabled list with "flu-like symptoms" after the disastrous start. Wimmers isn't actually sick, but that's a way for the Twins to shut him down without the presence of an injury.

He's been pulled from Fort Myers' rotation and sent to extended spring training to work on his mechanics, as the Twins don't want to let things snowball after watching what happened to 2008 first-round pick Shooter Hunt when his control suddenly abandoned him following a good pro debut. Hunt has 145 walks in 104 innings since 2009, falling off the prospect map. There's no reason to assume Wimmers is destined for the same fate, but it's an awfully scary red flag.

• Now that Matt Capps has been freed from the misguidedly rigid usage patterns of the closer role Gardenhire is using him far more often. Capps threw 27 innings in 60 games on the Twins' roster last season, which is a 73-inning pace. So far this season he's logged 6.2 innings in 11 games, which is a 98-inning pace. Not only is Capps working the eighth inning in front of Joe Nathan, he's pitched in the seventh inning twice after doing so zero times from 2008-2010.

He's unlikely to stay on a 98-inning pace, which would be a 30 percent increase from last year, but given the middle relief question marks having Capps for, say, 20 percent more action than he'd get as a closer can make a big impact. There's risk of breaking down physically with that much work, but Capps was very durable prior to becoming a closer and as an impending free agent likely to seek big money as a closer the Twins have less reason to worry beyond 2011.

• Rather than trade Kevin Slowey during spring training the Twins shifted him to the bullpen and now his landing on the disabled list with a shoulder injury has put any trade talk on hold, but Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com speculates that the Twins could renew their efforts to deal Slowey once he's healthy and with top prospect Kyle Gibson close to being MLB-ready it would make plenty of sense.

Last month most reports had the Twins shopping Slowey for bullpen help, but Morosi correctly notes that the middle infield is now a much bigger area of concern with Tsuyoshi Nishioka out with a fractured fibula and Alexi Casilla predictably struggling on both sides of the ball. Morosi mentions the Red Sox as a possible suitor and they have shortstop depth to spare with Marco Scutaro backed up by Jed Lowrie and slick-fielding prospect Jose Iglesias at Triple-A.

• Gardenhire talked of giving Luke Hughes some action at shortstop, which is a bad idea when he last played shortstop at Single-A in 2006 and doesn't even get strong reviews for his glove at second base. Plus, in what scenario might that make sense? Hughes isn't going to be the shortstop if Casilla or Matt Tolbert are in the lineup. He may get the nod there if Cuddyer is at second base, but then the game would be canceled when the pitcher refuses to take the field.

Trevor Plouffe is off to a great start at Triple-A, hitting .348 with three homers in six games, but before anyone gets too excited remember that he played his way out of the middle infield mix during spring training by performing horribly and came into the season with a career line of .255/.306/.417 in 1,200 plate appearances at Triple-A. Plouffe hitting well is nice to see, but a good week in his fourth go-around at Rochester shouldn't change anyone's view of his future.

• So far so good with Denard Span's mechanical adjustments following his disappointing 2010. While the Twins' lineup as a whole has hit just .236/.283/.306 for a .589 OPS that ranks dead last in the league, Span has hit .333/.375/.422 through 11 games. Not only is that a massive improvement compared to last year's .275/.326/.375 line, it's very close to the .305/.390/.422 line he posted between 2008 and 2009. If he keeps that up, the lineup will click soon enough.

Parker Hageman at Over the Baggy passes along this shot of the new right field scoreboard at Target Field displaying Delmon Young's "favorite book." This whole time I had him pegged as more of a Tender Is The Night kind of guy.

April 11, 2011

Twins Notes: Nishioka, Hughes, Cuddyer, Nathan, Slowey, and Burnett

Tsuyoshi Nishioka got relatively positive news on his fractured fibula, as doctors determined he won't need surgery and could potentially return in 4-6 weeks. It was sad to see Nishioka on the field supporting himself with crutches during the home opener ceremonies, particularly since his parents flew in from Japan, but the Target Field crowd gave him a nice welcome and even a six-week recovery timetable could mean returning to the lineup by the end of May.

One interesting subplot with Nishioka's leg injury is whether he was fully prepared to deal with runners like Nick Swisher sliding hard into second base (or the general vicinity) in an effort to break up double plays. Baserunners in Japan typically don't engage in takeout slides and after watching Nishioka during early spring workouts bench coach Scott Ullger noted that "mak[ing] sure he clears the bag at second base so he doesn't get killed" was an issue.

Luke Hughes came up from Triple-A to replace Nishioka and started at second base Friday and Saturday, but Ron Gardenhire turned to Michael Cuddyer there yesterday. Cuddyer also made one start at second base last season, but before that hadn't started there since 2005. Sacrificing defense to get an extra bat in the lineup works in theory, but Cuddyer's defense at second base is likely beyond bad at this point and his bat isn't sacrifice-worthy versus righties.

Cuddyer hit .261/.319/.423 versus right-handed pitchers during the past three years, including .265/.307/.393 off them last season. That isn't enough production to warrant regular playing time against righties, let alone regular playing time at the expense of weakening an already shaky defense. It also doesn't say much for the Twins' faith in Hughes if they don't think he's a superior option at second base than an outfielder with a .261/.319/.423 line versus righties.

More than anything though it speaks to Gardenhire's inability to see that Cuddyer is no longer a quality regular against right-handers. He told reporters prior to yesterday's game that using Cuddyer over Hughes at second base was a way for him to get Jason Kubel and Jim Thome into the  lineup together versus a righty, but Gardenhire should have been willing to make that happen by benching Cuddyer versus righties anyway. Loyalty is clouding the manager's vision.

• Regardless of who sees most of the action at second base the middle infield defense will be ugly. Hughes' glove has never had strong reviews, Cuddyer last played second base regularly when Cristian Guzman was his double-play partner, and Alexi Casilla has predictably been shaky so far at shortstop. Combined with the standard lack of range from Delmon Young and Kubel (or Cuddyer) in the outfield and the defense is now poor in at least four of eight spots.

• For those of us clamoring for middle infielders past: J.J. Hardy might miss six weeks with an oblique strain and Nick Punto is on the disabled list following hernia surgery. Orlando Hudson is healthy and oddly batting third in the Padres' lineup.

• I'm pleasantly surprised that Gardenhire chose to move everyone up one spot in the batting order with Nishioka out rather than insert a weak hitter at No. 2 like he's done so many times before. Denard Span, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau being three straight lefty bats atop the lineup isn't ideal, but I've long clamored for the team's two best, most patient on-base threats to bat directly in front of the team's best power hitter, without anyone "scrappy" in between.

Hopefully they get an extended chance to make it work, at least versus righties. Against lefties it would probably make sense to break up the lefty bats with Young or perhaps even Cuddyer at No. 3. Against lefties Span and Mauer remain good OBP threats, but Morneau isn't quite as devastating and both Young and Cuddyer had a higher OPS than him off lefties during the past three years. Either way, anything that keeps a weak bat from the No. 2 spot is good.

Joe Nathan appears to be gradually increasing his velocity and improving his command as he comes back from Tommy John elbow surgery. He's still not throwing anywhere near as hard as he did prior to going under the knife, but Nathan went from 88-91 miles per hour in his first outing to 90-92 miles per hour Saturday, which is a bigger step than it probably looks like. He can have success as a closer throwing 92 mph, but 88-91 makes things awfully tough.

And as if you didn't already have enough reasons to root for Nathan's return to dominance he apparently scooped up some dirt from the mound after the final game at the Metrodome, kept it for 18 months, and then mixed the dirt into the Target Field mound prior to Friday's opener. FSN showed video of it and Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a nice article about the whole thing, all of which makes me like Nathan even more than before.

Kevin Slowey joined Nishioka on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, putting his transition to the bullpen on hold after just three relief outings. Based on his raw stuff and track record Slowey has a shot to be a setup-caliber reliever, but staying healthy is now the biggest issue following wrist surgery in 2009, a triceps injury last season, and his current shoulder problems. Gardenhire opined that he's "going to have to learn ... to warm up a little better" as a reliever.

In the meantime Alex Burnett got the call from Triple-A to replace Slowey despite being behind fellow right-handers Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Carlos Gutierrez in the bullpen competition this spring. Waldrop and Gutierrez aren't on the 40-man roster yet, so the choice likely came down to Burnett or Hoey. Burnett struggled in the second half last season in both Minnesota and Rochester, but still projects as a solid reliever long term. He may not be ready yet, though.

• Since the beginning of last year Carl Pavano has a 3.65 ERA and .273 opponents' average in 15 starts with Drew Butera catching compared to a 3.98 ERA and .259 opponents' average in 19 starts with Mauer catching. Butera is a defensive specialist and better at limiting steals, but given the small difference in performance and even smaller sample sizes involved the notions that a Pavano-Mauer pairing doesn't work or Butera is some kind of miracle worker are silly.

• Thome's homer yesterday went really, really far.

April 8, 2011

Link-O-Rama

I'm bummed out about Tsuyoshi Nishioka, but the links must go on ...

• I've been trying to make the switch from sportswriter to pimp for years.

Kris Humphries and Kim Kardashian are still going strong and the former Gopher obviously has "The Kardashian Effect" to thank for becoming one of the NBA's most improved players.

Vin Scully is a big fan of the Honky Tonk Man. Greatness appreciates greatness, obviously.

Charlie Sheen's live show went about as well as should have been expected.

• Speaking of Sheen: Take a number, pal.

• Do all these people moving back into their parents' basements realize they're now obligated to become bloggers? Oddly, my mom threatens to move into my basement on a weekly basis.

• Whenever the level of discourse in the comments section gets me down I remind myself that about one percent of AG.com readers comment regularly. Apparently that's true for most blogs.

Mark Cuban was hanging out in the Hardball Talk comments section, which moves him ahead of Colby Rasmus' dad and Curt Flood's son as our most famous commenter.

• Today's technology would have ruined a bunch of Seinfeld episodes.

Wearing swimsuits remains her specialty, but Brooklyn Decker looks decent in clothes too.

Karl Pilkington is ratings gold.

• I wrote a lot of sentences this week, but this one was definitely my favorite: "Admittedly you can't invite Minka Kelly over to hang out in an earplug." Controversial, but true!

• I haven't danced since leaving the bar mitzvah circuit in 1996 and things have changed quite a bit since then based on Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton's impromptu "Dougie" lesson at a basketball game:

My specialty back in the mid-90s was awkward slow dances set to Boyz II Men songs.

• I'm dumbfounded how baseball "analysis" this mind-bogglingly bad gets into any mainstream publication, let alone the New York Times. It would have been a better fit on April 1.

• How long did the New York Times have an Elizabeth Taylor obituary ready to go before she actually died last month? Well, at the bottom of the piece was this footnote: "Mel Gussow, the principal writer of this article, died in 2005."

• Red Sox sideline reporter Heidi Watney narrowly avoided death by chicken and waffles.

• Here's a handy recap of my Twitter exchange with Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, who called me out (sort of) after hearing me talk Twins with Cathy Wurzer on Minnesota Public Radio.

• As my NBCSports.com colleague Craig Calcaterra notes, the Indians treat their bloggers far better than, say, the Twins.

• Friend of AG.com and local Associated Press reporter Jon Krawczynski is standing his ground in the face of a ridiculous lawsuit by NBA referee Bill Spooner.

• A former NBA referee tried to beat up Dominique Wilkins at a Hawks game in Atlanta. Based on the mugshot, he failed.

Gus Hansen might be even better at dating than he is at poker.

• My initial reaction after reading this sad story? Even that guy had a girlfriend.

Ken Rosenthal is the Brother Mouzone of baseball reporters.

• In addition to being the youngest champion in UFC history Jon Jones excels at apprehending thieves on the way to pre-fight waterfalls.

• I've never seen Brock Lesnar be more likable or interesting than in this interview with Ariel Helwani, who also switched gears for a hilarious MMA-driven chat with comedians Jim Norton and Robert Kelly.

Jose Canseco's twin brother Ozzie Canseco tried to impersonate him in a "celebrity boxing" match worth $10,000, but the tattoos gave him away.

• Not surprisingly, the best comedy on television has a great blooper reel:

In related news, my crush on Aubrey Plaza has grown even stronger.

• I can't blame HBO for canceling In Treatment given the lowly viewership numbers, but as one of the few people to see every episode from all three seasons of the Gabriel Byrne-led drama I'll definitely miss what was a truly unique, marvelously acted show.

• In much better television news AMC and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner have worked out a deal to ensure the show will run at least two and possibly three more seasons, although the bad news is that new episodes won't begin again until 2012.

• One positive is that should give Jon Hamm plenty of time to shave, put on some socks, find a nice suit, and ditch the Cardinals hat for a little pomade.

• This could revolutionize television and movies or it could be nothing, but Netflix is getting into the content-creation business and their first partnership is with David Fincher.

Zach Galifianakis is creating a show starring one of the few comedians weirder than him.

• Not that this should surprise anyone who's seen her in Boardwalk Empire on HBO, but Paz de la Huerta seems like fun.

• Here's the fatal flaw of these never-ending Domino's commercials: Their new chicken is awful. I'm a fatso who ate chicken wings from Pizza Hut multiple times per week for months, yet even I'll never get it again. Also, what good is having a "rate our chicken" survey on the actual box? Are people supposed to fill it out and bring it back to the restaurant?

• I'm going to be honest about something embarrassing: As a kid I used to like the baked ziti.

• Friend of AG.com and Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Phil Miller got an "honorable mention" for best "game story" of 2010 from the Associated Press Sports Editors.

• Google discovery during the NCAA tournament: Marv Albert's real name is Marvin Aufrichtig and he'll be 70 years old in June.

• If the Timberwolves finally win the draft lottery, here's the guy they'll almost certainly pick.

• If you're into the NBA and interesting artwork, check out this site.

• Along with hosting my latest podcast obsession,Tom Scharpling had an interesting history as a basketball writer.

• My favorite podcast this week was Conan O'Brien's appearance on "WTF" with Marc Maron.

• Where do you stand on The Great Ketchup Debate of 2011?

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Steve Earle singing "I Feel Alright" live:

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