Greetings from All-Star week in Minneapolis

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MINNEAPOLIS, MN — This is my first-ever trip to the Twin Cities and, I gotta say, it’s quite a pleasant place so far. This kind of view helps:

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Target Field is a gem. Like almost all newer parks it’s comfortable, fan-friendly and functional. Unlike most of them, it’s aesthetically beautiful as well. Great lines, attractive materials and finishes and a nice integration with the surrounding city. I’ll get more chances to grok it all today and tomorrow, but it’s a gorgeous park.

And It’s absolutely gorgeous here in Minneapolis too. Last year’s All-Star week in New York featured temperatures in the mid-to-upper 90s and stifling humidity. Yesterday it was in the 70s with pleasant breezes. Today it’s only supposed to climb into the low 60s. Which may be too cool for the tastes of some of you but is absolutely ideal for pasty, thick-blooded people like me whose ancestors inhabited chilly, craggy, windswept British island shores for a few thousand years like mine did. Give me this stuff every day.

The city seems quite pleasant itself. Later this morning I will post something about my experiences with an item of local cuisine, but for now let me just say that Minneapolis seems to be a well-ordered and well-run place. The signage is good, the streets are clean, the people are pleasant and the light rail runs on time and to and from places I want and need to go. Of course, I’m sure Minneapolis has idiosyncrasies, inefficiencies, scandals and skeletons like every other city, but it does make a good first impression for people like me who are, more or less, in town for the convention, as they say.

My hotel is on the far east end of downtown — “the west bank,” apparently, just across the river from the main University of Minnesota campus. It’s a little less than two miles to the ballpark. Since I had the time and the weather was nice I decided to walk it. A couple of notable things on my walk:


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There used to be a big, ugly dome there that was unfit for baseball as God intended it, and which saw the twin crimes of (a) Kent Hrbek brutally assaulting Ron Gant at first base in the 1991 World Series; and (b) Later that Series, Jack Morris pitching one of the best games ever which, while well and good itself, is what launched 23 years worth of people claiming an outsized legacy for him that is truly annoying. Not that I’m still mad about any of that or anything.

Much cooler:

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That’s where Prince, The Revolution, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum and a zillion other Twin Cities bands called home on the way up and, actually, after they were already up. Minneapolis is an extremely underrated music town. One you sort of forget about until you think about the murderers row of talent that has come from here. The largest chunk of my walk was made with The Replacements playing on my iPod.

Oh, this s fun too:

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Probably means nothing to anyone under 35 or 40. But she can turn a world on with her smile.

Outside of Target Field a less smile-inducing statue:


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That’s Calvin Griffith, who owned the Senators and then moved them here to become the Twins. I guess the team’s long-time owner deserves a statue. I wish, however, carved at the base of the statue were the words he once said at a Lion’s Club dinner when talking about moving the team to Minnesota:

“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

And it’s not like he said it during the Jim Crow era. He said it in 1978. He added comments denigrating nearly every player on the Twins and much about baseball. The Lords of the Realm, baby. The Lords of the Realm.

After taking all of that in, I took in The Futures Game. Bill wrote up what happened in that game yesterday. I wrote up what I think should happen with the game in the future. Short version: how much cooler would it be to have the Futures Game tonight, in prime time, with no regular season baseball games to compete with it? Let alone the World Cup. Instead, we’re getting the Home Run Derby. Which, no, I don’t suppose is going anywhere, but it’s not like people much care for it. Later today we’ll talk about the Derby and what some other options may be.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking around and seeing what I can find.

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There may even be some bold flavors to be found.

2017 Preview: Seattle Mariners

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Seattle Mariners.

The first rule of snapping playoff droughts is: You do not talk about snapping playoff droughts. The second rule of snapping playoff droughts is: You do not talk about snapping playoff droughts.

For the uninitiated, we’re now up to 15 years in which the Mariners have failed to contend for a championship title. The highlight reel of their 1995 and 2001 playoff runs has worn thin; so, too, have the slogans and promises of the nine managers and four general managers who have cycled through the franchise during their 15-year drought.

That all could change under the direction of general manager Jerry Dipoto, who is approaching his third year at the helm of the Mariners’ organization after making the most single-year offseason trades in club history. In February, MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince estimated Dipoto’s totals had reached 13 trades involving 36 players since the start of the 2016-17 offseason. “Go back to when [Dipoto] arrived in Seattle at the tail end of the 2015 season,” Castrovince writes, “and it’s 37 swaps involving 95 players.”

That’s an insane number of players to be moving around, especially when a team is leaning toward playoff contention rather than a fire sale, and you have to hope that Dipoto has a reason for the high-stakes shuffling.

One possible reason? There’s an expiration date on Seattle’s most treasured veterans, including Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, even Hisashi Iwakuma. Hernandez hasn’t received a Cy Young award in seven years, hasn’t tossed a perfect game in five years, and hasn’t maintained an ERA below 3.00 in three years. Iwakuma nearly crested 200 innings for the second time in his career, but his good health and durability was punished by a career-worst 1.3 HR/9, 6.6 SO/9 and 4.12 ERA. As expected, Cano, Cruz and Seager all turned out solid performance at the plate, and but it’s the hazards that come with aging and inevitable decline that exert pressure on Dipoto and the rest of the Mariners to deliver a postseason finish sooner rather than later.

Dipoto’s machinations have, for the most part, been both team- and fan-friendly this offseason. He didn’t move any major contracts or trade away any familiar faces on the Mariners roster, choosing instead to excise fringe players and adding short-term depth where it was needed. He reinforced a rotation of Hernandez, Iwakuma and James Paxton with right-handers Yovani Gallardo, Chris Heston, Max Povse and Rob Whalen and left-hander Drew Smyly. The bullpen received right-handers Shae Simmons, Dan Altavilla and lefty Marc Rzepczynski, the latter of whom inked a two-year, $11 million deal, while Carlos Ruiz gave the Mariners another option behind the plate. Jarrod Dyson was thrown into the outfield mix alongside Leonys Martin and Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura took over for Ketel Marte at short, and infielder/outfielder Danny Valencia lined up behind Dan Vogelbach at first base, where he later won the starting role.

It’s enough to make your head spin, but the takeaway is simple enough. Investing in younger, cheaper players provides the Mariners with enough defense and athleticism to compete for a postseason berth without the drawbacks of weighty contracts and long-term commitments. If the experiment doesn’t pan out as expected, there’s nothing to stop Dipoto from making another dozen trades during next year’s offseason and restarting the whole process.

As with any roster overhaul, there’s no predicting how much the Mariners of 2017 will improve on their 2016 counterparts. The starting rotation still leaves much to be desired, and without productive turnarounds from Hernandez and Iwakuma, even the cavernous maw of Safeco Field won’t be able to stave off another collapse. James Paxton and Drew Smyly, while not rotation headliners, project to be the most stable of the bunch so far.

The bullpen profiles a little better, notwithstanding Steve Cishek’s lengthy recovery from hip surgery this winter, Ariel Miranda’s demotion to Triple-A Tacoma and the unexpected forearm issues that cropped up in Shae SImmons’ right arm. At one point, manager Scott Servais said he was considering an eight-man bullpen featuring Edwin Diaz, Dan Altavilla, Casey Fien, Marc Rzepczynski, Nick Vincent and Evan Scribner, though the details have yet to be worked out before the team opens their season on Monday.

While some kinks still need to be worked out among the Mariners’ pitching staff, their offense and defense look sharper than they have in years. According to FanGraphs, Dipoto invested in some pretty sizable upgrades with Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura and backup outfielder Ben Gamel, enough to make them the most improved outfield defense in the league.

It’s plausible that the 2017 Mariners have improved as a whole. It’s also plausible that all of Dipoto’s frenzied offseason moves were more focused and premeditated than they appeared. It’s even plausible that the tinkering and trimming and restructuring of the Mariners’ defense could attract a heftier win-loss record and a participation trophy — heck, even a championship title — in this year’s postseason.

But you didn’t hear it here. The first rule of playoff droughts, after all, is that we don’t talk about them until they’re finally, mercifully snapped.

Prediction: 2nd place in AL West.*

(Note from Craig: I did the Rangers preview and picked them to be in second place. I did so without coordinating with Ashley on where she’d place the M’s because, let’s face it, details are not my strong suit. Upon reading the preview above and thinking harder I’m probably leaning more toward the Rangers coming in third to be honest, but I won’t change either preview because taking predictions seriously is pointless. We’ll all just check back in October and see who was right. Ashley was probably right). 

2017 Preview: Houston Astros

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Houston Astros.

Every preview of the 2017 Astros is obligated to mention that, back in 2014, Sports Illustrated projected them to win it all this year. It got a lot of laughs at the time, but that was actually sort of bearish given that they pushed the eventual World Series champs to five games in the 2015 ALDS, which suggested 2016 could’ve even been a step beyond that. Houston faltered last year, however, and in their latest baseball preview, SI didn’t repeat that World Series claim from three years ago. They’re picking the Dodgers. So sad to see such lack of courage in one’s convictions.

I’m not sure I’d pick them to win it all this year either, but it should be a better year for the men in orange.

It all starts with their core. Jose Altuve, is a batting champ and MVP contender. 2015 Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa was just 21 last season and still put up a line of .274/.364/.451 in his first full season, fighting through some nagging injuries to do it. George Springer isn’t as good those two but he’s talented enough to feature as a key supporting player on a championship-caliber club. Alex Bregman had a nice debut season last year and will now look to consolidate success at multiple minor league levels into a solid full season in the bigs.

While last year the hope was that success would be be ensured by the young players progressing, the front office decided this past winter to beef up the roster by adding some quality veterans. In comes Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran via free agency, and in comes Brian McCann via a trade. Reddick will slot in right field, Beltran will take over at DH and McCann becomes the starting catcher. Those additions make the Astros lineup one of the best in the American League. And that’s before you allow for the possibility that young guys like Correa and Bregman could break out in a big way. It’s also before you realize that Evan Gattis — who hit 32 homers last year — is now basically a bench bat. It’s a deep offensive attack that gives A.J. Hinch a lot of options, both to play the best matchups and to rest veterans.

Things aren’t perfect, however. The rotation is a problem.

2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel had a profoundly disappointing 2016 campaign. As did just about everyone else to whom Hinch gave the ball. Only Lance McCullers had an ERA+ over 100, but he only started 14 games. Jeff Luhnow went out and got Charlie Morton, but that’s not a big get. Otherwise the rotation is going to be fairly similar to last year: Keuchel, McCullers, Morton, Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove. Collin McHugh will likely start the year on the DL and contribute eventually.

Keuchel had shoulder problems. Morton is coming off a big hamstring injury. McCullers was hurt last year and McHugh has dead arm now. It’s not a pretty picture. A bounceback season from Keuchel or a full season of health from McCullers would go a long way toward solidifying things. As of now, though, Houston may score a ton of runs, but they are going to have some trouble preventing them. There’s a reason why they are still rumored to be in on Jose Quintana. They could use him.

Thankfully the bullpen was a clear strength last year and it should look pretty similar this year, personnel-wise. Ken Giles will close with Luke Gregerson and Will Harris setting up with Tony Sipp, Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz contributing. It’s a nice group that, while not featuring any Andrew Miller-type relief aces, was the most valuable bullpen in baseball as measured by WAR. Even if WAR is not your favorite stat, it’s still a super solid group.

What does a a great lineup, a solid bullpen and a rotation full of question marks amount to? In the AL West I think it amounts to a good bit, actually, as no contender is perfect. If you do a bit of wishcasting with the rotation, it’s not hard to find a ton of separation between it and Texas’ overall. If Jeff Luhnow goes out and gets a starter, which I think he will, it could easily be better. That doesn’t make the Astros a runaway favorite, but I think it gives them a shot at a win total in the high-80s to low-90s, and I think that amounts to . . .

Prediction: First Place, American League West. But they’ll be battling for it all year in what I think will be a close division.