Friday, March 30, 2012

Frequent Spins (2012.1)

I'm way overdue for the first Frequent Spins entry of the year, but to be honest, I'm simply off to a slow start with my 2012 listening. In fact, this whole process is in jeopardy of getting phased out due to time considerations. But, I'm not giving up quite yet.

A couple weeks ago, I finally completed the playlist for the 2011 compilation and burned KJ her copy of the CDs. I recently finished designing (if you want to call it that) and editing the packaging, but I already missed a perfect opportunity to give it to a few of the folks on my usual distribution list.

There are even a few regulars I never sent my 2010 compilation to, mainly because I didn't mail a single copy. If I didn't see you in 2011, you simply didn't get it. I still feel bad about that, perhaps bad enough that I'll mail those folks both 2010 and 2011 at the same time. But, at this point, I can't make any promises.

Then there's the question of whether or not I should continue to make a CD at all. I realize it's sort of an outdated format at this stage of the music technology game, but just as I clung to the mixed tape longer than most, there's still something nostalgic to me about the whole process of creating and distributing the CD. This, of course, is despite the fact my distribution process is, admittedly, somewhat lacking.

So, I'll probably create a Spotify playlist as well, but not until after I've handed out a few physical CDs.

What I have found the time to do is write in the blog during my commute. Between the morning and afternoon, I have about an hour and a half of riding busses and trains. The Blogger mobile app is nothing special—frankly, I could just as easily use my phone's notes app and then copy and paste—and typing with just my right thumb while I hold on with my left—because seats on the train are rarely available, and when they are I usually pass on the prospect of being crammed between two people, because they're about the same size as seats in Fenway—is no walk in the park, but for some inexplicable reason it's made the process easier for me.

Anyway, moving on to the subject of what I've been listening to. Three months into the new year and there finally are more than a handful of albums worth mentioning. That statement is not intended to be a reflection of the music that's been released this year, but rather my currently slack listening habits.

Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself
Andrew Bird has quietly become one of the most consistent forces—if you can possibly call someone who uses whistling as a musical instrument a force—in indie music.

Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur
I'm not sure if she'll ever wow me again as she did with her debut, Failer, but this is more pretty solid stuff from the hottest chick in alt-country, in my opinion.

Fanfarlo - Rooms Filled With Light
I used to read Pitchfork quite regularly, but I haven't in a couple years. Frankly, it's just way too snobbish for me. But, recently I started checking out apps you can use to enhance your Spotify experience. Pitchfork was one of them, so I quickly found myself reading about how this album is "boring indie" and "...the sonic equivalent of deciding to major in Economics," and the band "...simply have good intentions and risk aversion." I suppose that probably describes a lot of the independent music I listen to. I don't care. I like it.

Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames - New Multitudes
I'm sure you already know about my personal connection here and how much I like this album. So, I'll say that I like the Jay Farrar tunes best, followed by those co-written—along with Woody Guthrie, of course—by Anders Parker. The Will Johnson and Yim Yames songs are good as well, but it's pretty clear to me Farrar and Parker are better suited for this project.

Craig Finn - Clear Heart Full Eyes
I had a hard time imagining how a Craig Finn solo album would be different from a Hold Steady release, but there clearly is a difference. And it's not just that Finn writes more from a first-person perspective here than he usually does.

First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
Comparisons to Fleet Foxes are not unwarranted, but I believe this female outfit's country aspirations are expressed in the lyrics "I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June, if you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too."

Shearwater - Animal Joy
This album just might be this band's best to date. Emusic is constantly sending me emails asking me to rate the albums I've purchased from them. However, there isn't a wide range of ratings options (I love it, I like it, It's ok, etc.). A lot of times love is too strong, but like doesn't quite capture my feelings either. I loved this one, and I can't say I'd rate any of their prior albums as such. So, I take back what I just said. This is Shearwater's best record.

Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
My best friend in college—my co-conspirator in the drinking series—was a huge Springsteen fan. I wasn't. In fact, it wasn't until I became a huge alt-country fan, and was turned on to the understated brilliance of Nebraska, that I began to really appreciate him. I did, however, always get a kick out of the way Stein—as I like to call him—would change the lyrics of Bruce's songs to make them fit with what he was doing at the time. My personal favorite was when he'd croon "Earl Torgeson's singing for the lonely." If you don't get that reference, you either don't read this blog much, don't know Springsteen very well, or both.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

All-Time Teams and the Greatest Eligible non-Hall of Famer for Each

Last year around this time I wrote about the greatest eligible player not in the Hall of Fame for each team. With Ron Santo and Barry Larkin getting elected this year, and a slightly revised personal philosophy on the subject, I thought about updating that post. But, instead I decided to go at it from a different angle.

I thought it would be interesting to name an all-time team for each of the current 30 franchises, and then to determine from there which player is most worthy of the distinction of the greatest eligible non-Hall of Famer.

Here are the guidelines for this "little" project:
  • Selection for the all-time teams will be based solely on the players' time spent with that team.
  • Players will be selected from the entirety of each franchise's existence. So, the Atlanta Braves team will include guys who played for the team in Milwaukee and Boston, and the Baltimore Orioles team will include former St. Louis Browns.
  • Each team will consist of 25 players, the exact mix of which will be somewhat dependent on the worthiness of the individuals, but will always include a starter at each everyday position, a starting rotation, at least one true relief pitcher, and a realistic mix of reserves.
  • The greatest eligible* non-Hall of Famer must be a player who would likely be inducted into the Hall of Fame with the cap of the team in question depicted on his plaque.
  • Said player will be determined based on the entirety of his career, but with a little extra consideration going to a player who ranks more highly based on the portion of his career played with that team.
*To be eligible for the Hall of Fame, a player must have played a minimum of 10 seasons in the big leagues and be retired for at least five years. The latter condition means anyone who's played more recently than 2006 is not yet eligible.

The teams themselves will be presented without profiles of each player, but I will be doing a short write-up on each of my choices for greatest eligible non-Hall of Famer.

I'm going to try to do one team per week, beginning next week. If my math is correct, this will take the series through the end of October. However, I have been known to not live up to my own expectations, so don't hold your breath...please.

Since I'll be going through the teams in alphabetical order (by current geographic locale), I'm excited to announce the history-rich Arizona Diamondbacks will kick off the series. I hope you're as eagerly awaiting that one as I am.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Down East, Part 2

For our first anniversary trip, KJ and I returned to where we were married, the Old Tavern in Grafton, Vermont. Instead of making that an every-year thing, we decided to spend our second anniversary in the area where we got engaged.

We also weren't sure about the B&B thing, since we have a four-month old. In fact, as we're starting to find out, some B&Bs don't allow kids at all. So, when I found a Groupon for two nights at the Lucerne Inn in Dedham, Maine for a little more than the price of one, it seemed like a good idea.

From the pictures on their web site, the inn looked nice enough, although we weren't expecting anything as charming as the Old Tavern. We also were booking a suite, so the extra space eased our concerns about the potential for a crying baby disturbing our fellow guests.

In hindsight, the place was about what we expected. It's just that there were a few minor annoyances. First and foremost, via the Groupon, we purchased an executive/honeymoon suite, but when we were assigned our room it was a junior suite. When I brought this to their attention, I was told there was a wedding at the inn this weekend and I should have been informed by the person who took our reservation that our chosen type of room was not available. Needless to say, I wasn't.

On the surface, this was only a minor inconvenience since they credited the difference toward our bill. This essentially gave us extra money towards meals and taxes, which weren't included in the deal.

The junior suite was a large enough room, but it only had a full size bed. Personally, I've never seen a room so large with a bed so small. Since KJ and I bought a king size for our home almost a year ago, this was a difficult transition, especially considering Little Chuck—who's been sleeping through the night 95% of the time for over two months now—didn't sleep as well as usual in this different environment.

We had a few other minor quibbles, such as a lack of enough light to illuminate certain parts of the room and the fact the electric fireplace made the space unbearably hot, but the room got a little cold overnight without it. Otherwise, besides being a little less charming than we'd hoped, it was about what we expected. In summary, OK but nothing special.

On Sunday, we headed down to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Unbeknownst to us—although we should have guessed—very little is open in Bar Harbor in March. Since we were last there in October—not exactly prime season—and the place was still pretty busy, I just assumed March would be similar, but I was wrong.

We did enjoy a fantastic breakfast at the place that was on KJ's radar, 2 Cats, but my plans to pay a late afternoon visit to the Bar Harbor Brewing Company's tasting room were foiled. We also learned that much of Acadia's Park Loop Road was closed until April, despite the fact there was no snow on the ground, and most of the places we were considering for dinner were closed for the season as well.

But, we would not be discouraged. We seized this as an opportunity to explore parts of Mount Desert Island we had never been, particularly the western half. I'm not going to try and describe, though. I'll let a few pictures do the talking.

Acadia National Park
The part of Acadia that was open.
Seal Harbor
Seal Harbor
Southwest Harbor
Southwest Harbor

Now, I know what you're thinking. There's a late-afternoon feel to at least that last photo, and nary a mention of beer yet. In fact, since in part one I mentioned drinking a non-Maine beer, as of this point, I'd yet to consume a locally-produced offering.

That situation would be remedied in the evening, thankfully. Due to the lack of open restaurants, one of our only options was Jack Russell's Steakhouse & Brewery, operated by the Maine Coast Brewing Company.

The food was very good, but I'm really only interested in writing about beer. Their IPA is solid, but nothing special. It has a nice citrusy aroma and is moderately malty up front, but kind of falls flat after that. And I don't mean flat in terms of CO2, but rather it's somewhat lacking in body and hop bitterness. It was easy to drink, but is nothing worth writing home about. Thankfully, my dad doesn't read this blog.

Considering this was my only Maine-produced beer of the weekend, it was a bit of a disappointment.

Before heading home on Monday, we drove into Bangor, Maine's third-largest city by population (with Portland and Lewiston first and second, respectively). I'd been through Bangor a couple times before, albeit briefly, but I didn't remember that it has a certain old-mill-town quaintness to it.

In the 19th century, Bangor considered itself the lumber capital of the world, but the sawmills were in neighboring towns, so I'm not sure if it technically qualifies as an old mill town. But, the canals running through the middle of the city reminded me a little of Dover, New Hampshire, where I lived for one year before moving to the Boston area.

We set out to visit a particular bakery in Bangor after KJ's research revealed it got good reviews on Yelp or Trip Advisor, I can't remember which. Bangor's not a tourist hotspot, so it seemed pretty safe that it wouldn't be closed for the season. It was closed on Mondays.

But, despite all the setbacks I've written about here, the weekend itself wasn't. In fact, I suppose you could say it was testament to the idea that the company is really all that matters.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New Multitudes @ Paradise Rock Club

I grew up in a neighborhood across a huge apple orchard from the street where Anders Parker was raised. There was a pond on that orchard where pickup games of hockey were played in the winter. Hockey wasn't my sport—I could never really skate very well—but I heard Anders was a pretty good goalie. He was of Swedish descent, after all. Many years later, Anders was one of a rotating cast of drummers who played in bands fronted by one of my best high school friends.

Said high school friend has gone on to earn relative fame in our hometown due to an SEC scandal, while Anders has enjoyed a modestly successful career as an Americana singer-songwriter.

I have several friends who get considerable credit for nudging my music-listening habits away from the mainstream, but if I had to name one pivotal moment it would be the time (circa 1994) Anders gave a cassette tape of Uncle Tupelo's No Depression to me and Skip, my roommate at the time. I listened to that tape over and over again driving a rental car around South Bend, Indiana while on a business trip, and the music perfectly fit the setting and the mood I was in at the time. Uncle Tupelo (and its spawn, Son Volt and Wilco) and The Jayhawks were the bands that kicked off my love affair with alt-country in the mid-to-late '90s, which in turn influenced me to branch out to other independent music as well.

I've seen Anders play live dozens of times over the years. I've even seen him (with and without his former band, Varnaline) open for and play with Uncle Tupelo co-founder and Son Volt front-man Jay Farrar a number of times. There was also a nice little impromptu performance at my wedding. But, there was something about Friday night's show at Boston's Paradise Rock Club that really felt as though Anders' career has reached a level it had previously never seen.

Touring with Farrar, Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Will Johnson (Centro-Matic) in support of New Multitudes, an album of lost lyrics from the Woody Guthrie archives these four accomplished songwriters added music to, they performed a two-hour set in front of a sold out and extremely enthusiastic crowd.

James (or Yim Yames as he is credited on the album) was clearly the crowd's favorite—as My Morning Jacket appears to have crossed over to modest mainstream success—with Farrar a close second. But, the lesser-known and criminally under-rated (a term I usually reserve for baseball Hall of Fame discussions) Parker and Johnson were also well-received.

If you happened to stumble into this show without any prior knowledge of its theme, you would have been hard-pressed to identify that the songs were derived from Guthrie's work, except for the actual Guthrie tunes that played as the performers entered and exited the stage. This, of course, is meant as a compliment to all parties involved, including Woody himself. That his lyrics and his visions are so timeless is a testament to the endurance of his life's work.

Or, in the words of this professional reviewer, "this band kicked ass." (Also, be sure to check out that link for some great photos of the show, because all of mine suck.)

The band made the interesting decision to run through the album's 12 songs in the exact order in which they appear on record. In other instances, I might be a bit critical of this idea, but it got me to thinking. If that's the sequence the artists feel works on record, why wouldn't the same order work just as well live? Besides, if a band only has one album, they're probably going to play most, if not all, of it anyway.

Still, the lack of any suspense can potentially make a performance a little less interesting for the audience. But, this was more than made up for by the band's second set, which was technically a nine-song encore.

For the first four songs, each songwriter played one solo acoustic number, including Farrar's rendition of my favorite Uncle Tupelo song, "Still Be Around." The next round of four consisted of full-band versions of one of each artist's originals, with the highlight being Parker's "Tell it to the Dust."

The show concluded with a legitimate (well, sort of) cover of a Guthrie original, "Pastures of Plenty," which basically turned into a feedback-inducing 15-minute wank-fest.

All in all, it was a tremendous show in support of one of my favorite albums of this young year. Which reminds me, I'm long overdue for the first Frequent Spins of 2012.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The AL East in General

Friend of the blog Bryan O'Connor, of the Replacement Level Baseball Blog, asked me to participate in a collective AL East preview written by members of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance's General Chapter who happen to have allegiances to a particular team in the division.

A resident of Portland, Maine, Bryan identifies as a Red Sox fan. Added to the mix were Rays loyalist Jonathan Mitchell of MLB Dirt and Orioles sufferer Theo Gerome of Hot Corner Harbor. Of course, yours truly was brought in because of my status as a Yankees fan.

Failing to identify a Blue Jays blogger who fit that exact description, Tao of Stieb's The Org Guy capably rounded out the team.

Bryan asked each of us to answer three general questions about expectations for our respective teams, and our combined answers provide a pretty interesting outlook for the AL East in 2012.

What is your team’s ceiling? What has to go right for your team to win the AL East?

Left Field on the Yankees:

After winning the division by six games last year, and having had a better offseason than their chief competitors, the Yankees should win the AL East in 2012. But, the Red Sox were practically a lock to win it in 2011, and we all know how that turned out. So, basically all the Yanks need to do is follow Bobby Valentine’s lead and ban chicken and beer from their clubhouse.

I know, I know. The Sox new skipper didn’t ban chicken, just beer, but I don’t think they should take any chances.

Seriously, though, what really needs to happen is their key acquisitions need to live up to expectations, which given the Yankees’ history with bringing in starting pitchers is certainly no lock. A lot of folks have been quick to point out Michael Pineda’s second half of 2011 was less-than-stellar, and there’s been a quite a bit of talk about whether he needs to master a third pitch to be the guy the Yankees need to complement CC Sabathia at the top of the rotation.

There’s also been no shortage of suggestions that New York’s other key pitching acquisition, Hiroki Kuroda, is a prime candidate for a failed NL-to-AL transition, and the New York Post has already gone so far as to compare him to Kei Igawa, for one obvious–but completely misguided–reason.

Beyond the starting rotation, though, there’s a realistic expectation of improvement at several positions (1B, LF, 3B, DH), while others will be hard-pressed to repeat 2011 performances, most notably Curtis Granderson. While there’s no guarantee the aging Alex Rodriguez will have a bounce-back season, there seems to be more room for Yankees starting position players to improve than regress. Even if the net is break-even, there’s little to worry about when it comes to a team that last year was second in the AL in runs scored and OBP, third in OPS, and fourth in OPS+.

This team has the potential to win 100 games if the stars align properly for them. But, I’d say something in the ballpark of 95 is a more realistic expectation.

Jonathan Mitchell on the Rays:

The Tampa Bay Rays have the ceiling of a World Series champ. From their pitching rotation, depth, upgrades on offense, and league-best defense, it’s not so much what has to go right for them to win the East but what has to go wrong for them to not win the AL East. Simply staying healthy should give the Rays the best chance at winning the East.

Bryan O’Connor on the Red Sox:

Given all the talent on the roster, it’s hard to see any ceiling for the Sox in ’12. If everything goes right, this team could win 105 or 106 games, as they were on pace to do last year if not for the slow start and the September collapse.

Of course, there are a lot of variables at play. Josh Beckett has to pitch like it’s an odd year (check out his numbers over the past decade). Clay Buchholz’s back has to hold up for 200+ innings. Daniel Bard has to make a successful transition to the rotation. And the fillers (who may include such dregs as Carlos Silva) can’t be as dreadful as the replacement pitchers who were asked to steer the leaky ship last September.

Offensively, I have fewer concerns, but the Sox won’t win 100 games without a healthy Kevin Youkilis (or a fully-developed Will Middlebrooks in his stead) and a pre-2011 Carl Crawford slapping doubles, stealing bases, and covering all of Fenway’s small left field and then some. Some regression is expected from Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and especially Jacoby Ellsbury, but given the levels at which they played in 2011, they’ll all still be among the best players in the league even if they do slip some.

The Org Guy on the Blue Jays
"Ceiling" is a funny word to apply to a team, especially during Spring Training and the early season, when we all cling to the mythology about every team having a shot at the division and the World Series and other untold glories. Reality eventually gets in the way for teams like the Blue Jays, who play in what is obviously the toughest division in baseball and probably the toughest division in professional sports.

There’s no doubt the Jays have improved, although there seems to be a tendency to discount how much they’ve improved after a quiet offseason. They didn’t add Prince Fielder (like a lot of fans wanted), or Yu Darvish (like a lot of fans were led to believe they would). They picked up what should be some helpful bullpen pieces in Francisco Cordero, Darren Oliver and Sergio Santos, and reacquired Jason Frasor to stabilize the relief corps as well. They said goodbye to Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Shawn Camp. On the offensive side, they picked up just some marginal pieces in Ben Francisco (thereby maintaining their Francisco quotient as mandated by Canadian law) and Jeff "Worst Hitter in Baseball—Hahaha—I Can’t Believe Someone Gave Him a Job" Mathis as backups.

So yeah, nothing earth-shattering was added between October and March. But don’t forget that the 2011 Blue Jays gave regular playing time to the likes of Corey Patterson, Juan Rivera, and Jayson Nix – useful players in certain situations, but not the kind that are going to help you cut the mustard against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox. Those guys are gone, and the 2012 edition will feature full seasons of Brett Lawrie, Kelly Johnson, Colby Rasmus and one of Eric Thames or Travis Snider. Every one of them is (or should be) an upgrade over what was in place last year.

Still, a lot has to go right for the Blue Jays to win the Al East. Jose Bautista, arguably the best hitter in baseball, needs to have another season like 2010 and 2011. Lawrie, Rasmus and Johnson will need to perform better than the various occupants of their positions for most of 2011. I don’t think that will be all that difficult. Where the rubber meets the road for the Jays is in the starting rotation. Ricky Romero looks more like the real deal with every passing season, and expectations are high for Brandon Morrow to finally see his results match his excellent peripherals. After those two, though, it’s a lot of hope. Henderson Alvarez impressed during his ten games last season, but he really only has two pitches. Brett Cecil has arrived to camp in the much-ballyhooed "best shape of his life" but questions about his fastball velocity remain troublesome, and he spent much of last season in AAA-ball. Dustin McGowan could be an amazing and inspirational comeback story; or he could pitch 40 innings and never be heard from again. Kyle Drabek could begin putting it together, finding the strike zone and showing the world why he was the prized prospect in the Roy Halladay trade, but he’s just as likely to start the season in the minors.

Rumours (with a "u"!) abound about Alex Anthopoulos seeking out another arm to add to the mix before the season. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of that happening; as mentioned above, Anthopoulos has shown a talent for acquiring pieces during the course of the season, including at the trade deadline. In fact, if this team finds itself legitimately in the hunt for a playoff spot, it has the depth in the minor league system (with a near-consensus rank of second in all of baseball) to move prospects for additional talent this year. That’s the sort of deal that could really raise the ceiling for the team.

Theo Gerome on the Orioles:
I guess theoretically, their ceiling could be winning the division. It might require strategically placed meteors to the Bronx, Boston, and St. Petersburg, though. Realistically, the Orioles ceiling is probably just a winning record, something like 86 wins at the very best. And even then, it would take a lot to get that far. Brian Matusz is going to have to regain his fastball and improve off of his horrendous 10.69 ERA from last year. Matusz, Chris Tillman, and and Jake Arrieta are going to have to show the skills that they showed in the minor leagues. Zach Britton will have to improve on his strong rookie season (2.5 fWAR as a 23 year old). Some combination of Jason Hammel, Tommy Hunter, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Wei-Ying Chen will have to pleasantly surprise. And that’s just the rotation.

I don’t really see the bullpen as too much of an issue, as I don’t expect the Orioles to have too many leads. Ideally, someone will take Kevin Gregg though.

The lineup could be fairly solid. Nick Markakis will ideally regain the form that saw him put up 6.3 fWAR in 2008. Adam Jones will learn some patience and have a break out season. J.J. Hardy plays like he did last season, but doesn’t get injured. Matt Wieters continues to improve off of last year’s All Star season and becomes one of the game’s best catchers. Mark Reynolds moves to first base (or DH) and continues to hit while not giving back every run in the field. Brian Roberts returns successfully from his concussion, possibly generating some trade interest. Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold prove to be above average regulars. Really, the lineup is less of a worry than the rotation, as there at least seems to be more potential (or at least, more certain potential, if that makes sense).

On the farm system front, Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado continue to make strides in their development, the new front office has a highly successful draft, and several prospects are brought in by trading away any veterans that won’t be able to help the next time the Orioles are contending.

If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is. But if even a majority of these things go right, I’m not sure it will be enough to be a winning record. That won’t mean the season isn’t a success though.

What’s the floor for your team this season? What has to go wrong for them to miss the playoffs?

Left Field on the Yankees
What could go wrong for the Yankees in 2012? Well, of course, major injuries are every contender’s potential undoing, and New York is not a young team, so that concern might be higher on their list than most. But, beyond such difficult-to-predict scenarios, the obvious answer to what could go seriously wrong is that Pineda and Kuroda disappoint, Ivan Nova proves last year was a fluke, and Phil Hughes proves it wasn’t.

But, I’m also going to suggest another hard-to-fathom scenario. What if Mariano Rivera finally shows signs of aging? At 42 years old, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine, but his performance has yet to indicate this is a strong possibility. Still, it’s going to happen at some point, and if it does this year, it’s bound to cost the team a couple wins.

We almost know for certain that David Robertson will not repeat his 2011 performance, or at least that he won’t be quite as dominating as last year. But, Rafael Soriano certainly should improve. So, it’s hard to think the Yankees’ bullpen could be a weakness unless Rivera regresses significantly, which seems unlikely.

I can’t honestly see this team not finishing above .500, so my worst case scenario is around 85 wins. That number probably falls short of the playoffs, but in my opinion a lot has to go wrong for that to happen.

So, with the addition of a second wild card to MLB’s 2012 postseason, it’s highly unlikely so much could go so wrong that would result in the Bombers missing the playoffs. But, of course, anything’s possible.

Jonathan Mitchell on the Rays
The AL East is the toughest division in all of baseball, and possibly in all of the major sports, so the floor would have to be as a 4th place finisher. But a lot would have to go wrong for the Rays and right for the rest of the AL East for that to happen. The biggest hurdle for the Rays would be if they lost Evan Longoria or Ben Zobrist for any extended period of time. If this team stays healthy I don’t see a logical reason for them to miss the playoffs.

Bryan O’Connor on the Red Sox:
I think the spread between ceiling and floor is greater for Boston than for any other team in the league. Jon Lester could continue on the downward trajectory he’s been on since earning 6.4 fWAR in 2009. Josh Beckett could pitch like he did in ’06 and ’10. If Buchholz and Bard can’t pitch 350 innings between them, a ghastly crew could be forced into action against a grueling schedule with that left field wall way too close behind them for comfort.

The team will hit, but there are more areas of weakness this year than last year. The injury bug has already struck Carl Crawford, who may be the player we saw in 2011, one who can’t get on base enough to use his speed to his advantage. For all the vitriol spewed in JD Drew’s direction these last few years, he was an above average player on offense, defense, and the basepaths, and the group that replaces him—Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Ryan Kalish, and Darnell McDonald—only brings the same skills if several of them are allowed to play at once. Similarly, losing Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie leaves an uninspiring group of shortstops led by Mike Aviles. And Jarrod Saltalamacchia should hit enough for a catcher, but he needs to prove he can carry the load as the primary backstop, manager of pitchers, and sheriff of opposing running games.

The bullpen has turned over almost completely, and could be shaky if Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon struggle to adjust to AL East lineups.

If a few of these worst-case scenarios play out, the Sox could miss the playoffs. If injuries strike the front end of the rotation, they could be a .500 team, which would likely put them in fourth place.

The Org Guy on the Blue Jays
Almost all you need to know about the Jays and the AL East, quite frankly, is that the floor that many see for the team is the ceiling that many others see: fourth place. The Yankees are still going to be awfully good. So are the Rays. And Boston was the best team in baseball for about half of last season (with such intense focus on the team’s September troubles, people forget just how good they were before that). The Jays need to overtake one of those three teams to even glimpse a one-game play-in against another wild card team. But with the Angels and Rangers in the West getting even better, there are no guarantees a third-place finish in the East gets you anything but a warm, fuzzy feeling heading into October.

Really, not much needs to go wrong for the Jays to miss the playoffs. That’s the status quo. I expect the team to be better than they were last year – say, 86 wins? – but I don’t think that would be enough to keep them playing into the fall.

Theo Gerome on the Orioles
Worst case scenario, the Orioles have an Orioles-type season, I suppose. They draft poorly, neglect their farm system, all potential goes unfulfilled, players get hurt, they hold onto players at the peak of their trade value for no adequately explained reason (cough—LukeScott—cough). But, I mean, if I expect that, is it really a worst case scenario?

Okay, how about this? Matt Wieters retires to become a hermit, Mark Reynolds decides to double down and field with a frying pan all while being inexplicably kept at third base, J.J. Hardy breaks his everything and misses the rest of all-time, Brian Matusz somehow does worse in the ERA department, Dylan Bundy accidentally murders Manny Machado (or vice versa), the Orioles get kicked out of Korea (oops), Kevin Gregg continues to pitch for the team; I could go on and on.

How do you see the division playing out? Is there one team you’re particularly afraid of?

Left Field
The Red Sox are worse on paper than they looked at the start of 2011, but there’s still a lot of talent there, a new leader, and nowhere to go but up, so they’re still dangerous. There’s no reason to believe the Rays will be any worse than last year either, so we could again see a season with three 90-win teams in the AL East, which would likely mean three postseason entrants.

But, with the addition of a fifth team in each league qualifying for the playoffs, it’s going to take strong seasons from the Red Sox, Rays and a second-place team outside of the AL East to prevent the Yankees from making the postseason. Personally, I just don’t see that happening.

However, despite all the good I’ve had to say about the AL East here, I also think a lot has to fall into place for any of the division’s three contenders to win it all. Of course, a lot can change over the course of a six-month season, but as of now I’m predicting the league’s World Series representative comes from outside the division.

Jonathan Mitchell
I see the division playing out as follows:

1. Rays
2. Yankees (Wild Card)
3. Red Sox
4. Blue Jays
5. Orioles

I believe that the top four teams will finish at, or over, .500 and this division race being one that lasts until the end of the season with the last Wild Card spot coming down to the Red Sox and the Angels and the Red Sox missing out on the last few days of the season.

There really isn’t one team that I am particularly afraid of; it’s more like three teams in the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. If I had to choose one I think the Red Sox frighten me a bit, even with all the holes in their team. I think too many people are taking them for granted and their offense will still rank among the top 3 teams in the league. The Yankees are always scary, even if they are getting older, and the Jays are on the verge of a major breakout and it could happen this season. But, that’s what we love about this great sport. Anything can happen. There are no shot clocks, or timed quarters or periods. Anything is possible and all we have to do is look back to game 162 of last season if we need a reminder.

Bryan O’Connor
You may have seen my prediction here. I see the Yankees holding onto the division title by the slimmest of margins, but that assumes their older position players can at least stay on the field and that the new pitching acquisitions prove worthy. The Rays have a ton of upside, especially if Evan Longoria stays healthy and wins the MVP Award I predict he’ll win, and if Matt Moore can throw 200 innings anywhere near as effectively as he’s pitched at every stop on the way to the majors. I see the Red Sox finishing third and contending for the ridiculous second Wild Card spot with the lesser of the Angels and Rangers, but of course, they could also win the division by 10 games. Fourth place seems to be Toronto’s destiny, much like the cellar has Baltimore’s logo almost permanently emblazoned.

The Org Guy
I’ve mostly answered that above. I expect that by the end of September, some combination of the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox will be in a 1-2-3 position in the East. Really going out on a limb, I know.

But… but… players get injured. Players have breakthrough seasons. Players go into terrible slumps. I think the Jays have a superior lineup to most teams in the American League. I think they can hang with the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Angels and Rangers – maybe not well enough to get to 90+ wins if all teams run their best out there every inning, but well enough to be the sort of team that you don’t want to see coming into town for a four-game set when you’re in the running for a playoff position yourself. And you never know, maybe this is the year the Jays are the ones in the running.

Theo Gerome
Well, the second one is easy. I’m terrified of the Orioles taking down the Orioles. That is not a typo.

I obviously expect the Orioles to finish last in the division, if you couldn’t tell. I expect the Blue Jays to finish fourth more out of habit. I don’t think they have enough right now to challenge the Big Three, but I see them as a dark horse. If enough goes right, they could make a run.

I expect the top of the division to be the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays in some order. The Rays, as of right now, are the one I see as weakest, but the also have the most upside with all of their young talent. Big years from Matt Moore, Desmond Jennings, and Jeremy Hellickson could make them even more formidable than last year. I think the Red Sox are, on paper, the second best team in the league. Injuries could hold them down like last year, but I think that was more of a fluke than anything else. That obviously leaves the Yankees in first, although they’re sort of the anti-Blue Jays. A lot could go wrong, and a lot of players could suddenly age very hard, but the safest assumption is to not predict an extreme scenario. Also, I expect those three teams to account for three of the (now five) playoff spots. Yep, it should be an exciting year at the top of the AL East. Here’s hoping the Orioles can join in the fight soon.

So, there you have it.

What did we learn from this exercise? That the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox all could be considered the AL East's team to beat, the Blue Jays are a team on the rise, and the Orioles are...well, the Orioles.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Down East, Part 1

For the past few years, I've been fascinated with the term "down east," which is frequently used to describe coastal Maine. Or, is it just the eastern half of the Maine coast?

I don't know. I always thought it was just Mainers' way of trying to be clever, but a pretty poor attempt at that, to be completely honest. You see, the Maine coast is down (as in south) of the rest of the state, but it stretches in an easterly direction. So, really it's southeast, but it would be misleading to refer to it as that.

A little basic Internet research (i.e. a Google search that landed on Wikipedia) offers another possible reason, which appears in the FAQ of Down East magazine:

When ships sailed from Boston to ports in Maine (which were to the east of Boston), the wind was at their backs, so they were sailing downwind, hence the term 'Down East.' And it follows that when they returned to Boston they were sailing upwind; many Mainers still speak of going 'up to Boston,' despite the fact that the city lies approximately 50 miles to the south of Maine’s southern border.

Hmmm...I hope I didn't just inadvertently stumble onto an explanation for Jonathan Papelbon's former entrance song.

Anyway, all of this is my attempt at an intro to a post on KJ's and my anniversary weekend in Maine.

We headed north (northeast? up east? down east?) on Saturday, with Little Chuck in tow, and stopped off in Portland for lunch. The last time we were here, we ate at Gritty McDuff's, but later discovered what appeared to be a great beer bar as we walked around town.

That place was Novare Res, and we'd heard good things about it in the 2 1/2 years since, so this time we headed straight there. We were definitely not disappointed. Its cellar-like atmosphere makes it an ideal beer-drinking establishment, even for a couple with a near four-month old in tow.

Yes, that's right. It felt pretty relaxed even as we were taking turns standing while holding and bouncing Little Chuck, who legitimately seemed to like the place. Well, as far as we could tell.

As far as the beer goes, KJ ordered a half pint of North Coast Acme IPA, while I ordered an Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout from the same brewery. You'd think from the name that North Coast would be a Maine brewer, but you'd be wrong.

North Coast refers to the northern coast of California, but I justified my decision to order a non-Maine beer because the plan was to eventually make it to the tasting room of Bar Harbor Brewing Company and pick up a mixed six-pack to take home. Besides, I wanted to try the Old Rasputin as inspiration for my next batch of home brew. You see, I'm thinking about resurrecting my mid-'90s signature brew, Mr. Pither's Imperial Stout. More on that to come, hopefully.

I liked the Old Rasputin, but not as much as my own creation, to be honest, or at least my best recollection of it. The Acme IPA, on the other hand, is a just a really nice version of the style, but I just had a small sip of that one, so I hope to have a proper pint in the not-too-distant future.

The food at Novare Res was good, but the portions were on the light side. I suppose it's all part of their strategy. The more you fill up on food, the less beer you're able to drink. But, I still enjoyed my braised short rib sandwich as did KJ her apple, walnut and brie sandwich. She had her sites set on their Belgian waffle with raspberry and Young's Chocolate Stout for dessert, but instead opted to grab a couple cupcakes to go from a nearby bakery whose name eludes me at the moment. We were not disappointed, but I know I'm still curious about that Belgian waffle and stout delicacy.

After LC, KJ and I were all sufficiently fed, we continued on our journey north. The evening's destination was Dedham, about a half hour south of Bangor and less than an hour from Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.

The remainder of our four-plus hour drive was uneventful, until we got off the main highway to head towards the inn. We pulled into a gas station, but were told there was no gas. That would have been slightly inconvenient, but the reason was a bigger problem. A bad accident a couple miles in the direction we were headed had resulted in a downed power line. So, rather than sit in traffic while our car ran low on gas, we turned around and found a station in the other direction.

But, of course, that meant we were just postponing the inevitable. It's a little frustrating sitting in a traffic jam in such a remote corner of the country, an area that gets an influx of tourists at certain times of the year, but not this one. It's even tougher when this happens while you're traveling with a baby who protests when he's awake and the car is not moving.

We were only delayed for about an hour, though. KJ was driving (because she drank the half pint, remember?), so it was my job to try and keep the boy calm. I did my best, thanks to a free app I downloaded on my iPhone called Baby Songs, and the newfound discovery that LC is mesmerized when I imitate pig noises.

This combination got us through a rough stretch, with only minimal discomfort, until we arrived safely at the Lucerne Inn in Dedham.

We had booked our accommodations using a Groupon for the first time, and let's just say we gave the place mixed reviews. For now, that is. There's more to come in part two.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An Anniversary Tribute to KJ

I've written here several times before that I think of this blog as a way to share my thoughts and the events of my life without getting too personal. These stories are usually wrapped around adventures—as I like to call them—frequently related to my three main interests: baseball, music and craft beer. In doing so, there have been many, many references to my better half, of course.

So, I thought on the occasion of our second wedding anniversary, I'd write a little post about KJ and why she is the best wife I could ask for.

Don't worry, this is not going to be me telling you why my wife is the best in the world, in effect saying mine is better than yours. No, this will be more about how my wife is the best woman for me. So, your spouse may very well be the best possible partner for you, because you and I are different people, of course. In an ideal world, that would be the way it works.

I also don't plan to stray too far from the philosophy about this blog I just mentioned, and get all mushy and sentimental. I just thought I'd share a little about our history together, and in some cases, the brief stories will have a connection to this blog's typical subject matter.

I met KJ in October of 2008. I still have a pretty vivid picture etched in my brain of that moment and the first time she smiled at me, because I'm reminded of it each time she's done so since. In addition to her thoughtful and generous nature—which, if you're not aware of, you'll learn about shortly—her smile is right up there among her best qualities.

As you can imagine, we hit it off pretty much instantly. There was really little doubt that things would continue, so fairly quickly, there was a second date, third date, a party where she met a lot of my friends, etc.

Only a couple months later, Christmas was approaching. Christmas presents are a difficult proposition when you've only been dating someone for two months. But, KJ had the perfect plan.

Disguised by a mid-December evening out to dinner and to get a taste of the season by checking out some Christmas lights, KJ sprung an early Christmas gift on me. At the restaurant, I opened a box that contained a piece of paper. Mind you, this was not an ordinary sheet of paper, but rather it was email confirmation of two tickets to a Neil Young concert that was to take place that very evening. On it were written the words "WANNA GO?"

Now, as I just mentioned, KJ and I had been together barely two months at this point. She had already been exposed to many of my obsessions, but for some reason, I had yet to reveal that Neil Young was my absolute favorite musical artist. At some point prior to that she had learned I liked Neil Young, but she really had no idea to what extent.

Needless to say, I was shocked, excited and impressed all at the same time. You could say that meeting her was fate, but if you did based on just this story, you too would have no idea to what extent.

A couple months later, we were discussing Cooperstown and the fact she'd never been, but had always wanted to go. Since I'd visited Cooperstown over 20 times up to that point, I suggested we should make it a weekend getaway. There was a three-day weekend coming up (Presidents Day), so that seemed as good a time as any. Except, it happened to coincide with Valentine's Day.

This, it turns out, was not a problem. The woman of my dreams was happy to spend our first Valentine's Day together in Cooperstown. We booked a cozy B&B and spent the long weekend exploring the quaint upstate New York village. This adventure, of course, included three consecutive days inside the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, and visits to two breweries. Needless to say, virtually every male I know was envious.

Another three months later, my birthday gift was a trip to New York City and my first visit to the new Yankee Stadium. You could probably say I was getting spoiled by the gifts at this point, especially since I neglected to mention another Christmas gift was labels for my latest home brew.

Now, let's fast forward another five months or so. With our first anniversary approaching, it was time for me to try and see if I could even come close to matching the fantastic surprises she had previously sprung on me.

I got her to agree to let me plan our anniversary trip, and keep the entire four-day excursion a surprise.

When we embarked on our journey and headed north from Boston, she pretty much knew our destination was either New Hampshire or Maine, since I hadn't instructed her to bring along her passport. Of course, that suspense wouldn't last long, as just an hour later we beared right around Portsmouth, meaning we were headed to the state that likes to refer to itself as "Vacationland."

But, Maine's a big place, so there was still some surprise left. An hour or so later, I exited the highway at Portland and drove into the downtown area of the state's largest city. I kept her in the dark a little longer, though, as we headed to Gritty McDuff's, New England's oldest brewpub, for lunch.

After our meal, we walked around the port city, enjoying a misty, overcast day on the ocean and taking a few photos in the process. After a several-hour stop-off, I broke the news that this wasn't our final destination. That, in fact, we weren't going to get there until tomorrow, so she'd have to continue in suspense for another day.

We spent the evening at the home of an old friend of mine and her family in Freeport, just north of Portland. KJ was loving the idea that she still didn't know where we were headed, but the following morning the secret was kind of spoiled when a friend of our friend (a complete stranger to us) off-handedly mentioned our ultimate destination to KJ.

In her defense, she didn't know the information she'd been made privy to was to be kept a secret. KJ brushed it off anyway, and we continued on our journey pretending there was still a surprise in order.

A couple hours further north (or northeast, actually) and it was time to take a hard right and head south to Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor. Since she basically knew where we were headed, I decided it was time to give up the ruse and admit the information our friend's friend revealed was correct.

We arrived at the Shore Path Cottage, our Bar Harbor B&B, for a two-night stay, but the weekend's surprise didn't end there.

Of course, KJ—as she always does—let me devote part of our weekend to visiting a brewery, or rather the in-town tasting room of the Bar Harbor Brewing Company. But, it's not as if she's just submissively allowing me to do whatever the hell I want either. You see, KJ is a craft beer fan as I am, just as she shares my love for baseball and music (although her taste for the latter has been somewhat influenced by yours truly).

But, as I said earlier, the weekend's surprise wasn't over just because we'd arrived at our destination. Our actual anniversary was the following weekend, but our good friends were getting married then, so we chose the Sunday night of this particular weekend for our anniversary dinner.

Afterwards, I popped the CD I had made for the occasion into our car's stereo and we went for a moonlight drive. KJ's always had a thing for the ocean, and she'd previously remarked that the Maine coastline kind of reminds her of her native Oregon. At least, as far as east coast beaches go.

So, we drove south towards Acadia National Park, or so I thought. My memory was a little foggy from the times I'd been there over ten years prior, so I forgot that, to enter Acadia, you actually have to take an exit off the main drag. So, while the park was on both sides of us as we drove, we weren't actually within its boundaries.

That detail didn't really matter, except the plan was to check out the shore at night, and I was counting on Acadia's east coach beaches. But, before I realized I'd missed the park's entrance, we reached the island's southern shore, and were lucky to find a small beach with a well-lit parking lot just across the street.

We were kind of dressed up as we went for a walk on the beach of Seal Harbor, but that was kind of by design. I asked KJ if she'd been sufficiently surprised by my plans for our weekend. She answered yes, to which I replied that she hadn't seen anything yet as I got down on one knee and reached into my jacket pocket.

You can probably guess what happened next, and that it's the reason I'm writing this little story to commemorate our two years of marriage so far.

It took me a long time to find someone so perfect for me, a woman who complements me as much as KJ does. Honestly, I had previously thought I found that person a couple times, even almost settled for someone I knew wasn't. But, a friend who's more religious than I'll ever be once said to me that things seem to work out for a reason. In this case, I truly believe that, and I think our soon-to-be four-month-old son is pretty good evidence of that.

So, on this occasion of our second anniversary, I can say that I'm happy that my life's journey has led me to this place. Because today, and every day, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

New Beers Resolution Update #1

Two months into my new beers resolution and it's so far, so good. I'm up to 30 unique beers in that time frame, so that puts me on a pace of 180 for the year, if I make it that far.

A few weeks ago, I opted for a Samuel Adams Summer Ale—yes, in the dead of winter—because it was offered to me by my neighbor. So, that's another fall-back beer I won't have available to me as the year progresses. In hindsight, I should have gone the mixed-drink route, since that was also an option. After all, if someone offers me a vodka-and-tonic or a Budweiser, I'm taking the former. I'm also allowed to drink the same label of hard liquor (year to date: zero) or type of wine (one, so far) as many times as I want. I don't think this is cheating, right? Beer is really what this resolution is about, anyway, but I'm pretty sure it won't really be an issue.

What may be even more of a problem than the home brew conundrum I pointed out in my original post on the subject are the post-softball game beers. I don't partake in these after every game, but often enough that it's going to be a challenge.

You see, our sponsor is a bar, so that's where we gather after games, and there's quite the limited selection, with Smithwick's and Guinness being the best options. Beyond these, we're talking only a few other light beer offerings.

But, the real problem will be the 30-packs of Bud Light consumed at the field immediately after games, a practice which usually starts once the weather gets warmer. Again, when I stick around, I usually have one or two. After a game, they go down pretty easy. I'm not too much of a beer snob to admit that. But, one can after one game and I'll be at my self-imposed limit. So, I'm not really sure what I'm going to do about that.

Anyway, I created this Beers of 2012 page to track the progress of this unusual goal, so check it out if you're so inclined. The year's highlights, among those I'd never drank before, so far include:
  • Saratoga Lager
  • Double-Wide IPA
  • Pipeline Porter
  • Slumbrew Flagraiser IPA
  • Left Hand Milk Stout
  • Pied Piper IPA

Friday, March 02, 2012

Not Wild About (But Not Opposed to) the Idea of Additional Wild Cards

I hadn't really thought much about Major League Baseball's plan for expanded playoffs until a friend of the blog asked me my opinion on Twitter the other day. Said friend, who writes the Outfield Grass blog, is a Mariners fan, but not really in favor of the addition of one wild card per league to the current system. I didn't ask, but I can only assume this is the product of bit of a purist mentality, as he also admitted it would probably help his team. Well, in the long run at least.

Obviously, more teams in the playoffs is pretty much a boon to every team's chances of qualifying, but I thought about what teams might not benefit from such a system. Like I said, that consideration had yet to really cross my mind, but the answer was pretty obvious.

The first teams that popped into my head were the Yankees and Red Sox, of course, but also probably the Phillies. At least in the game's current economic state, which doesn't seem likely to change in the foreseeable future. Then, almost predictably, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel made some old school remark hearkening back to the days when the best two teams would meet in the World Series. Or, something like that.

Although the two best teams playing in the Series wasn't really guaranteed even in the pre-division play days (the two best teams could conceivably be in the same league), I kind of get where he's coming from. But, adding one more wild card per league doesn't change anything for teams except those that wouldn't have made the playoffs in any system prior to the current one anyway. So, I don't see how it really changes anything for anyone who likes things the way they used to be.

This is not meant to be criticism directed at Manuel, but the playoffs have expanded twice since his utopian scenario existed, and the new change won't affect teams who win their divisions anyway. After the wild card play-in game, there will still be four teams remaining in each league. So, all else being equal, division winners will still have a 25% chance of reaching the World Series.

So, we're really talking about a system that will have the most negative effect on teams who are expected to make the playoffs every year, namely the Red Sox and Yankees. Although the Rays have thrown a wrench into those two teams' collective dominance of the AL East, it's not unrealistic to expect, even in the one wild card system, that most years the weaker of those two teams would qualify for the wild card. Meaning they'll now be subjected to one-game playoffs instead.

I guess what I'm kind of saying is it's a system most fans should be in favor of, since it really only adversely affects the two richest teams in the game, and maybe a few other "haves" as well.

But, as a Yankees fan, I'm really not complaining. I kind of like the idea, in theory, of more teams playing meaningful games right up to the end of season. I don't really love the idea of a one-game playoff. But, given that it will only affect teams who didn't win their divisions anyway, I don't see it as a terrible injustice.

Now, I can only assume that all ties for division championships will now have to be settled by one-game playoffs preceding such wild card games, even when the loser of such a game will still qualify for the wild card. It would seem unfair to settle such division deadlocks by tiebreaker, given the major advantage of making the playoffs as a division champ. I suppose this scenario could further delay the start of the playoffs for all other teams, and given that's a situation MLB is trying to avoid by making the wild cards play only one game rather than best-of-threes, this could potentially be another drawback.

Otherwise, my only major reservation with expanded playoffs is the concern that baseball is gradually going the way of hockey and basketball, where more than half the teams qualify for the postseason (16 of 30 in both sports, to be exact). But, in baseball's soon-to-be-implemented new system, we're still only talking about one-third (10 of 30), so I can live with that.

Just, let's not get any crazy ideas about expanding to 12 any time soon, OK?