Monday, January 2, 2017

2016 Music: A Belated 2-for-1 Post

Maybe this blog is just for baseball predictions and year-end music lists from now on. That's alright.

I: The Albums

A bunch of bands I've loved for decades put out new music in 2016, but for the most part, they were replacement level. So from 10 to 4, I don't have much to say. If you like these bands, you will probably at least be ok with these albums.

10. Sum 41- 13 Voices
9. Weezer- Weezer (White)
8. The Pixies- Head Carrier
7. Blink 182- California
6. Green Day- Revolution Radio
5. Soul Asylum- Change of Fortune
4. NoFX- First Ditch Effort

And now, on to the ones worth talking about.

3. Wheeler Walker, Jr. - Redneck Shit
Image result for wheeler walker redneck shit

When Birdcloud came to Chicago in June they were opening for one Wheeler Walker, Jr., who is basically a male version of Birdcloud. The title track is breathtaking in just how much profanity one can fit into three minutes, and it just gets nastier from there. "Family Tree" is similarly impressive, but more creative in its disgustingness. And then there's "Drop 'em Out", an ode to boobs that Walker says "is an Oak Ridge Boys song in my head". It's amazing to me that albums like this exist at all, but two years running, dirty country is a genre I've gotten myself into.

2. Against Me! - Shape Shift With Me
Image result for against me shape shift with me 400x400

I was prepared to wait another year or two for a follow-up to 2014's "Transgender Dysphoria Blues", one of my all-time favorite albums, but I got one in less than three years. "Shape Shift With Me" occasionally dips into the brutally honest space that TGDB inhabited on tracks like "Norse Truth" ("How am I gonna look you in the eyes when I've known you so very intimately?"), but it's generally just an energized punk rock record. The best songs on it are great not because Laura Jane Grace has opened up even further, but because she doesn't HAVE to anymore. TGDB is a prerequisite for this album in that it charted the path for Against Me!'s future, but SSWM sets the velocity for that path. Still personal, still political, but supercharged with brand new confidence.

1. Brian Fallon - Painkillers
Image result for brian fallon painkillers

All year- except for that month where I was randomly in love with Erasure- "Painkillers" was my soundtrack. While Fallon's music with The Gaslight Anthem took emo-honest lyrics and threw loud punk-grunge-alternative guitars on top, this solo effort is more folk-rock or roots-rock than anything. It still sounds vaguely Springsteen-ish (Fallon likes to roar about cars sometimes), but I'm over that, because I'm obsessed with his lyrics. When I feel like he feels on songs like "Nobody Wins" ("I must have lived a lifetime without you/ You must have ended up somebody's angel") or "Among Other Foolish Things" ("The lights in this town they don't brighten up anything"), I stay in bed all day. When Brian Fallon feels that way, he makes brilliant music.

II. The Songs

As seen above, lyrics were a big thing for me this year. So instead of watching myself type, I'm just gonna put up the Youtubes for my ten favorite 2016 songs and my favorite lyric from each.

10. "Meet me at the station, let's pretend to go somewhere."

9. "Don't let her catch you in the act of throwing in the towel."

8. "You'll probably get hurt in heels and a skirt when you're in the middle of a circle pit."

7. "So sorry but I need your wife I'm breaking in my brand new scythe."

6. "There was this one time when I painted a masterpiece."

5. "I love a lie just like anybody else."

4. "For every Demerol-tercation, they'll have a good Xanax-planation"

3. "They talk boots while they're laughing at you-ou."

2. "A study in sophisticated nuances of putting holes in your lungs."

1. "Maybe someday they're gonna love me back to life."

Thursday, April 21, 2016

I Wanna Chop Those Brass Rings Off Your Fat Fucking Fingers

I'm never sure what to say when this happens. I'm never quite sure how people who pride themselves on ignorance and a total lack of curiosity can be so comfortable sharing that point of view with the whole internet. That so many people agree with them makes me want to drink about 50 gin-and-Oxycontins.

This is a post about NC HB2. It's also a post about baseball and Magic: the Gathering. I want it to be a post about communication, but nobody has yet found the right words that lead to mutual understanding. If you think I'll be the one to crack that code, you're betting on the wrong horse. I'm also going to talk about sexual assault and domestic violence in bitterly sarcastic terms, because that's how I talk about anything contemptible. I do not intend to trivialize these matters, merely to spit some fire at those who take the wrong side in them.

When I tried to write about trans issues a couple years ago, my conclusion was this: the ability to live without ever having to consciously exercise the right to define one's own gender identity and/or sexuality is a privilege. Cisgenderism and heterosexuality are not things to be ashamed of, nor is anyone proposing they be treated as such. But this conversation is to LGBTQ rights as George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and Kim Kardashian are to discussions of wealth. Those individuals have accomplished nothing positive at all between them other than winning the parents lottery, but hell if they aren't all proud of themselves for being born rich and, to a degree, powerful. If you're content with your own genitals and sexually desire only people with different genitals, you were born on third. It's up to you whether you think you hit a triple. One thing's become clear, from Black Lives Matter to the rise of Trump to HB2. It's that empathy is dying, solipsism is alive and well, and if the latter hasn't conquered American society just yet, we're almost there. That's what leads to statements like "All lives matter!" or "Born with a penis, always a male." (I'm not going to explore female to male transsexuality in any detail here, because nobody's even pretending to be worried that trans men are all about playing grab-ass in public bathrooms.) It's easy to look down on blacks if you've never lived in crushing poverty, never had to be afraid of cops as a matter of practicality. It's easy to look down on trans people if you only assume they could have turned out just like you if they hadn't wanted and chose to be different. It's easy to look down on gays and lesbians if you only assume they're choosing a lifestyle just to offend you. Just because it's easy doesn't make it good. (Aside: the look on such a person's face when you ask them if they, too, could choose to be gay is priceless. I never get tired of that, and it's one thing I'll miss when all the bigots have died off or moved to the sovereign nation of Texassippianazona.)

A few weeks ago, at a Magic tournament, some guys were spewing trans hate within earshot of me. The exact words words I heard were "Trannies are just boring guys who think [being trans] makes them interesting." I don't know why they were talking about this, and I don't really care. I didn't say anything, because I'm a coward. I just went outside for a cigarette, saw red for a couple minutes, then kicked their bigoted fucking asses at Magic. I play at a store run by some great guys, but their tournies don't draw as well as they should. As much as I've heard "Call out people for being unwelcoming or offensive", as that's a big deal in Magic now, it's a matter of numbers for me. If you chase away intolerant and offensive people and then your store can't get enough people to run an 8-player tournament, I don't know what exactly you've helped. You just don't get to play Magic in a place you enjoy anymore. Besides, we're all guilty of crude sexual humor and foul language at that store, and I wasn't prepared to draw the line at transphobia, especially when I haven't had the necessary, long, difficult, and complicated conversations that would lead to understanding with anyone there yet. Another time, at another store, this dude wouldn't leave me alone because the backpack in which I keep my cards is a purple-and-black Hannah Montana backpack. He finally gave up, in confusion, when I graciously ceded to him that his backpack absolutely made him more of a man than mine did for me. I still don't understand that conversation at all, but whenever I go back to that store and he isn't there, I'm happy.

So HB2 reminds me a little of watching Bill O'Reilly or Michelle Malkin, and not just because of their identical positions. If you turn your brain off all the way and abandon critical thinking, they all seem to make a kind of sense. O'Reilly is the patronizing uncle who knows best because he's made a bit of money for himself, so you should be grateful that he's even bothering to bestow his wisdom upon you. Malkin is in a permanent state of outrage about how us liberals are constantly assaulting your God-given rights and freedoms, and if you ignore the lack of evidence to support anything she has ever said, hell yes that's worth being pissed off about! And HB2 just includes one, erm, problematic "definition": that a person's sex and gender is determined solely by their birth certificate. It goes on to tell the city of Charlotte that their own bathroom bill is null and void, since it disagrees with that definition. And let's get the obvious out of the way: for a vast majority of people, this definition of sex and gender works well enough, if not perfectly. But this bill isn't about those people. It's about telling trans folk that they aren't welcome in North Carolina unless they're willing to subject themselves to using the wrong bathroom.

The loudest voices are the ones saying that if we allow trans individuals to live as their authentic selves, the whole point of all the emotional and psychological torment, harassment, assault both verbal and physical, expensive and painful treatments and surgeries, and absence of social sympathy that they already have to endure has all led to this: getting into a public women's restroom so they can rape our wives and mothers and molest our daughters. I'm the furthest thing from an expert when it comes to what gender identity really means, or what makes us male or female, but this assumption of rape and violence strikes me as a pretty male thing. Because the writers and supporters of HB2 believe trans women are still men, they still have male brains, so of course they would be all about that sweet, sweet public bathroom rape. This belief fails even the most basic test of critical thinking, because anyone of any persuasion who committed such an act would be equally arrested. And nobody's managed to produce any data or statistics (I have yet to even see an anecdote) to support the notion that allowing trans women to use womens' restrooms puts anyone, anywhere, in danger. But that doesn't matter. It's all about my next point: fear vs. hope.

I'll admit to having been a myopic, self-centered young person. I don't think I cared about politics at all until the 2000 election, the first one I was allowed to vote in. But since then, I think I figured out what makes a person liberal or conservative. That's a really arrogant thing to say, and I only say it because I have yet to see contradictory evidence. If you're a conservative, I believe you are motivated at the most basic level by hate and/or fear. The questions are always about threats: who's coming to take my job/money/guns/bible away? Who needs a good bootstomp to the face to make sure they don't get what's mine? Since it clearly isn't my fault my life sucks, whose fault is it? It is fear that brought us back to the Middle East, probably for good. It is hate that burns down black churches and revives the War of Northern Aggression in the deep south. It is fear that causes Christian Dominionists and everyone who listens to them to use "religious liberty" as a euphemism for "legalized discrimination", and it is the widespread nature of this fear that grants human garbage like Tony Perkins a regular national platform. It is a combination of both hate and fear that keeps putting a disproportionate number of gays and trans people in the hospital or the morgue by no fault of their own. It is a combination of both hate and fear that has put an obvious misogynist and racist on track for the republican nomination in 2016, despite an utter lack of qualifications or, indeed, accomplishments of any kind. And it's fear and hate that made Pat McCrory governor of a state that I know for a fact has at least ten or twelve decent people in it. And fear and hate will work forever, because it's SO EASY to be pissed off and scared.

On the other side, I believe liberals (not Democrats, liberals. Our Democratic Party, with a few shining exceptions, is a centrist conservative entity.) are motivated primarily by hope. We envision a better world, and we ask what we can do to help create it. We almost never succeed, because it's a lot easier to succumb to the negative emotions than embrace the positive ones. It's exhausting and demoralizing to wake up every day and think that maybe this shit world will get a little less shitty today, only to go to bed knowing it really didn't. I believe we have an ace up our sleeve, though. Fear and hate prey on ignorance. Hope feeds off knowledge. If we can value truth more than tribalism, we can beat this. It'll take every last one of us, and it'll take longer than any of us will live, but I think we can win. All we have to do is call out bullshit every day for what it is, and remind those that spout it that they're free to say any damn thing they want. Just as we are free to point out the weakness of their arguments, because disagreement is not persecution, and responding to free speech with our own stifles nobody's free speech. If we do this every day, all the time, maybe we will enter an era when we'll get sick of winning, because we'll all be winning too much. We'll be like, stop with the winning already. Except we have to get the media on our side for this to really happen, so probably, we're all just fucked.

This brings me to the reason I wrote this post: calling bullshit. Curt Schilling was a truly great pitcher for the Phillies, Diamondbacks and Red Sox in the 90's and 00's. He was a joy to watch on the mound, and a solid on-air analyst for ESPN after he retired. Unfortunately, in recent years, he's shown himself to be that relative everyone has who throws FOX "News" talking points up on social media, except he's that for all of us- even those of us who proudly lack a Facebook or Twitter account. He was suspended from covering the MLB Playoffs last October when he compared extremist Muslims to Nazis on Twitter, and when he tweeted a HB2-supportive meme meant to provoke fear and disgust, ESPN finally showed him the door today. The uproar from the right was predictable and immediate: They're persecuting him! Read the constitution! First amendment! Yes, that renowned liberal organization ESPN:
-Who gives awards to domestic abusers like Floyd Mayweather
-Who was the first to ask when Ray Rice and Kobe Bryant would be allowed to play sportball again because maybe the bitch had it coming
-Who supported and magnified the influence of overgrown fratboy Bill Simmons for nearly 20 years

...has snuffed out Curt Schilling's dissenting, patriotic voice of reason. Except not at all. Schilling still has all the free speech in the world; he just no longer has ESPN as a platform to use it. It's conservatism's Other Jesus, the free market, that betrayed Curt Schilling. ESPN decided it was no longer profitable or good for their image to allow him on the air. As his blog (which I will not link to) attests, Schilling has not been silenced by either his firing or his cancer. He is free to recite gibberish of his own choosing, whenever and however he wants. But sometimes, if you're an asshole, people aren't going to want to hear you talk. At least until you wind up on the wingnut welfare circuit. If he hasn't already been the #OneLuckyGuy, it's in his future. So congrats, Curt. From now on, you'll be in the slideshow of tiny-minded assholes that flips through my brain whenever I listen to "Black Me Out". And since I've already covered two things I love- Magic and baseball- in this post, let's end it with some perfectly appropriate rock and roll. My unlimited love to all who love.


Monday, April 4, 2016

2016 MLB Preview

Even though I vanished from this space over the last six months, there's still no way I'm letting baseball start without getting this up here. I've been paying attention all winter, as always, even if I haven't been writing. Let's go!

AL East
1. Toronto Blue Jays. Still love the offense, and I think they did just enough on the pitching side to remain the best team in a bad division.
2. New York Yankees. I liked the Yankees' offseason okay: Aroldis Chapman is the final piece of a Royals-style bullpen (Acquired much more cheaply than Boston's), and Aaron Hicks is an overqualified fourth outfielder on a team that's likely to need a good fourth outfielder. Starlin Castro is a maybe, but they didn't trade that much to get him and he's still young enough to turn into a special player. A return to the postseason is not out of the question.
3. Boston Red Sox. Price is great and so is the bullpen, we assume. But those contracts from last winter are still around, Hanley is still penciled in as an everyday player, Dombrowski took a huge bite out of the farm to get Kimbrel, and that rotation makes me cringe. Joe Kelly, again? Come on. This still isn't a good team.
4. Tampa Bay Rays. For 2016 to be any better than last year, it's going to take a healthy starting rotation and big years from three questionable acquisitions: shortstop Brad Miller, 1B Logan Morrison, and OF/DH Chris Dickerson. Miller and Morrison are both post-post-hype, and Dickerson is probably a Coors Field creation. This team looks like it's in the no man's land between contending and rebuilding to me.
5. Baltimore Orioles. Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez open the season in the starting lineup, and Yovanni Gallardo is the new #2 starter. This run of contention was fun while it lasted, though.

AL Central
1. Kansas City Royals. Zobrist and Cueto are gone, but they kept Alex Gordon, so how do you pick against this core? I also like bringing Joakim Soria back to take over the 8th inning.
2. Minnesota Twins (Wild Card). This was a legitimately above-average team last year, and I'll guess that Byung-Ho Park and Byron Buxton help the Twins kick it up another notch in 2016.
3. Detroit Tigers (Wild Card). It's hard for me to go against an Upton-Cabrera-VMart middle of the other, because that's disgusting, but uncertainty about every starting pitcher and age concerns all over the roster mean Detroit has a lower floor than the two teams I ranked above them. This would be a lot easier if I knew what Justin Verlander's 2016 stat line is going to look like.
4. Cleveland Indians. All the pitching in the universe, and Mike Napoli and Juan Uribe are all they could manage to get for the offense. Not enough, probably not even close.
5. Chicago White Sox. I want to be more optimistic than this, because I love me some Toddfather. But the whole division is making a push, and you don't make the playoffs with Mat Latos and Jon Danks as your 4 and 5. You might not even make it out of April alive.

AL West
1. Texas Rangers. A full year of Hamels and Odor, most of a year of Darvish, and a bullpen that I believe is the deepest in baseball. Sold.
2. Houston Astros. That rotation looks good to me, and Carlos Correa could be the MVP. But I'm not sure just what the 'Stros are getting from their outfield or the rookies they're plugging in at first base and DH. The division's bad enough that they're going to be live for the Wild Card all year, but I see a little backslide coming.
3. Seattle Mariners. I think Wade Miley and Nate Karns were positive-value moves by Jerry Dipoto, but he never got around to replacing the bullpen arms he traded away and that's a pretty huge blind spot. The longest playoff drought in baseball is likely to continue.
4. Oakland Athletics. Other than Sonny Gray, Josh Reddick, and Sean Doolittle, I don't really feel good about any of the names on this roster. Reddick and Khris Davis are early deadline headline candidates.
5. The Red Team. If this was basketball, the Angels would be set: They have the best all-around player in the game, the best defensive player in the game, and a stodgy old former superstar who still has some offensive skills. You can maybe win a title with that in the NBA. It's those other 22 roster spots that sink the Angels.

AL MVP: Lorenzo Cain
AL Cy Young: Sonny Gray
AL Manager of the Year: Paul Molitor

Playoffs: Tigers over Twins, Blue Jays over Tigers, Rangers over Royals, Rangers over Blue Jays.

NL East
1. Washington Nationals. It's not fair that the Nats can lose Jordan Zimmermann and still run out that starting rotation. It's also not fair that the Padres and Rays conspired to give Washington Trea Turner and Joe Ross a year ago, but it happened. So they can Harper and Strasburg it up for the first six weeks, then Turner comes up and things get out of hand. I mean, this team has to put up an insane win total one of these years, don't they?
2. New York Mets (Wild Card). Like Houston, there's every reason to expect a backslide from this team. There's no way their pitchers hold up that well two years in a row, even with Zach Wheeler coming back. Also, Yoenis Cespedes isn't the world breaker they had last year. He's a good player, but he won't carry the offense the way he did in the second half of 2015. But they get to play the Braves and Phillies a lot, so...
3. Miami Marlins. If they'd gone out and added two relievers, a couple usable starting pitchers, and a good fourth outfielder this winter, I would have tried to talk myself into fanboying again. Instead, all we get is Wei-Yin Chen and another year of Stanton and Fernandez's contracts down the tubes. Thanks, Loria!
4. Atlanta Braves. I think they're closer than people realize. The Shelby Miller trade was a one-shot franchise rejuvenation, and they might manage to assemble a lineup by the time the Mets-esque wave of starting pitchers arrives. Not this year, but soon.
5. Philadelphia Phillies. We need a word that is the opposite of "stacked", so we can appropriately describe the Phillies' roster. It looks like Ulamog got to it.

NL Central
1. Chicago Cubs. It's hard to see this going wrong until October. They probably have the best team in baseball as we open the season, and I don't think any single injury could derail things too severely. The bullpen might be the weakest spot, but the lineup stacks up with anyone and they do have an ace atop the rotation.
2. St. Louis Cardinals (Wild Card). Losing J-Hey hurts, but they're not without talented young outfielders to take his place. At this point I would need a really compelling reason to not pick the Cardinals to make the postseason, and I don't think "The Pirates and Dodgers exist" is quite enough.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates. We've been hearing about Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon for a while now, but I want to point out that Gerrit Cole, a former first overall draft pick, is the only  major league starting pitcher drafted and signed by the Pirates that they can claim at the moment. It's fun to have a good team in Pittsburgh, especially after they were so bad for so long, but if Glasnow and some other arms don't make an impact this year, the window might be closing.
4. Milwaukee Brewers. It'll be a long rebuilding year, but there's things to be excited about. Jonathan LuCroy and Ryan Braun could both fetch strong returns on the trade market if they're healthy and hitting, and there's more interesting talent in the Brewers' farm system than there has been in a while. Plus, Brewers fans will get to experience the joys of a lineup featuring Chris Carter, Aaron Hill, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis. So there's that.
5. Cincinnati Reds. Wave of pitching injuries aside, the Reds are an interesting case study in rebuilding. It looks like the idea is to trade for and develop a complete starting rotation before the core of Votto, Bruce, Mesoraco, and maybe Phillips are gone or washed up. I'm not saying that's impossible, or even that it's wrong, but it looks like a tall order to me. Other than Mesoraco and the obligatory prospects, there's not a lot left with any trade value. Plus, the team still has a middle-of-the-road payroll thanks to the aforementioned core, which probably rules out the possibility of signing a big free agent starting pitcher in the coming years. The circumstances of having a hypercompetitive owner and having been a good team pretty recently makes the Reds job one of the most challenging and complicated GM jobs in the game.

NL West
1. San Francisco Giants. Hey Denard, Johnny, and Jeff. Meet your new best friends, Hunter and Even Year Magic. I think you will get along just fine.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers. There's too many pitching questions to really feel good about the Dodgers' chances this year. Andre Ethier breaking his leg just as he'd reestablished some trade value was seriously unlucky as well. I can't pick a team to make the playoffs when they basically passed on the offseason, then suffered a series of spring training injuries to important players.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks. I was jacked to pick the D-Backs for the playoffs this year, but I didn't get around to writing this post until after A.J. Pollock broke his elbow and now I can't realistically do that. We all love to joke about Dave Stewart, but regardless of the long-term cost to the organization, he did put together an exciting team for 2016. It's cruel that they lost their best player before their all-in season even started.
4. San Diego Padres. With Jabari Blash, Yangervis Solarte, Cory Spangenberg, and Kevin Quackenbush on board, this might be the best-named team of all time. It's too bad Boof Bonser retired this winter, but Francisley Bueno is still on the market! As for actually playing the game of baseball, well, not so much. But A.J. Preller did manage to walk back some of last year's all-in approach with the Kimbrel trade, so things are better than they were at this time last year.
5. Colorado Rockies. Let the CarGo derby begin!

NL MVP: Bryce Harper
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
NL Manager of the Year: Bruce Bochy

Playoffs: Cardinals over Mets, Cubs over Cardinals, Giants over Nationals, Giants over Cubs.
World Series: In a rematch of the 2010 series, the Rangers get their revenge and beat the Giants in 6.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Winning the Winter 2015-16: Part 2

Before we get on with the recent past, it's time to show you my Hall of Fame ballot for 2016. We finally have good news to report, for the first time since I stated my position two years ago. Many of those voters who acted as moral arbiters without bothering to cover the sport in any capacity have at long last been relieved of the voting privilege. The Hall has always taken this process quite seriously, but until now, you couldn't say the same about all voters. No more blank ballots- or at least, fewer blank ballots. No more sanctimonious articles about how Bonds and Clemens broke America's dog and ran over its heart, or something like that. And in an unforeseen but most welcome development,  some writers have even come around to the idea that a Hall of Fame with the best players of the 90's and 00's is better than one without them. It is in that spirit that I once again submit my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. I won't waste more words, as I've made my feelings clear in this space before.

1. Barry Bonds
2. Roger Clemens
3. Ken Griffey, Jr.
4. Mike Piazza
5. Jeff Bagwell
6. Tim Raines
7. Alan Trammell
8. Curt Schilling
9. Mark McGwire
10. Mike Mussina

Alright. Let's win some winter.

11/20/15: Blue Jays trade RHP Liam Hendriks to Oakland A's for RHP Jesse Chavez. After years of bouncing around as a quad-A starter, Hendriks found a home and thrived in Toronto's bullpen last year. He comes with four years of team control. Chavez will give the Jays another depth option for their starting rotation, but only for 2016. Toronto does need to build rotation depth, and it's not like they traded Osuna or Sanchez here, but I still think Oakland wins by getting a useful, controllable player.

Atlanta Braves trade CF Cameron Maybin to Detroit Tigers for LHP Ian Krol and LHP Gabe Speier. Speier has more than zero potential as a future big league reliever, and Maybin hasn't been a good player since 2012. The Braves took on Maybin last spring as a salary equalizer in the Kimbrel/Upton, Jr. trade, so getting rid of his 2016 contract is a win by itself. Good to see Atlanta's front office mixing it up and acquiring a couple relievers instead of more starting pitchers.You can field a team of 25 pitchers, right?

Oakland A's sign LHP Rich Hill, 1 year, $6M. Hill's story was one of the most fun in baseball this past September. Sometimes the guys who wash out from injuries and inconsistency don't stop pitching, but they usually don't make it back to the show and shut down the American League for a month at age 35. Oakland is hoping Hill will pitch well enough to bring back a prospect in July, and for the price, why not give it a shot? Win to Hill for making it back at all, and then another win for scoring a substantial guarantee in free agency.

11/23/15: Seattle Mariners sign C Chris Ianetta, 1 year, $4.25M with a team option. The Mariners' new front office doesn't take kindly to Mike Zunino and his sub-replacement-level offense, so to put pressure on him, they signed a guy whose bat was solidly replacement level in 2015. Wait, what? Okay, that's not completely fair. Ianetta's BABiP was miserable last year, and he was a pretty good hitting catcher in the previous two seasons. So this might be fine. But if you're going to move on from Zunino, I would have gone with a guy with a higher floor than "Zunino with a few dingers". I don't think there's a winner here.

11/25/15: Chicago White Sox sign C Alex Avila, 1 year, $2.5M. I mean, Avila can take a walk every now and then, at least. But this is probably another team trading out the old bad catchers for new bad ones. This might not matter much anyway, because Dioner Navarro is probably going to get the bulk of starts for the Sox. An aside: what in blazes happened in 2011 for Alex Avila? He put up an .895 OPS and got freaking MVP votes! He's still only 28, so maybe there's some magic left. At least there's more upside there than with Tyler Flowers. Sox get a lukewarm win.

Houston Astros trade 3B Jed Lowrie to Oakland Athletics for RHP Brendan McCurry. And so continues the strange saga of Jed Lowrie and these two teams. The Astros first traded him to the A's before the 2013 season in a larger deal for Chris Carter and two others. After two solid years in Oakland, Houston signed him as a free agent last winter. Now Oakland gets him back in exchange for relief prospect McCurry. Sometimes I think baseball GMs just like messing with us, like when San Diego and Detroit had a timeshare on Brad Ausmus that spanned the better part of a decade. Oakland used Lowrie at shortstop last time they had him, so maybe this is the end of the Marcus Semien era. If so, sure, win to the A's. Not that Lowrie would be good there, but he couldn't be much worse than Semien. If those two are going to be the keystone combo, though... Wow. That could be really bad.

11/27/15: Blue Jays sign LHP J.A. Happ, 3 years, $36M. The same J.A. Happ who was mediocre in Toronto for two and a half years, before they traded him to Seattle and he was mediocre some more, before he went to Pittsburgh and Ray Searage fixed him for two months. The Pirates' resurgence is still recent enough that we don't have a ton of data on how their reclamation projects do elsewhere. Edinson Volquez is probably the best comp we're going to get: a journeyman who landed in Pittsburgh at age 30, got right, and went to Kansas City where he was good again... so far. I wouldn't bet on Happ pitching well for the whole 3 year term. Maybe he gives them one decent year, maybe not even that. I give Happ the win, and I'm calling him a stealth Dollar Sign Bag award contender. $36 million isn't a lot in baseball, but it is a lot to put on the line for a player with his track record.

11/30/15: Detroit Tigers sign RHP Jordan Zimmermann, 5 years, $110M. With the Tigers' once-intimidating depth dwindling, a major signing was pretty predictable, and I think they picked the right guy. Price and Greinke are better than Jordan Zimmermann, but that's more than reflected in the cost to sign them. Maybe Cueto is better too, but after his brief stint with the Royals, you can't blame an AL GM for being skittish. Regardless of what other options Al Avila considered, he wound up putting up $22M a year for the early 30's of a consistent, healthy 3-5 win pitcher. That seems fine to me. If Verlander is really back, suddenly the Tigers have a scary top of the rotation again, plus now they have the pitching prospects they brought in when they punted 2015- Norris, Fulmer, etc. They're still a breakout or two away from having depth, but this team is trying to get good again in a hurry and moves like this one won't hurt.

12/01/15: Minnesota Twins sign Korean 1B Byung Ho Park, 4 years, $12M (Plus $12.85M posting fee). There's a nasty trap that hobby bloggers, and even professional baseball writers, fall into now and then. Every time a black, left handed starting pitcher is looking like a high draft pick, David Price is the name that comes up. Cubs shortstop Addison Russell is compared to Barry Larkin much more than he is compared to, say, Cal Ripken or Manny Machado. I really wish there was a way to write about this signing that didn't require me to fall into this trap. I know Park and Jung-Ho Kang are different people with different skill sets, and we don't yet know if Park's powerful swing will translate well to MLB. But after the Pirates scored one of last winter's best bargains when they signed Kang out of Korea, I can't help but be surprised to see this year's import land an almost-identical contract, and not significantly more. I'll just say what I said a year ago, when we all had no idea how any position player from Korea would fare in MLB: If this guy is half the player he was in his home country, the Twins just scored a massive bargain. If he's anything less, then the financial loss is acceptable. As a White Sox fan, I'm terrified of a Park/Sano middle of the lineup giving Sox pitchers whiplash for the next four seasons.

12/02/15: San Diego Padres trade LHP Marc Rzepczynski and 1B Yonder Alonso to Oakland Athletics for LHP Drew Pomeranz, LHP Jose Torres and OF Jabari Blash. "Scrabble" Rzepczynski is a fungible, but decent, reliever. Yonder Alonso is what would have been referred to as an "A's player" two decades ago, in that he's high-OBP, inexpensive, and possesses a skill set that doesn't fit his position (Most first basemen have cleared the 10-homer mark at least once). Of course, now that every team values OBP, the A's had to give up something to get these guys. Blash was one of the higher-rated players in this year's Rule 5 Draft, so he stands a good chance of sticking with the Padres and maybe even getting some playing time in their sketchy outfield. Pomeranz is on the long list of top pitching prospects who got destroyed by Coors Field, but in his two years in Oakland he reestablished himself as a quality swingman at worst. Torres is a relief prospect. This move does a lot for the Padres: It frees up first base for Wil Myers. It gives them a pitcher in Pomeranz who should do fine in Petco. And in Blash, they get a guy who can actually play right field and maybe hit a little while mitigating the loss of name-awesomeness incurred by trading Yonder and Scrabble. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think Preller wins this one in a walk. That's three players with value for almost nothing. Now, about that infield, A.J....

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Music: The Top Ten Songs

The time has come for 2014 Song of the Year winners Against Me! to pass the torch to the next recipient. In the event that said recipient cannot uphold the duties and honors of the station, it will revert to David Hasselhoff until such time as a replacement can be named.


When I can, I like to include ten different bands in my top ten songs, and we didn't really have a dominant album this year. So with apologies to the acts who probably could have had two songs each, here it comes. So long, 2015.

10. Veruca Salt- Laughing in the Sugar Bowl

I love Nina Gordon, and I want you to love her too. But Louise Post takes the lead on this one, and it's easily the best track from "Ghost Notes": Two minutes of joyous alt-rock that I've been sorely missing for the past seventeen years. It's so quintessentially Veruca Salt that I can even forgive the B-52's reference.

9. The Front Bottoms- Plastic Flowers

When I listen to the Front Bottoms, I think of Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers. They're not really alike musically, but I just get the feeling that Front Bottoms concerts are a lot like Roger's shows: a little room full of people drinking beer and/or tequila, all singing along to every song, enjoying the experience fully. "Plastic Flowers" is the song that brings that atmosphere to life no matter where you are when you hear it. It's also got one of the funniest damn interludes I've ever heard. Advice rarely comes so noncommittally.

8. Courtney Barnett- Pedestrian At Best

This was a "love at first listen" song for me. It looks and sounds like something from 1995 that you'd see at 12:30 AM on MTV and then later wonder if it ever really happened. Then it drops through a time rift fully formed, Australian, and utterly out of context in 2015. "I'm a fake. I'm a phony. I'm awake. I'm alone. I'm homely. I'm a Scorpio." You're also alternative as fuck, and I love it, Courtney.

7. The Vaccines- Handsome

It's been many years since I cared about music videos, and this list is about the songs themselves, but the above video happened and I can't not talk about it. Anyone else who's considering making a music video should just watch this and pack it in, saying "Well, someone beat us to the kung fu alien bar brawl with Japanese subtitles. Guess we can't make a video now." But I loved the song before I even saw it, because weird egotistical pseudo-ska songs are a good thing. So on the list it stays.

6. Frank Turner- Love Forty Down

I listened to as much Frank Turner as anything else in 2015, because I had a few previous albums to get to know in addition to the new one. As I said in my albums post, I'm pretty happy with "Positive Songs for Negative People". Frank Turner's not okay with complacence and it's kind of inspiring to me. This song is about testing yourself, and not accepting defeat, to find out if you've improved yourself enough. I think the answer is almost always no.

5. CHVRCHES- Never Ending Circles

Most of the time, I sit down to make these lists and it all ends up looking the same. Punk. Alternative rock. Brit rock. Riot grrl. If any grunge bands put stuff out, they get a slot too. I don't know if this is a trend, a sea change, or just a fluke, but CHVRCHES  had made the list twice in three years with pure electronic pop. If they do this a couple more times, I'm going to have to start considering Lauren Mayberry as one of my all-time favorite singers. The music is what it is, I don't love or hate it, but those lyrics and that voice. I can't get enough. I went with "Never Ending Circles" over the other really good songs from "Every Open Eye" because it was the one that resonated the most with me, but if this does anything for you, just get the album already. It's all this good.

4. Birdcloud- No Worries

After seeing them open for Roger in November and meeting Mackenzie Green afterward, I thought it through and decided that Birdcloud has a plan for me, and it would be for the best if I was open to it. I hope one day all of you can let Birdcloud into your hearts too, and then there will be love and joy. And infinite Miller Lite. Do you like profanity? Are you a binge drinker? How about cocaine, do you like cocaine? Are you really, really, super comfortable with your body and all its parts and functions? If you answered yes to some or all of these questions, then you already know Birdcloud and Birdcloud loves you. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some pamphlets that need handing out.

3. Idlewild- Radium Girl

In my albums post, I focused mostly on what was wrong with Idlewild's new album, because I hold my favorite bands to a higher standard. In this post, I want to share all that is right with "Everything Ever Written", and here it is. "Radium Girl" is probably in my top 3 Idlewild songs ever, and that's high praise since they were my favorite band as recently as two years ago. I considered using the video of the band playing it at Bottom Lounge and me completely losing my mind a few feet away, but I want you to be able to hear the song itself. You're welcome.

2. Dead Sara- Radio One Two

Dead Sara deserves all the credit in the world for making a rock album in "Pleasure to Meet You" that was diverse, interesting, consistently excellent, and moving. But when a band does punk as well as they do, I can't imagine why they'd bother with proficiency in other genres. Good for them, seriously, but nothing beats punk.

1. Third Eye Blind- Shipboard Cook

So it's not a huge surprise that we have a repeat winner of my Song of the Year in 2015. Local H, Idlewild, and The Wonder Years all put out albums this year, after all. But it's Third Eye Blind, whose 1999 win for "Slow Motion" was preceded by top 3 finishes in '97 and '98, that had my favorite song of 2015. Third Eye Blind, who I last took seriously when I was 18, who I last really enjoyed when I was 21. Third Eye Blind, the band that might break up any day since Stephan Jenkins is sick of making albums, but had enough of their peculiar brand of awesomeness left over to write this one song. "Shipboard Cook" takes all the best parts of what Third Eye Blind has ever done- sincerity filtered through a massive ego, an insatiable need for attention, great choruses, accidentally brilliant lyrics alternating with terrible goth-kid-poetry style lyrics- turns them up to 11, and blows them out like there's no tomorrow. Because for Third Eye Blind, there really might not be a tomorrow. If this is it, then "Line 'em up, boys, here's to your youth/ Sing loud enough to tell the truth" is how I choose to imagine one of the most-loved bands of my adolescence saying goodbye. So congratulations, Stephan. You're a lyrical blind squirrel and you found yourself one last nut. Until I see you again in 2032, thanks for this one.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 Music: The Top Ten Albums

Last year, I managed to write a little bit about every new album I listened to in 2014. That's not happening for 2015, because I don't feel like doing a top 55 list. But after casting a wide net (Thanks, Wikipedia!) and giving every one of those 55 multiple chances, I'm pretty solid with a top ten. Well, not quite. The EP at number 11 needs to make this post somehow. What the hell, let's just make it a top 10 and a half this year...

10.5. Birdcloud- Tetnis

...Because there's no way I could leave Birdcloud off this list. Sure, Tetnis is only six songs and about 15 minutes of music. It's also true that neither band member is an especially good singer. But there used to be a void in my life, and Birdcloud filled it. Profane, trashy, twangy, sexy grrl-country about interracial dating, female wet dreams, public binge drinking, and innovative ways to ingest cocaine is something I never have to be without again. And for that, I am eternally grateful. Highlights: No Worries; Boy; I Like Black Guys.

10. Third Eye Blind- Dopamine

As I recently wrote, Third Eye Blind is a nostalgia band for me and all their other fans. I was 15 when they hit it big, but that's not the only reason. So much of their music, even dating back to the first album, is about wanting to go back. With "Dopamine" rumored to be the last Third Eye Blind album, it's to be expected that Stephan Jenkins would indulge his Jay Gatsby persona and give it a good sendoff. "Dopamine" unfortunately lack the barely-self-aware melancholy that made the first two albums so effective. Most of the new stuff comes off as a genre-sampling, vacant, whiny mess. But Jenkins, one of the most baffling, confounding songwriters I have ever explored, still manages to hit a few home runs amidst all the strikeouts. "Dopamine" contains three of the best songs, by anyone, of the year. It also has nine pieces of hot garbage. What can you do with that? I guess I rank it tenth. Highlights: Shipboard Cook; Dopamine; Everything is Easy.

9. Ash- Kablammo!

This is the first band on this list that I discovered on Wikipedia's "new 2015 albums" page, but they won't be the last. Turns out Ash, a Northern Irish alt-rock trio, had been making music for over 20 years before I ever heard of them. I liked "Kablammo!" immediately because it reminded me of Weezer, but with more depth. I kept listening to it all year because it doesn't have a bad song on it. Not everything has to be life-changing, open to interpretation, and worthy of dissection. Sometimes a good rock record is just that, and that's enough. Highlights: Machinery; Let's Ride; Go! Fight! Win!.

8. The Wonder Years- No Closer to Heaven

I badly wanted The Wonder Years' follow-up to 2013's "The Greatest Generation" to be another masterpiece, because if it was, it would be easy to put them at the top of some hierarchy that exists only in my head. Sadly, I have to be aware of nuance here, because "No Closer to Heaven" isn't a masterpiece. Musically, it's right on par with the band's previous work. The verses still sound right at home in a tiny punk club, and the choruses still belong in stadiums. Frontman Dan Campbell's voice is still perfect for his "today-I-learned" lyrics. It also gets profound, if not as often as "The Greatest Generation", where every single song was an epiphany. "No Closer to Heaven" focuses more on social issues than internal ones, but it still gives us gems like "We're no saviors if we can't save our brothers", "John Wayne with a God complex tells me to buy a gun/ like shooting a teenage kid is gonna solve any problems", and, most poignantly, "You were the one thing I got right". Even if it wasn't love at first listen this time, The Wonder Years still ooze wisdom and sincerity, and I'm still into that. Even if I like it better when they don't get their lyrics from progressive news websites. Highlights: Cardinals; Cigarettes & Saints; Thanks For the Ride.

7. Idlewild- Everything Ever Written

As I wrote in my third concerts post, the return of Idlewild was my single most anticipated musical moment of 2015. Like The Wonder Years, it's hard to write about because of the comparisons my brain makes on its own, but unlike The Wonder Years, Idlewild's legacy brings a decade's worth of brilliant albums instead of just one. After their five-year hiatus, 2015 finds Roddy Woomble and friends continuing a progression away from raging guitar rock and toward quiet contemplative alt-folk. This isn't altogether a bad thing. Roddy is monk-caliber at quiet contemplation, and the combination of his voice and his lyrics will always amaze me. Plus, I still get one headbanging song, "On Another Planet", so hey, better than nothing. The downside is, I have Roddy's solo career to fill my need for sincere Scotsmen with stunningly beautiful souls singing Americana-style music. I want Idlewild to take advantage of their instruments that need to be plugged in, otherwise what was the point of reuniting the band? Even if it's a natural and straight-line progression from "Make Another World" to "Post-Electric Blues" to "Everything Ever Written", I can't pretend I'm fine with the new one not sounding like Idlewild. Roddy also loses significant points for ripping off Michael Sembello's "Maniac" on "Left Like Roses" in a pretty noticeable and unavoidable way. That's why this album lands outside of the top five. Highlights: Radium Girl; On Another Planet; Utopia.

6. Sleater-Kinney- No Cities to Love

By the time I discovered Sleater-Kinney, they had already been broken up for five years, and I consumed their music without context. That led to some weird preferences- Give me "Dig Me Out", "Call the Doctor", or "All Hands on the Bad One" any day, but you can keep the rest. I'm happy to report that their reunion album, "No Cities to Love", is nearly everything I hoped it would be. It doesn't try to get art-rocky, and it's not raw to the point of unlistenability. It's just ten sweet riffs with scream-along choruses and the weird but addictive vocal combination of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. I would have liked a new introspective quiet song to go along with my favorites "Buy Her Candy", "Leave You Behind", and "The Swimmer", but instead we get a half hour of pure straightforward rock. Ten basic, essential, and most importantly new Sleater-Kinney songs. I'll take it and like it. Highlights: Hey Darling; Surface Envy; Bury Our Friends.

5. Veruca Salt- Ghost Notes

If Idlewild's resurrection was my most-anticipated music of 2015, the return of Veruca Salt's original lineup for their first new album in 18 years was a close second. While "reunited 90's icon of radio-friendly girl-rock" didn't have the same cache for me that "Roddy's back in Idlewild?!" had, I will say that Veruca Salt delivered on my expectations and then some. What impressed me most about "Ghost Notes" is that it feels like they bottled all the momentum they had after "Volcano Girls" became huge, stuck it in the back of a freezer, and broke it out almost two decades later. Nina and Louise still harmonize magically, they still walk that hyper-expressive sexy-confident-powerful-girly-vulnerable-all-at-the-same-time line that made their earlier stuff so successful, and they still write big rock-out hooks that sound even better now that they're not being drowned out by countless 90's bands trying to do the exact same thing. But the nicest thing I can say about "Ghost Notes" is the simple fact that it's my favorite Veruca Salt album. There was a conscious need to stuff as many singles on "American Thighs" as possible, and then there was some filler. "Eight Arms to Hold You" was uneven and edgy in all the wrong places. "IV" doesn't count. "Ghost Notes" replaces all that mess with a security and confidence in who Veruca Salt is. There was no pressure involved in the making of this album, and it shows. Instead of writing songs for the radio, they could write them for themselves and their fans, and that led to an album where the songs all get to be great in their own way, not just the way Q101 would want. Highlights: Laughing in the Sugar Bowl; Prince of Wales; Come Clean, Dark Thing.

4. Frank Turner- Positive Songs for Negative People

Frank Turner was my big musical discovery for 2015, like Against Me! and The Gaslight Anthem in 2014 and 2013, respectively. He's folk-punk, which puts his music right in the middle of my happy place, but there's a lot of cleverness and thoughtfulness in his music that makes each of his albums worth revisiting. I spent the first half of the year obsessing over "Tape Deck Heart" and how it motivated me. The second half of the year brought me "Positive Songs for Negative People", and I embraced that too. It's a little bit lighter and poppier than his previous stuff. "Out of Breath" and "Josephine" still rock reasonably hard, but you'll struggle to find anything punk about "Get Better", "The Next Storm", and the rest. That doesn't make these songs any less brilliant, though. Frank Turner is a narrative songwriter, driven by self-awareness and a constant need for self-improvement. Much of his lyrical content is about hating his own flaws and attacking them relentlessly, and that means I find "Positive Songs" inspiring from beginning to end. Like a self-help book for crowd surfers. Or cult literature for people with tattoos. Highlights: Love Forty Down, Demons, The Next Storm.


3. The Front Bottoms- Back On Top

Here's the second band on the list I discovered because of Wikipedia. "Back on Top" is the band's first album on a major label, which their fan base didn't like too much, but I can only speak to The Front Bottoms I know. They're a rock quartet from New Jersey, and they combine often hilarious lyrics with a few moments of insight, some gleefully delivered horrible lines ("Our love's the only thing that could matter/ Take me up and up and up like a ladder." What the hell?) and an occasional horn section or rap interlude. Needless to say, this was one of the biggest musical surprises of 2015 for me and every time I drafted this list, I just kept moving it up. Even including the two albums yet to come, I don't think I had as much fun listening to anything else this year. Just listen to "The Plan (Fuck Jobs)" or the spoken monologue on "Plastic Flowers" and try not to laugh out loud. But then there's "West Virginia" and "Cough it Out", which are just sad, revealing songs. I feel like I understand this band less and less the more I listen to them. I think I would like to see them live twenty times or so, and maybe then I can decide. Highlights: Plastic Flowers; 2YL; Laugh Till I Cry.

2. CHVRCHES- Every Open Eye

CHVRCHES broke out pretty big two years ago, but I valued that album mostly for the one song, "The Mother We Share". "Every Open Eye" takes the magic from that song, and applies it to fourteen tracks. While the songs are all kind of similar to each other- and after the best five or so, become interchangeable- the lyrics are better than the usual pop nonsense, and Lauren Mayberry's voice is perfect. The result is an irresistibly bright and shiny album that is nothing like anything else on this list. Hell, the last time I rated an electronic album this highly it was 2004 and I was hypnotized by The Postal Service, and I'll take Lauren Mayberry over The Postal Service's Ben Gibbard any day. When I decided this year I was going to have ten different bands/artists in my top ten songs, the hardest cut was which of three CHVRCHES songs was going to make the list. They're all so. Freaking. Good. Highlights: Make Them Gold; Never Ending Circles; Bow Down.

1. Dead Sara- Pleasure to Meet You

2015's best album comes from another band I found on Wikipedia, so thanks again for that, Wikipedia. Dead Sara is a quartet from Los Angeles, with a calling card of Emily Armstrong's raspy, rangy, incredible vocals. The album's center is a sort of blues-rock, but individual songs take it in any direction you could want- "Radio One Two" is a punk song. "Something Good" is blues. "Lovesick" is metal. "Mr. Mr." is a soul song. "For You I Am" is one of the best torch songs I've ever heard. Dead Sara made a rock record that touches so many sub-genres of rock, but holds together as a coherent whole because they're just a damn good band. The track that puts "Pleasure to Meet You" over the top isn't even my favorite song from the album. It's just the most interesting. "Greaser" takes Old Crow Medicine Show, Janis Joplin, and alt-rock guitars, throws them all in a blender, and adds the most incredible vocals I heard all year to make some kind of Americana blues-rock monster. If 2015 showed us one thing, it's that the old guard of rock goddesses aren't dead, but Emily Armstrong is the future. I for one welcome our new Californian overlords. Highlights: Radio One Two; Lovesick; For You I Am

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Winning the Winter 2015-16: Part 1

I've got a week left to tweak my 2015 year in music posts: just like last year, one for the best albums, another for the best songs. Instead of writing nothing for the next week, I'm going to try to make a dent in this incredible Hot Stove season. Last year, we had Giancarlo Stanton, Jon Lester, Alex Anthopoulos, and Ben Cherington as the fuel for the fire. We probably won't see a $300M contract signed this winter, but we definitely have GMs ruining teams, star players traded for surprising returns, and aces taking the cash over the mystery box. Previous rules still apply: Every transaction has a winner, because otherwise, why bother. My sources of information are MLB.com, MLBTraderumors.com, and Baseball-Reference.com. My source of opinions is spending half my life as a baseball nerd. And a new rule I'm throwing in to entertain myself: I've come to believe that when everybody agrees on something, everybody is wrong. So every time the conventional wisdom is a little too unanimous, I'm gonna make like Homer:

 

Ready? Let's go. Welcome to Winning the Winter.

11/05/15: Seattle Mariners trade SS Brad Miller, 1B Logan Morrison and RHP Danny Farquhar to Tampa Bay Rays for RHP Nathan Karns, LHP C.J. Riefenhauser and CF Boog Powell. Because I guess Nick Franklin wasn't enough, the Rays had to go and get Seattle's other semi-useful young middle infielder? I think it's weird that a team that values and understands defense would get Miller and, at least for the moment, plan to use him as the starting shortstop. I guess Morrison is relevant too, in that he's likely to soak up a lot of at-bats as the big half of a mediocre DH platoon for the Rays. As far as I can tell, unless Miller has some power potential he hasn't told anyone about, this adds close to nothing to the Rays. In return, the Mariners got Karns, a pre-arb mid-to-back-end starting pitcher, as well as a solid prospect in Powell. Jerry Dipoto struck early, and got a modest but clear win to start his Seattle career.

11/11/15: Minnesota Twins trade OF Aaron Hicks to New York Yankees for C John Ryan Murphy. Kudos to the Twins for moving on from Kurt Suzuki behind the plate- Murphy is young and talented enough that it's not hard to envision him giving Minnesota some years as a quality starting catcher. Hicks was a highly regarded prospect himself who showed some improvement in 2015, but he has yet to break out and Byron Buxton is coming. A year ago, the Yankees traded a valid starting catcher for a middle reliever. This year, they got a fourth outfielder/Carlos Beltran injury insurance. Better, but still not great. I like this for the Twins.

11/12/15: San Diego Padres trade RHP Joaquin Benoit to Seattle Mariners for RHP Enyel De Los Santos and SS Nelson Ward. As we'll see later, every contending team is on the Royals-style bullpen bandwagon, and therefore, dominant relievers have seen their trade value get out of hand. This was the first shot fired in the Great Reliever War of late 2015: A live-armed teenager and a fringe infield prospect for one year of a 38-year-old fireballer. This probably doesn't matter beyond 2016. Pitchers like De Los Santos are lottery tickets, and Ward is whatever. But if the plan is for Benoit to be part of the Mariners' version of Herrera-Davis-Holland in the coming year, I'm skeptical. Preller gets the win here.

Atlanta Braves trade SS Andrelton Simmons and C Jose Briceno to Los Angeles Angels for SS Erick Aybar, LHP Sean Newcomb, RHP Christopher Ellis and cash. Okay, Hart and Coppolella. We get it- nobody gets to have pitchers except the Braves. And if we reduce everything down to WAR, then yeah, a combined twelve years of Newcomb and Ellis (plus a year of Aybar, which does have value) might be a fair return for five years of the modern day Ozzie Smith. If we use WAR per dollar, then you can even argue that the Braves won this trade. That's not the argument I'm going to make, though, because it's not one anyone outside of the Braves' front office believes. The Angels lack a true ace- which Newcomb might one day become- but Jerry Dipoto left them with enough pitching depth to withstand a trade like this. And when the return is a player with a truly unique skill set like Simmons, it's amazing that this was all it took. One of the winter's biggest wins thus far goes to The Red Team.

Atlanta Braves sign C A.J. Pierzynski, 1 year, $3M. 2015 was A.J.'s best year since his Palehose days, and turned it into another year in the bigs. Good for him! Maybe Tyler Flowers will be able to learn from him in a way that Christian Bethancourt could not. Or maybe A.J. finally gets severely beaten by an opposing player and his career ends. Either way, when A.J. is in the show, we're all winners.

11/13/15: San Diego Padres trade RHP Craig Kimbrel to Boston Red Sox for 3B Carlos Asuaje, SS Javier Guerra, LHP Logan Allen and CF Manuel Margot. Here's the biggest strike thus far in the Great Reliever War. The Red Sox surrendered a jaw-dropping package of prospects: two high-end up-the-middle guys, an 18 year old lefty with good control, and a future utility guy. In 2015, what does that get you? 3 years of an elite closer, that's what. The value question isn't even close. If either Guerra or Margot gets halfway to his ceiling, the Padres win in a walk. In the context of the current Red Sox, it makes a little sense. Ben Cherington hoarded prospects, spent big in Latin America, and left Boston with a major league team and farm system loaded with talent. What they didn't have was a bullpen. Dave Dombrowski simply paid the (insane) market price to add the most valuable reliever in baseball (Aroldis Chapman is a slightly better pitcher than Kimbrel, but he comes with less team control and potentially serious off-the-field issues.) When you can get your man, retain the up-and-coming major league core of Swihart, Bogaerts, Bradley, and Betts, and keep Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers, Andrew Benintendi, and a passel of quality arms in the minors, you can't really call this a loss. Okay, Red Sox, I talked myself out of mocking this, but I have to give Preller the win here anyway. No closer is worth this, and putting this alongside his acquisition of Kimbrel from a year ago, it amounts to a purchase of prospects. That's exactly what he should be doing.

Blue Jays sign RHP Marco Estrada, 2 years, $26M. The Jays chose to put their money into rotation depth and bank on a strong comeback from Marcus Stroman, rather than retain the now-impossibly-rich David Price. It's not an inspiring strategy, but it's practical, and it's less likely to blow up in the team's face than overextending on one player. Welcome to the Mark Shapiro era, Toronto. You probably won't remember it once it's over. Out of context, I think this is just about right. Estrada is coming off a fine platform year, but he's 32, 2015 was his first full year in a major league rotation, and his peripherals aren't nearly as sexy as his 3.13 ERA or tenth-place Cy Young finish. Another odd piece of fallout from the Great Reliever War: The Jays appear committed to using their best non-Stroman young pitchers as their late-inning combo while stocking up on mid-rotation starters. They could have gone for the upside of Sanchez and/or Osuna in the rotation and spent the Estrada money on the back end of the bullpen. It says something about scarcity and supply and demand that a team is willing to put a high-ceiling prospect into the 8th inning, rather than give him every chance to turn into an ace.

11/14/15: Arizona Diamondbacks trade RHP Jeremy Hellickson to Philadelphia Phillies for RHP Sam McWilliams. A straight salary dump for Arizona, and a flyer on a guy who could be a July trade candidate if everything goes perfectly for Philadelphia. Hellickson set a career high in K/BB ratio in 2015, but he's still more expensive and not better than a random triple-A starter. Win to the D-Backs for not starting 2016 with this guy in the rotation.

11/16/15: Texas Rangers trade CF Leonys Martin and RHP Anthony Bass to Seattle Mariners for RHP Tom Wilhelmsen, CF James Jones and IF/OF Patrick Kivlehan. The overhaul of the Mariners continues here, and this is a good one. Martin is coming off a bad offensive season, but he's one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, he's controllable for three more years, and in the two seasons before 2015 his bat was good enough, combined with the glovework, to make him quite valuable. The Rangers chose Delino DeShields, Jr. over him, though, so the Mariners could reap the rewards. Wilhelmsen, the primary piece heading to Arlington, is now the fourth or fifth best reliever in a deep Texas bullpen. Either Texas is building up assets for a major trade, or they plan to win the Great Reliever War by having the biggest army. Either one would be interesting. I think it's pretty clear I'm scoring this as another Dipoto win, with the caveat that his own bullpen is a mess at this time.

11/18/15: Milwaukee Brewers trade RHP Francisco Rodriguez to Detroit Tigers for IF Javier Betancourt and C Manny Pina. Better late than never, the Tigers are taking their shot at building a bullpen. K-Rod, as he always does, struck out a lot of guys in 2015. He's under contract for two more years, and will pitch next season at 34. Betancourt, a 20-year-old second baseman, is a C prospect. Pina is a fringe catcher, included as a hedge against further concussion symptoms from Jonathan Lucroy. Add it up, and the Tigers managed to drastically underpay for a dependable late-inning reliever in the winter of 2015-16. Someone needs to throw Al Avila a parade immediately.