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Offseason Roundup: Red Sox

My team, the Boston Red Sox, are entering the third season of what I like to think of as their rebuilding phase. After they won the 2004 World Series, they lost three key players (Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Johnny Damon) to free agency, and only retained Jason Varitek by handing him a large 4-year contract.

It’s been a rough couple of years: Two of their big free agent investments – SS Edgar Renteria and SP Matt Clement – have not really panned out. Clement is mired in a cycle of injury and ineffectiveness that leaves me wondering if he’ll ever be useful again. Renteria was shipped out after one season in a pair of trades that resulted in Coco Crisp patrolling center field (which isn’t such a bad thing). Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez and Trot Nixon have continued to age, David Ortiz has continued to be one of the best hitters in baseball, and the Sox brought in Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell from Florida, and while Lowell had a bounceback season, Beckett was very uneven.

The Sox have developed some in-house talent, such as Dustin Pedroia, Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester, and there’s more in the pipeline. Nonetheless, they did have some work to do this year, and here’s the scorecard so far:

Leaving:

  • Trot Nixon, OF (free agent)
  • Mark Loretta, 2B (free agent)
  • Alex Gonzalez, SS (free agent, to the Reds)
  • Keith Foulke, RP (free agent)
  • Gabe Kapler, OF (retired)

Arriving:

  • Daisuke Matsuzaka, SP (Japanese free agent, 6 years, $52M + $52M posting fee)
  • J.D. Drew, OF (free agent, 5 years, $70M, from the Dodgers)
  • Julio Lugo, SS (free agent, 3 years, $36M, from the Dodgers)
  • Runelvys Hernandez, SP (free agent, minor league contract, from the Royals)
  • Brendan Donnelly, RP (acquired in trade from the Angels)
  • J.C. Romero, RP (free agent, 1 year, $1.6M, from the Angels)
  • Hideki Okajima, RP (Japanese free agent, 2 years, $2.5M)

Returning:

  • Tim Wakefield, SP (option picked up)
  • Alex Cora, SS (free agent, 2 years, $4M)
  • Doug Mirabelli, C (free agent, 1 year, $0.75M)

(Full free agent data can be found here, and recent Sox transactions here.)

I find it very hard to evaluate Red Sox transactions: With the second-largest payroll in baseball, they’re not quite playing the same budget-oriented game as most other teams. Is that Drew contract overpaying for an injury-prone outfielder, or is it a straightforward investment within the Sox’ budget? These last few years, I’ve found it easier on my brain to ignore the dollar signs and just evaluate the talent.

Because budget is only one constraint that baseball teams have to live within: The others are roster constraints (you can only have so many players on your team before you have to start cutting some to make room for others), and positional constraints (“You have to have a catcher because if you don’t you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls”, but of course most catchers can’t hit). So we can always consider whether the Sox have acquired good players, and look like they’re going to play their best players.

Anyway, with the Red Sox’ payroll and the savvy of their front office, they’re practically guaranteed make plenty of off-season headlines. That makes the winter almost as exciting for Sox fans as finishing below second place for the first time since 1997.

The Sox blew away all the competition in the $52M posting fee for the exclusive rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka (thus ensuring that the posting system will probably be overhauled if not scrapped next year), and then signed him to what I think is a surprisingly reasonable deal. One projection rates Matsuzaka as a very good starting pitcher in the Majors; if true, then he could be the true ace the Sox will need once Curt Schilling retires. If Beckett can work out his problems, then the Sox could have a nice rotation for the next few years.

Although, in 2007 the back end of the rotation is a bit of a concern, with Clement’s status unclear, Jon Lester recovering from cancer, and Wakefield at that age where he might collapse any year (he turned 40 in August, after all). Ace closer Jon Papelbon is slated to move into the rotation, but one wonders whether he might be more valuable in the bullpen, especially if he can’t make the transition smoothly. Still, the Sox are also bringing in several new bullpen arms, so they have options.

On the offensive side, the Sox are working through a bumpy negotiation process over J.D. Drew, who is a very good hitter with a length history of injury problems, and who’s had trouble passing his physical to finalize the deal. Whether Drew continues to be an offensive force through age 35 is a good question; it’s hard to say whether I’d be sad whether he finally gets signed or not. He’d probably be an upgrade over Trot Nixon in right field overall, though, and he supposedly can play center, too.

The Sox also brought in Julio Lugo, who is a pretty good shortstop. That’s a lot of money for a guy who looks to me like he might start a sharp decline at any time. But I think the Sox have soured on Pedroia at shortstop, which leaves them with few options for starter (and Alex Cora shouldn’t be one of them), so it might be their best option. Besides, if Lugo doesn’t completely go into the tank, then the trade market for fair-to-middling shortstops should be as strong as it has been in the last few years and the Sox could flip him for something useful.

It sounds like Pedroia might slot as the starter at second base, while some sort of Lowell/Ortiz/Kevin Youkilis tandem (plus whatever other spare hitters they can scrounge up) ought to be able to cover 3B, 1B and DH perfectly well.

In their third place finish in 2006, the Sox were outscored on the season, and finished 86-76. The Yankees might regress somewhat next year, but the Sox still need to improve to win their division. Matsuzaka, Drew and Lugo will help (assuming everyone’s healthy and performs up to their expected levels), so they’ll probably be a better team overall. But I think the Yankees will need to regress substantially for the Sox to make it a horse race. The Blue Jays are a pretty good team, too, but I suspect they’re going to regress a bit in 2007 as well.

All of which adds up to more of what we’ve seen lately: A Sox team which hasn’t quite gelled, but which feels like it’s on the cusp of being an AL powerhouse again. This is a team which could surprise in 2007, but after the World championship, I’d figured a 3-year rebuilding period was in order, so look for the Sox to work through a few more bumps and emerge in 2008.

Which is not to say that I’d be sad if they emerge a year earlier than I expect!

Meowy Christmas

John Scalzi has Athena pictures, and all I have are cat photos. That said, not only are the cats darned cute, but they can solve a Rubik’s Cube in 47 seconds flat.

At least, that’s what they tell me.

Papasan_Time.jpg

A Poor Review

Trying to become a better reviewer is hard, and I certainly didn’t expect it to happen in just a few months, even with paying some attention to it. As a critic (even an amateur one), it’s useful to look at other peoples’ reviews, as reviews are as worthy of criticism as other products.

So here’s a startlingly poorly-written review of the film Pan’s Labyrinth by film critic Kenneth Turan on NPR’s Morning Edition. A say it’s “startling” because I usually find that Turan is a pretty solid reviewer.

What I don’t like about this review is that it’s all pretty writing (Turan is quite a good writer) and applase for director Guillermo del Toro’s ability to make his fantasy setting seem realistic, even when juxtaposed against the (presumably) uncompromising view of life in 1944 Spain. But it doesn’t really tell us anything about the film’s story, which for a film of any depth really ought to be the first (or at least the second) thing a review addresses. Who is the girl who’s the presumed protagonist? What’s he background? What challenges does she have in her life and what does she encounter in the fantasy world, and how does the movie handle her story? From Turan’s review, I really have no idea.

(In the interest of full disclosure – and to pad this entry with a few more links – Tim Lynch – my old sparring partner from my days on the rec.arts.startrek USENET newsgroup – and I had a brief go-round about film reviews on Peter David’s blog a year and a half ago. He invoked Kenneth Turan’s name there in response to my general satisfaction with reviews in the San Jose Mercury News. I like Turan’s reviews well enough, but I don’t find them markedly better than the Merc’s.)

This won’t dissuade me from going to see Pan’s Labyrinth (I’ve been rather intrigued by it, actually), but if I was on the fence about it, I don’t think Turan’s review would have pushed me over the edge. I actually might have ended up thinking, “Well gee, it sounds like a rather depressing special effects extravaganda.”

Turan’s review in the LA Times (registration required) fills in some of the gaps, but I think he excised the wrong content when he condensed it for his NPR review. (To be fair, I don’t know how the NPR reviews are produced; maybe he reads his whole print review and then someone else edits it for time. But the end result is the same either way.)

This Week’s Haul

Apparently there was some mishap with a shipment of comics to Diamond Comics Distributors‘ LA site, so many stores in the west didn’t receive several comics slated to come out this week. Fortunately (?) DC’s weekly series 52 wasn’t among them, since that would be, well, silly. But it also meant a light week for me.

This week sees the collection of Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril, which collects the 6-issue mini-series and contains 30 extra pages of story (no doubt to the annoyance of those who bought the mini-series but didn’t plan to buy the trade). PFP is an interesting little publisher, and I’ve enjoyed many things they’ve published, although I wouldn’t rate it all as top-notch. Captain Gravity, though, is quite an enjoyable series: Part superhero, part adventure, and part period piece, its hero is at first a fictional character in a series of movies, until Joshua Jones, a young man working on the film crew, acquires the power to control gravity and becomes the hero himself. Joshua is black, which is something of an issue as the stories occur in the 1930s, so it’s fortunate that the Captain’s costume covers his whole body.

Written by Joshua Dysart with pencils by Sal Velluto, The Power of the Vril concerns the source of the Captain’s powers, and it involves Nazis, aliens, and a chase around the world. It’s fun stuff, although the series felt a little padded to me, but it’s still worth a look. The only real downsides are that it has a somewhat pointless framing sequence set in the 60s, and the collection’s reproduction washes out the black ink on some pages, which gives the book an odd look, but not an intended one, I suspect.

(To be honest, I did like the original series better.)

By the way, fans of Athena Voltaire (Ape Entertainment) might enjoy Captain Gravity, and vice-versa. AV dispenses with the superpowers, but otherwise the two have enough in common to warrant the mutual recommendation.

A Geek Christmas

Coincidentally, I did buy Debbi a GPS navigator for Christmas, but we didn’t use it for this. (Maybe we should!)

(I bought her a Garmin StreetPilot c330, by the way.)

The Caffeine Curve

This graph is making the rounds in the blogosphere, so why should I be any different?

Caffeine_Graph.jpg

Charles Stross: Glasshouse

Glasshouse is a nifty little book about memory and identity. Although it could arguably take place in the same future as Accelerando, there’s no clear link between the two other than references to the “acceleration”.

Our hero, Robin, wakes up after having some of his memory removed, apparently at his own wish. In the recovery environment, he hooks up with a woman named Kay, but soon finds out that someone seems to be out to kill him. So he opts to sign up to live in an experimental environment designed to simulate the society of the “dark ages” (i.e., the late 20th/early 21st century). Once there, he finds that it’s maybe a little true-to-life for his tastes: There are no wormhole gates (T-gates) between habitats, and there are no nanotech assemblers (A-gates) to recycle and create objects, or to back up your memories. Everything must be done through manual labor, and aside from a hundred or so other volunteers for the experiment, the habitats are all occupied by zombie humans.

All this would be an inconvenience if Robin didn’t quickly become convinced that the overseers of the experiment were running some sort of scam: They set themselves up as religious leaders, and enforce desired behavior by means of a point system, which is supposed to result in more money earned once the experiment is over. But there are some oddities in the experiment, and loopholes in its rule system, which convinces Robin that something is very rotten indeed, and he’s still not sure why he had his memory edited, quite who he was before then, or who was out to kill him.

As Paul Di Filippo observed in his review, Glasshouse consciously absorbs and reconfigures many elements from earlier books by other authors. I’m not very familiar wih most of the references, although I have read a little Cordwainer Smith and John Varley, but Stross puts his own stamp firmly on the story, with a sardonic wit and lively narrative that makes this a much livelier and more engaging story than Accelerando, even if it’s not the nonstop parade of fantastic ideas that the previous book was.

Perhaps the best thing in the whole novel is the backstory: Glasshouse takes place after the “Censorship Wars”, where A-gates were infected with a software virus which fractured humanspace by editing peoples’ memories when they went into an A-gate. Although it’s largely part of the backstory, the sort of fragmentations that occurred and the extremes to which people were driven still haunts several of our characters. No wonder some of them want to forget certain things!

Stross asks many good questions which only become possible when memory editing is possible, and this leads into the main theme of the novel: What is identity? Not so much who we are (although that’s an important question), but who we think we are. Is continuity of memory necessary? Are skills necessary? Relationships to specific people? Gender? Attitude? And does it really matter? If you’ve lost some set of those elements, but retain others, is it important that you remember who you used to be?

Glasshouse also studies how Robin adjusts to the artifical culture in the experiment, especially since he doesn’t know anything about his fellow citizens, or whom to trust, or how extensively he’s being monitored. His sharp-tongued descriptions of life in the dark ages are hilarious, even in the rather grim context. But it’s also an interesting cauldron which brings out the worst in some characters, and the best in others.

Overall, the novel is thought-provoking, tense, and a lot of fun, with a fully rewarding climax and resolution. Stross is able to manage some concepts which might otherwise run away with the story and makes it all believable as well as exciting. It might not be as ambitious a novel as Accelerando, but I found it more enjoyable.

Bones

Tonight we’ve watched a couple of episode of the TV series Bones. I’d sum up the series thus:

“The adventures of Mr. Spock as a woman in the FBI.”

And if that weren’t odd enough, all of her co-workers call Ms. Spock “Bones”.

Anyway, it’s otherwise your basic police procedural with a somewhat disfunctional protagonist. And these days “police procedural” is another term for “entertaining, but not essential”.

Quote of the Day

“There’s no one so nice that there isn’t an online app that will make them seem not so nice.” — me

(Also Twittered by Liz Henry, who also was at Whump‘s Boxing Day gathering today.)

Amazon Christmas “Fun”

I’ve been using Amazon.com for a long long time. My oldest orders on record there are from 1998, but I’m sure I was ordering from them before that. I’ve always been very impressed with their business: Availability of items, fringe benefits like the Associates program and the free super saver shipping option, and their customer service, which has always been very helpful when I’ve had to contact them, which fortunately hasn’t been very often.

This Christmas season has eroded my faith in Amazon somewhat. Now, I’ll say up front that things turned out well overall, but my Christmas experience with Amazon resulted in more glitches in one month than I think I’ve seen since I started using them.

Here’s a rundown of what happened:

  1. I received a box from them which I opened and noticed that the gift cards were from “Mom” but to “Rachel”. The box was indeed addressed to me, so I opened the itinery to see that someone else’s order had been placed in a box addressed to me. I contacted my family, and the UPS tracking number was one my Dad had received. He contacted Amazon by phone and was told I would have to send the items back and would received a gift certificate for the value of the items Dad ordered. Dad’s comment: “That’s not very much like Christmas.”

    Well, instead I contacted Amazon customer service through e-mail, and after I provided them all the information they needed, they instead packed up a new box with the items Dad ordered and sent it to me. So all turned out well, and I didn’t need to send anything back. (Ironically, my aversion to calling people on the phone worked in our favor here.)

  2. I received another box with a wrapped item from my Mom, and another wrapped item addressed to someone else. Apparently someone else’s order got placed in the same box by mistake. Since there was no indication the first time around that they’d fix the other person’s problem unless that other person contacted them, I didn’t contact Amazon about this. (The item in question was a CD which actually looks kind of interesting.)
  3. My Dad received some items I ordered for him, and they were wrapped, but had no gift cards. The order didn’t show any gift note when I reviewed it, so in all fairness I might have screwed this up myself rather than Amazon losing my note. On the other hand, Dad says he received some gifts from someone else which were not wrapped but should have been.
  4. Finally, I received one CD from my Dad which should have been wrapped but was not. That’s not the fun part though: When I unwrapped presents from Dad, one of them was another copy of the same CD. However, if this was part of the order they had to re-ship, this might have just been a little fallout from the first problem. (Anyone want a copy of Shadow Gallery‘s Tyranny?)

None of this is likely to make me stop using Amazon in the future (fat chance!), but it is an unfortunate set of events. The moral of the story is: Take a look at what you received, even if it’s wrapped, to make sure it looks like it’s correct, because the sooner you notice any problems the sooner you can work with Amazon to get them fixed.

And Amazon’s customer service still rocks, for getting things fixed in time.