Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to bake a DeRosa cake

When the Cubs traded away Mark DeRosa last off season, the only possible reaction was, "huh?" Many fans regarded him as the MVP of the 2008 team (wrongly), he backed up nearly every position on an always aching ball club, oh and the only depth behind him was Mike Fontenot. Now I like the Font-e-not as much as the next Cubs fan, but to rely on him at second base, and trade away your only insurance for an injury prone Aramis Ramirez, only to save a whopping $5.5 million (used on Milton Bradley) crippled the Cubs season. In today's market, $5.5 million can actually go a long way, but not if your name is Jim Hendry. Bobby Abreu for example made just $5 million last year. In true Hendry fashion, however, Jim took almost half of what he saved on DeRosa and spent it on Aaron Miles. He then gave Bradley double the amount of Abreu's contract, at three times the length.

Needless to say, it's a very real possibility that Hendry was experimenting with illegal drugs during the 2008 offseason. He did make one under the radar move last year, though, that may prove to be one of his more insightful pickups, by acquiring Jeff Baker mid-season. The Cubs didn't get Baker without having to pay up on their end of the deal, as they traded away one of the greatest baseball names of all time in minor league pitcher Al Albuquerque. Al's numbers luckily do not live up to his name as he has a career 1.45 whip due mainly to a 4.2 BB/9 (um, no). Now I'm not saying that Baker is the next Ryne Sandberg but I think he can very easily wind up being the next Mark DeRosa.

Baker received his first extended look in the majors in 2007, posting an unimpressive line of .222/.296/.347 in 144 at bats. He quickly adjusted in 2008 though, with an improved .268/.322/.468 with 12 jacks in 299 at bats. He followed up the success of '08 by starting off ice cold last year with 3 hits in his first 23 at bats for Colorado. The trade to the Cubs must have lit a fire under his ass as he thawed out nicely, hitting .305/.362/.448 in 203 at bats as a Cub.

In Mark DeRosa's first stint with the Cubs, he put up a similar line with a respectable .293/.371/.420 in 502 at bats. Obviously Baker's is a much smaller sample, but it is not hard to see similarities in the skill sets here. A significant part of DeRosa's value the past two seasons has been his increased power. Taking a closer look look at the numbers, the stat Isolated Power is defined as "a measure of a hitter's raw power" and is found by taking (SLG - AVG). DeRosa's 2007 ISO was a below average .127 (league average .150). Similarly, Baker had an ISO of .125 the same year. Baker then jumped all the way to .205 in 2008. DeRosa followed suit with an ISO of .196.

Baker, who will turn 29 this year, didn't show the pop last year that he did in 2008, with 4 home runs in 226 at bats, however, in DeRosa's 28-year-old season he hit just 6 bombs in 266 at bats. Given the similarities in the development of these two players, I think it is a safe bet that Baker reaches double digit home runs in 2010. As you can see, Baker was unlucky last year, with just 6.5% of his fly balls turning into home runs:

2007 9.80%
2008 16.70%
2009 6.50%
Career 13.30%

With that number bound to bounce back up to at least his career average, Baker can provide above average power for a middle infielder. On the defensive side of the ball, Baker came up as a third baseman but has shifted to second while also spending time at both corner outfield spots as well as first base. Sound familiar?

Jeff Baker is a younger version of Mark DeRosa who is further along in his development than DeRosa was at his age. DeRo didn't make a real impact on a team until 2006 as a 31-year-old Texas Ranger. Baker will be given his chance to do the same as 29-year-old splitting second base duties with Little Babe Ruth himself, Mike Fontenot. I think the smart money here is on Baker.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Album Review - Toro Y Moi

Causers of This - album cover

Toro Y MoiCausers of This


A sweet, slow crackle of speaker backed by a blissed out “ahhhh” brings Causers of This to life, as gorgeous opening track “Blessa” sets an immediately pleasing tone for the rest of the album. A perfect table-setting track—that also happens to be the record’s best song—“Blessa” combines the melody of Panda Bear, with the laid-back delivery and diffidence of Washed Out. Chaz Bundick, the 23-year-old who is Toro Y Moi, may openly display his influences (you can’t help but think he was listening to Ambivalence Avenue released by Bibio last year when listening to more than a few songs) however, on Causers of This he proves to have the ability to carve out his own unique voice in this “chillwave” genre.

In the same vein as Ambivalence Avenue, Causers of This covers a broad range of musical styles. The difference is that Bundick manages to reign in his sound and keep it together in the context of the album. That is no knock on Bibio, who’s album was one of last years best, but Toro Y Moi keeps the listener engaged using a continuous shift in approach while maintaining a surprising sense of continuity. Nowhere is the Bibio influence more apparent than on “Lissoms” where the step-stutter-step of a broken beat begs to be listened to. Drawing itself into and out of the speakers, the jagged, angular beats blend together with tape hiss and subdued sounds of pleasure, contrasting beautifully in the background.

One unmistakable misstep, however, is that previously released “Talamak” is reworked to diminishing returns. The former version of the song featured a constant, echoing give-and-take of volume levels throughout the track. It was subtle enough to not bother the listener, yet was able to weave itself into the fabric of the song. The former also had a creepily awesome opening that somehow reminded you of “The Twilight Zone” and Fischerspooner at the same time. The new “Talamak,” while still enjoyable, is slightly sped up and features the incessant honking of what sounds like a synthesized harmonica, seeming forced and tacky in comparison.

Similarly, a cheesy piano line opens up “Low Shoulder,” which has the opposite effect of the harmonica and works better when it turns into a keyboard synth. “Low Shoulder” goes against Toro Y Moi’s strengths as Bundick seems much more comfortable when throwing down acutely articulated beats (“Lissoms”, “Minors”), or chilling out with a drug induced blend of bass, haze and synths (“Thanks Vision”). “Low Shoulder” tries to split the difference and make itself a pop song at the same time, causing it to teeter a little too dangerously close to the edge of crowd-pleasing cutesiness. The song does manage to close on a high note however, as the second half features much less of the piano, ending instead with a mix of previously successful tricks.

Ending on a high note just must be the way Toro Y Moi rolls, as the title track closes the album on a sugar rush. “Causers of This” is sticky and sweet, as chopped up female vocals are sprinkled across an array of pulsating beats, ending with a repeated “It’s all good, it’s all good.” Yes, Mr. Chaz Bundick, it sure is.

It’s the minor details that keep the album from being great, which is to be expected from someone [named Chaz Bundick] whose musical creativity seems boundless. At times it appears the creative juices were spilling over just a little too much, with added touches that simply do not work. For example the meandering of “Imprint After,” which I can only describe as sounding like bad MGMT, may draw differing reactions. Equally, one’s affinity for the spaztastic, hyper kinetic energy of “Causers of This” may also be the same sound that another listener finds increasingly annoying.

While I fail to see the Animal Collective comparisons to Toro Y Moi outside of “Blessa” and the abundance of bass both use, Animal Collective have achieved the ability to hone their brimming talent into not only wondrously weird and unique songs, but also into universally appealing music. Causers of This shows off a distinctive talent set and promise for future releases, but it does have its misgivings and bumps along the road. This is a full-length debut after all. Forget about that, though because this is an impressive album and would be a warm and welcome choice for your ears and a snug pair of headphones after coming inside from January’s chill.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Da Bulls

You have to love the Bulls starting lineup presentation. It's just bizarre, yet there seems to be so much effort put into it that you have to appreciate the fact that they are going 150% all out to make sure it looks cool. I mean, what other team turns off the lights, starts up the lasers and puts up graphics on the board of their teams mascots hoarding together and running through the streets? It's great, a pack of angry bulls running through Chicago and down Madison street, trampling towards the United Center. The best part of it all is when they see the opposing team's bus parked outside and the lead bull lowers his horns before they all gloriously bust through. It all seems completely ridiculous until the familiar sound of the Alan Parsons Project starts up and you remember all those old Bulls teams of the 90's you'd used to watch, when that dun-da dah-duh would put a smile on your face as you prepared to watch Jordan dominate. The Bulls spent the entire last decade wallowing in the muck between average and below average, but this year's team has actually been exciting lately, playing good defense with a stable of young, athletic big men who can run the floor as Derrick Rose dishes it out. The Bulls, for once, actually look like a competent, competitive team.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Maddog back, Sheets next?

In a move of rare shrewdness, the Chicago Cubs announced yesterday that Greg Maddux has returned to the team as an assistant to GM Jim Hendry. This move can only help, especially in the case of talent evaluation. Booze-hound Hendry needs all the help he can get these days.

Also in Cubs news is the rumor that the team plans to make a run at starting pitcher Ben Sheets. Convincing the front office to make the former Brewer an offer should be Greg Maddux's first order of business. Maddog will take one look at Sheets' baseball-reference page and drool all over his keyboard as he reads off these career numbers:
  • K/BB: 3.85
  • WHIP: 1.20
  • BB/9: 1.97
  • FIP: 3.56 (FIP is Fielder Independent Pitching, defintion here, read as ERA)
Sheets has elite control combined with nasty, whiff inducing stuff. Maddux should appreciate the value of an incredibly low walks per nine innings, (Maddux for comparison had a career BB/9 of 1.8) as well as the elite strikeout to walk ratio of 3.85 (not a huge K-guy, Maddux still maintained a career 3.3 K/BB).

Some may wonder why the Cubs would let Rich Harden walk, only to pursue another potential ace who has his history of injuries. I think the answer is simply that, even while healthy, Harden can only be counted on for 6 innings of work. A healthy Ben Sheets is capable of going all 9 innings on any good day, as seen by his 18 career complete games. Rich Harden, on the other hand, has a whopping two complete games on his resume, both in 2005.

Ben Sheets seems to still think it is 2005, though (a year after a season of career bests in 2004 that included 237 IP, 2.70 ERA, 0.983 WHIP and an incredible 8.25 K/BB) as Carrie Muskat tweets that Sheets' current asking price of $10-12 million is out of the Cubs budget. I'm not sure if Ben Sheets is aware that he missed the entire 2009 season and has not thrown 200 innings of baseball since 2004, but his reported asking price is just about what an ace in 2005 was making. This is also roughly the same amount that Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster are making, and while Sheets may pitch better than those two when healthy, both Dempster and Lilly have proven to be durable and reliable.

Sheets asking price will undoubtedly come down, whether it comes down enough for the Rickett's family is another issue. Hopefully Greg Maddux has something to say about this potential move.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Byrd lands in Chicago

Marlon Byrd's landing was about as exciting as watching the seagulls circle Wrigley in the 8th inning, as Jim Hendry signed a blah player to a blah 3 years $15 million contract. This isn't such a bad signing though, Hendry landed an average center fielder for market value. Think about that. When has Hendry ever not over-payed average players, or payed perceived market value to bad players. Jacque Jones December of 2005, 3 years $16 million dollars. Worm-burnin' Jacque Jones got more money than Byrd who hit a respectable .283/.329/.478 last year after hitting .298/.380/.462 and .307/.355/.459 the previous two years while playing an average center field. Back with his old hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, Byrd may be a late bloomer as his slugging percentage is trending upwards each of the last three seasons and his 20 bombs last year doubled his previous career high.

Much like the seagulls waiting to peck at mustard-stained hot dog wrappers or overturned boxes of popcorn, the Cubs circled the center field options slowly, dragging out a Milton Bradley trade only to get the worst possible return, meanwhile missing out on a superior defensive center fielder in Mike Cameron all the while failing to once again never EVER trade a prospect at his peak value (19-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro) and watching a perfect fit in Curtis Granderson be stolen by the Evil Empire (but we'll trade Felix Pie for Garrett Olson and Henry Williamson). Byrd is getting up there in age as he turns 33 this coming season, so the Cubs may be looking to unload him for 2012. For now though, Hendry gets a pass. Not a bad deal.