Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Melancholy Post

My father called me today to let me know that one of his colleagues at the high school, Mr. Morris, had passed away suddenly.

Though it was shocking, and certainly bad news, I can't say I was deeply saddened. Even though Mr. Morris was one of my favorite teachers in high school, I hadn't thought much about him in the last several years. I had seen him a few times since graduation, because I would visit the high school to say hello to my dad, or during the summer, to help Dad inventory textbooks and get them stored safely beyond the reach of the summer school kids. I'd see Mr. Morris, we'd say hello to each other, he might ask what I was up to, I'd do the same, and that was it. Still, his passing has had me thinking about a few things.

My own mortality for one, though I find myself thinking about that more all the time. usually though it's because I'm getting older, and I still haven't locked down a permanent job in my field, and so I feel like a bum. Now I'm thinking about how the way I've lived my life over the years may be starting to add up, and what could be going on inside. There's also my dad to consider. He's older than Mr. Morris, and Mr. Morris passed away of a heart attack, so it makes me worry for my dad. He's had health issues in the past, though they've mostly been back-related, but the family does have history of circulatory issues. My grandfather died of a stroke, I believe, or a heart attack, and my uncle had two aneurysms, the second having killed him. I think my father's taken better care of himself than those two, certainly smoked and drank less, but the concern is still there for me.

The other thing I've been trying to do is remember some good memories with Mr. Morris. I remember than in 10th grade, he was a student teacher in my biology class, and taught the organismal and ecological biology sections of the class. I know I considered him a godsend compared to the regular teacher, who could be friendly before class, but was very unpleasant once the bell rang. His more pleasant demeanor, combined with his teaching parts of biology I was actual interested in, is probably what kept me from losing interest in biology.

The next year he was a full-fledged teacher, and he even had his own class, Astronomy/Earth Processes, and I was part of his first class. It was the only science class I took in high school I actually enjoyed. Mr. Morris didn't try and be the cool teacher, but he wasn't a hardass when it wasn't required. He seemed to know how to strike that balance between being understanding when it was called for, and not putting up with malarkey when people screwing around.

You could tell he was still learning, though. The class was supposed to be split evenly between Astronomy and Earth Processes, but we didn't wrap up astronomy until late in the 3rd quarter, at the earliest. Also, since he was teaching the astronomy section in the school's planetarium, he wanted to take advantage of the resource. So the big project was to work in pairs and create a presentation which would tell a myth surrounding some constellations, but also describe some astronomical features (so my partner Gavin and I covered Scorpio and Orion, and nebulae and globular clusters, since those were present in the two constellations). You had to decide on the topics, seek out the slides that would go in the projector, and program the computer so that the slides would appear in the proper order, and for the proper amount of time. I know ours was a struggle because Gavin was MIA for weeks at a time, and it took me a long time to figure out how to set up the program (I had always thought Gavin was really sick, but in talking to him during a chance meeting years later, he told me he had just been skipping school and getting drunk. Huh.)

The problem was (in addition to probably giving us too much time, so students tended to dick around and chat, waiting until the last minute), Morris let the students grade each other, in addition to grading them himself. As far as I know, all the students gave each other "A"s. It was probably done at least partially so the we'd have to pay attention during the shows, but it wasn't really effective for helping to evaluate the presentations. Still, he was learning, and the desire was there, and I looked forward to that class more than any other I had that year. Maybe more than any class I had any year of high school.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Betting It All On This Season

Remember how yesterday I said I'd take advantage of the trade for Lugo to shift Schumaker back to LF? Well, scratch that I guess, now that the Cardinals have traded three prospects of varying quality for Matt Holliday, plus $1.5 million in cash. I read that Holliday is still owed $6 million for the remainder of the season, so I guess that means the Cardinals will pay him $4.5 mil.

Before we advance, I have to admit a bias. I'm of the opinion that no team should ever trade with Billy Beane. A lot of that is the way the Mulder for Haren/Daric Barton/Kiko Calero trade turned out, what with Haren becoming one of the best pitchers in the league, while Mulder's shoulder was busy disintegrating. Even so, it seemed like for a while there, any team that traded with Beane got the short end of the stick. The player they wanted either broke down or wasn't as good as they appeared, while Beane seemed to always pick players who flourished in Oakland. I'm sure that's a gross oversimplification, but it's how I feel, and so on that basis alone, I wouldn't have made this deal, simply because I wouldn't be able to shake the feeling Billy Beane was pulling the wool over my eyes.

So what to make of the trade? Well, it seems to be a sign of the Cards making a clear declaration that they want to win this year. Between this and the DeRosa and Lugo trades, they Cardinals have surrendered 7 players (two of which are yet to be determined), for three veterans, two of which (DeRosa and Holliday) are free agents after the season. Holliday seems especially unlikely to resign, considering he's a Boras client, who will surely try to start a bidding war for Holliday, and it's unlikely the Cardinals would win that bidding war, and I think he'll either land with a team with a large payroll, or a bad team with a small payroll trying to make that one big signing that shows their fans how hard they're trying. I don't think the Cardinals fit either description, so I think Holliday's stay in St. Louis will be about two months. Three, if they make it to the World Series.

What of Holliday the player? He seems to be strictly a leftfielder, which is fine, that's what the Cardinals need. Even though his numbers this year are down from his production during his Colorado years, they're still easily superior to the Duncan/Ankiel combo the team had been trotting out there. Essentially, the team seems to have have added another Ryan Ludwick to the lineup. Maybe a little better offensively, but with less defensive versatility, though Holliday is apparently quite a good leftfielder, which is nice. While his years in the National league always showed a significant home/road split, with Holliday unsurprisingly hitting better at Coors Field, he did improve his road OPS every year of his stint there, from .654 in 2004, up to .892 in 2008. So he's not wholly a product of the Coors Effect, he really is a good, sometimes very good hitter. The Cardinals' lineup can certainly use more of those.

So figure Holliday in LF, with Ankiel as the 4th outfielder (hopefully LaRussa won't do something stupid like start playing Ankiel ahead of Rasmus), and Lugo as a utility infielder, who maybe starts at SS against LHP, with Ryan playing 2B and Schumaker sitting out. Everyone else remains in the positions I described yesterday.

Of course, we still have to consider what StL gave up. Petersen seemed to be a fringe outfielder, maybe a 4th outfielder, though he was demonstrating some ability to get on-base, but the farm system does not seem to have shortage of backup outfield types (it's finding starters that seems to be the trick). Mortensen projects to a mid-to-back of the rotation guy, at best, the sort of groundball reliant pitcher LaRussa and Duncan are so fond of. Not hugely important, but if he could have reached that potential, a cheap #3 starter is useful, if for no other reason that he frees up money to sign a more expensive front of the rotation guy.

Then there's Brett Wallace. He hasn't exactly lit it up at AAA this year, but he's still only 22 (that's young for a prospective 3rd baseman, right?), and he's shown some power and some ability to draw walks (though it seems to have declined as he's moved up the system, but it's still there a little). The major concern is whether he can actually play third, and the jury is out on that score. There are worries that he's kind of fat, but that may be something more intensive weight training in the off-season could alleviate. If he could man third for years to come, this is probably a very bad trade, since 3rd is going to be a point of concern for the Cards in the future. Glaus is a free agent at the end of the season, and given his injury history I'm not chomping at the bit to bring him back (certainly not for anything near the $12 mil head made this year). I'm not enamored with the idea of DeRosa being resigned as the starting 3B either. Super-utility guy, like an Oquendo with (much) more power? Sure, but not as a starting 3B.

The upside is the Cards have two other potential options in the minors, David Freese and Allan Craig. Freese has been hurt most of the season, so the jury is out on him as well, and Craig, who has hit roughly a little better at AAA than Wallace (though Craig is two years older), has spent more time at 1B and LF than 3B. Whether that was so the organization could see if Wallace could hack it there, or is some indictment of Craig's defense, I don't know.

Ultimately, it's probably not a bad trade for the A's. They can surely get some use out of at least one of the three players they received, and I'd imagine they were less likely to resign Holliday than I imagine the Cardinals to be. As for the Cardinals, this is one of those clasic "mortgaging the future" trades, so the Cardinals better make sure it's worth it. Now for me, I can tolerate watching a losing team for a few years*, but it helps if it's an interesting team, say one with a lot of young guys trying to figure things out, but showing glimpses of the future**. Watching a bunch of old, overpaid guys wither away in front of my eyes, is not nearly as easy to handle***. If I'm going to sit through that, I need something pleasant to hold onto as a reminder it's worth it. With the 2007 Cardinals, there was the memory of the '06 World Series. So basically, what I'm saying is, if the Cardinals don't win the Series this year, I'll consider the trade a failure****.

* Arizona Cardinals fan remember? I've developed a bit of a resistance to endless losing. Not I said only a bit of resistance. It still isn't a pleasant experience.

** Kind of what the early 90s Cardinals were.

*** That's more similar to the 2007 Cardinals, though it was a little better later in the year when guys like Ludwick and Ryan started getting opportunities. They weren't kids, but they were pretty new to the majors, and fighting for jobs, so it helped.

**** Caveat: If they buck my expectations and retain Holliday, then win a World Series in subsequent years, the trade will also be OK.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Addition By Subtraction, I'd Say

The Cardinals make another move, trading Chris Duncan (and a Player To Be Named Later) to Boston for Julio Lugo. Even better, the Red Sox agreed to pay pretty much all of the $13 million Lugo makes this year and the next.

Like the title suggests, I'm inclined to think this improves the Cardinals simply by removing Duncan from the equation. For some reason, LaRussa insisted on playing Duncan nearly every day, even though, at the time of the trade, Chris was in a 1 for 31 slump, with 16 strikeouts over that stretch. Yet, Tony eagerly talks about how it makes him want to vomit how much the fans dump on Duncan. Even better, in that same interview, while explaining why he pinch-hit Duncan for Brendan Ryan, LaRussa turned around and dissed Ryan, describing his at-bats in the game up to then as 'futile'. No Tony, that line I mentioned of Duncan's up above, the 1-for-31, that's futile. Actually, it's beyond futile, it's hopelessly, dumbfoundingly inept.

Here's something else:

Chris Duncan's stat line this season, in 304 PAs: .227/.329/.358 (that's an OPS of .687).
Brendan Ryan's stat line, in 234 PAs: .278/.313/.370 (an OPS of .683). Yep, Duncan was certainly a vast improvement on Ryan in that situation.

And Duncan's stats are inflated by the .934 OPS he had in April, since then, he's been terrible, a worse hitter than Ryan across the board. The one and only thing Duncan still does well is draw walks, which is staggering because I can't figure how pitchers can be afraid of him. He can't make contact, and on the rare occasions he does, he doesn't have any power. He can't hurt you. Furthermore, he's a below-average leftfielder, while Brendan Ryan has been one of the best shortstops in the league this year (defensively). One can make arguments for why Ryan should play, while about the only one you could make for Duncan is there are no better options, and I think the Cardinals could find someone in AAA who can match Duncan's "production".

So, this kind of stuff from LaRussa just lends credence to the people who claim Duncan owes his career to nepotism, namely that LaRussa plays him because his dad is Tony's pitching coach. Certainly, Duncan hasn't done anything the last two years to validate receiving this much playing time. He's never hit lefties worth a damn, and now he can't even hit righties, he's no defensive whiz, so what good is he?

So that's what the Cardinals gave up (ignoring the currently unknown PTBNL). So what did they receive? Well, Lugo's a shortstop, but not a very good one, not defensively anyway. It seems as though, he could be described as marginally below average, at best. However, Lugo does seem to be a better hitter than Ryan. Going back to 2004 his on-base percentages have been .338, .362, .341 (played for both Tampa and L.A. that year), .294 (first year in Boston, not sure what happened there), .355, and .352 this year, albeit in only 123 PAs. His career average is .271 (.268 and .284 the last two seasons), so he shows a greater ability to draw walks than Ryan, which is certainly useful, as the Cardinals have distinct lack of good OBP guys in the lineup. He doesn't seem to hit for much more power than Ryan, but hopefully between Albert, Ludwick, DeRosa, and Rasmus (and maybe Ankiel, or Glaus, fingers crossed) they'd have enough power to score some runs, provided some more people can get on base.

That being said, I'd like Ryan to remain the starting SS. I know LaRussa's said that Lugo will be a utility guy until he gets a feel for him, but Tony's rarely seemed high on Ryan, so I'm worried it won't take much in terms of a slump by Ryan, or a surge by Lugo, to switch those roles. I think given the Cardinals's pitchers tendency towards groundballs, you'd want the best infield defense you could muster. Problem being, I'm not sure how good Lugo would be at 2B, as he hasn't played any significant innings there in years (you have to go back to his Houston days, and the numbers aren't pretty). So maybe the best overall would be Lugo at SS and Ryan at 2B. I would definitely take this opportunity to make Schumaker the everyday LF again, seeing as he'll be an offensive and defensive upgrade over Duncan (and Ankiel, for that matter). Use DeRosa at 3B, Albert at 1B, Yadi a C, Rasmus in CF, and Ludwick in RF, and there you go.

On the whole, I think this trade works for the Cardinals, at least in the short term. They get a fellow with a decent OBP and the ability to play middle infield, and they got rid of a major dead weight in their lineup. The possible downside is if this has soured LaRussa and Dave Duncan on working with the organization, leading to their departure this offseason, and whether that's a downside really depends on a) how high your opinion was of them, and b) who the Cardinals would replace them with, and how those folks fared.

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