Sunday, November 30, 2008

Prospects for 2009

Earlier this week we got news of two big events on the prospect front. The Arizona Fall League wrapped up with the Phoenix Desert Dogs (the team the Twins' farmhands play for) winning their 5th straight championship, and Baseball America released its list of the top 10 Twins prospects. Last year, those same events centered around Nick Blackburn, who won the championship game of the AFL and received the #1 prospect ranking from BA. He went on to contribute greatly to the Twins' unexpected success in 2008. Will any of this year's crop have something to offer in 2009?

Baseball America's Top 10 Twins Prospects

#1 - Aaron Hicks - The 14th overall pick in this year's draft, Hicks had a terrific debut in rookie ball, hitting .318/.409/.491 with an excellent 28/32 BB/K ratio and 12/14 SB. Baseball America gave him top marks among Twins' prospects for plate discipline, athleticism, outfield defense and outfield arm. Certainly an exciting player to watch, but he's only just turned 19, so I think even a meteoric rise through the organization wouldn't see him in a Twins uniform until 2011.

#2 - Ben Revere - The Twins' first-round choice in 2007, Revere also had a stupendous 2008. He flirted with .400 for much of the season in Beloit before settling for .379/.433/.497 with a 27/31 BB/K ratio and 44/57 SB. As well as he's playing, the Twins don't seem to be in any hurry with him, so, like Hicks, I wouldn't expect to see him in MN for at least 3 more years.

#3 - Wilson Ramos - Joe Mauer's heir-apparent (unless they sign him to an extension right away), Ramos has been remarkably consistent through his first 3 professional seasons. In the Gulf Coast League, he hit .286/.339/.435, in Beloit he hit .291/.345/.438, and in Fort Myers he hit .288/.344/.434. He's got good pop and is an excellent defender. But, again, the Twins have been content to give him a full season at each level so far, meaning we can expect to see him in 2011.

#4 - Jose Mijares - An offseason auto accident broke Mijares' elbow, setting him back in 2008. He progressed through 4 levels as he regained his groove, including an impressive September call-up in which he allowed just 1 ER on 3 H in 10.1 IP. Overall for 2008 he had a 1.91 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 47 IP, with a 8.81 K/9. With Pat Neshek out and Dennys Reyes likely cut loose, Mijares would have to have a ghastly spring training to keep from making the team. If he's healthy, he should give the Twins 60-70 IP in 2009, and could be one of the keys to their season.

#5 - Danny Valencia - This is a pretty impressive place for a 19th-round pick to find himself. Valencia has earned his way up the prospect list by hitting .305/.361/.485 over 4 levels since he was drafted 2.5 years ago. His numbers took a hit when he was promoted to AA this summer - he hit .289/.334/.485 in 69 games in New Britain. He kept his slugging up with 10 HR, but his BB/K rate got way out of wack - before AA, it had been about 1/2, but it was about 1/4 in those 69 games. Not to worry. Valencia put up a similar .291/.332/.422 line with a 1/3 BB/K ratio in his first 61 games in Fort Myers, then blew up to .336/.402/.518 with about a 2/5 BB/K rate in his first 60 games there this year. That alone suggests to me that he will be spending at least the first 2 months of 2009 in New Britain.

#6 - Anthony Swarzak - He's landed somewhere in the #5-#7 range on this list for 5 straight years. Despite having his worst career ERA, WHIP, K/9 and HR/9 through 20 starts at New Britain, he was promoted to Rochester, where he allowed just 9 ER on 41 H over 45 IP in 7 starts (6.1 IP/start). His K/9 dropped even further, however, so he's got an adjustment to make. He made 40 starts at A+ and 34 at AA before advancing, so I'd be surprised if he turns up in a Twins uniform before September of next year.

#7 - Shooter Hunt - The 31st overall pick in this summer's draft (thanks to the departure of Torii Hunter - Hunt/Hunter!), Hunt demolished the competition in Rookie ball. In 19 IP, he allowed just 1 ER on 4 H and 6 BB with 34 K. After his promotion to Beloit he continued to put up nice numbers in most areas, averaging less than a hit and more than a strikeout per inning. But he screwed himself by walking 27 in 31.1 IP, resulting in an ugly 5.46 ERA. Control, you must learn control! He's at least 3 years off.

#8 - Kevin Mulvey - Good to see someone from the Santana trade on this list! Mulvey did OK at Rochester, but you'd like to see such a highly touted prospect put up better numbers, particularly considering the International League's tendency to favor pitchers. He had a slight increase in his walk rate over his 2007 at AA, but an alarming 4-fold increase in HR allowed in 2008. He's also got just 321 professional IP on his resume. Still, I suspect he'll get the first call if someone from the Twins' stretch-drive rotation gets hurt or falters next year.

#9 - Carlos Gutierrez - The Twins' 2nd first-round pick this summer (27th overall), Gutierrez already rates the organization's best fastball. At 25, he was quite old to be drafted, so the Twins dropped him straight into the Fort Myers bullpen. He pitched well in 16 appearances, allowing 6 ER on 23 H and 7 BB with 19 K in 25.2 IP. Now he's 26, so I'd bet that the Twins will continue to push him through the system. But even so, I doubt he'll be anything more than a September call-up in 2009.

#10 - Angel Morales - Like Adam Dunn with a better batting average, Morales had a monster year at Elizabethton, hitting .301/.413/.623 with 15 HR in just 54 games. But ugh, the strikeouts - 72 in just 183 ABs! That makes Carlos Gomez look like Paul Molitor. Morales just turned 19 last week, so, unlike Gutierrez, I predict that the Twins will take their sweet time with him and hope that he's ready to take on MLB pitching by 2012 or so.

Some promising players, but only Mijares is likely to have a significant impact in 2009.

Arizona Fall League

The AFL, unlike most of the Twins' minor leagues, greatly favors the hitters. Over its 38 game season, the average hitting line was .293/.369/.473, and the average pitcher put up a 5.79 ERA and 1.61 WHIP. Bear that context in mind as we look at the performance of these prospects.

Rob Delaney - Even for a guy in some pitcher-friendly environments, Delaney's performance over the past 2 seasons has been stupendous. He began 2008 in Fort Myers, where he had a 1.42 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 31.2 IP, with a sensational 34/4 K/BB ratio. At midsummer he was promoted to New Britain and was even better, sporting a 1.05 ERA and 0.79 WHIP in 34.1 IP with a 38/7 K/BB rate. His AFL numbers weren't anywhere close to that (including the championship game 13 IP, 16 H, 6 BB, 11 K, 4.85 ERA, 1.69 WHIP), but were still a little better than league average. Also, Delaney improved as the season went on, allowing just 1 ER on 7 H and 1 BB with 7 K in 7.1 IP over his final 6 appearances, suggesting that he may have made a quick adjustment to the higher level of competition. Between that and his otherworldly performance at New Britain, I'd be surprised if Delaney doesn't start the season in Rochester next spring. He could be someone the Twins look to if the bullpen is struggling midseason.

Tim Lahey - Control has been Lahey's problem throughout his professional career, and this fall was no exception. Though he managed to avoid giving up many runs (3.97 ERA thanks in part to allowing 0 HR in 11.1 IP - a rarity in the AFL), he had a lousy 8/6 K/BB rate. While his AFL performance is encouraging enough to earn him a good look in spring training, there's nothing in his track record to suggest that he'll be able to beat out Boof Bonser or Philip Humber for a middle relief spot with the Twins in 2009 - most likely he'll repeat at Rochester.

Jeff Manship - The Twins should be pleased with Manship's progress since he was drafted in the 14th round in 2006. After a solid half-season in Fort Myers (13 GS, 78.2 IP, 2.86 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 63/20 K/BB and 0 HR allowed!), Manship was promoted to New Britain. There, in almost the same number of innings (76.2) he essentially maintained his K/BB ratio (62/24), but allowed 22 more H - including 8 HR. His AFL numbers indicate improvement over his AA performance: a better than average 5.01 ERA, 1 HR allowed in 32.1 IP and an excellent 29/8 K/BB ratio. Still, I'm guessing he'll begin 2009 back in New Britain, and won't have an impact with the Twins until 2010 at the earliest.

Anthony Slama - It's not clear why Delaney was promoted this summer while Slama remained in Fort Myers, when Slama's numbers were arguably even more fantastic: 71 IP, 43 H, 110/24 K/BB, 1.01 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 0 HR allowed(!). Considering he had never faced anything above A+ hitters, it's perhaps not surprising that his first 12 appearances against AA and AAA studs didn't go so well. His AFL line of 10 IP, 14 H, 9 ER, 7 BB and 10 K (though still 0 HR) shows that there's an adjustment he needs to make. He'll be 25 in January, so it wouldn't be a bad idea to get him moving through the system. He'll begin 2009 no lower than AA, and if he has another season like 2008, he'll likely get a call-up to the Twins in September.

Dustin Martin - Of the 6 players the Twins collected from the Mets' farm system in the Luis Castillo and Johan Santana trades, Martin had the strongest 2008. His .290/.355/.447 was well above average for the Eastern League - his only glaring negative was a high strikeout rate (125 in 510 AB). That trend continued in the AFL, where he hit .314/.397/.449, but struck out 37 times in 118 AB. He should wind up at Rochester next year, where he'll need to work on making contact a little more consistently. If he can do that, he might move ahead of Gomez on the depth chart before too long, and certainly will be considered should an OF go down during the season.

Steve Tolleson - He was overshadowed by the spectacular numbers Luke Hughes put up, but Tolleson also had a terrific offensive season for the Rock Cats. He hit .300/.382/.466 with a solid 44/74 BB/K ratio. He was even better in the AFL, batting .383/.449/.543 with a 11/16 BB/K rate. He will certainly join Hughes in the Redwings' IF to start 2009, and could be called up should the Twins need IF depth as the season moves along.

Danny Valencia - One of the few hitters who failed to take advantage of the happy offensive conditions in the AFL, Valencia hit just .209/.254/.270 with a 7/25 BB/K rate. Since that line is reminiscent of Nick Punto's 2007, needless to say, Valencia's AFL experience did nothing to accelerate his progress through the Twins' system. I'd guess he's still at least 2 years away from a shot with the Twins.

So, despite some exciting prospect news earlier in the week, the only help the Twins are likely to get from those guys next year is in the bullpen or as injury fill-ins. I'll look at some other prospects who might be a bit closer to having an impact in the coming days.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


For once, I was pretty pleased with the way the MLB awards were handed out this year. Normally, the writers make at least one terrible call based on won-lost record or RBIs or - even worse - team performance. They had a great opportunity to do that again with NL MVP, with Phillie Ryan Howard a mile ahead in HR and RBI, but wisely gave the award to Albert Pujols instead, despite his team failing to make the playoffs. Sure, Johan Santana once again missed out on the Cy Young due to poor run support, but Tim Lincecum was clearly the next best choice, finishing in the top 3 in the NL in IP, K, ERA and, yes, W.

The Twins didn't pick up any of the big awards after Joe Mauer's batting title. Mauer also took home a Gold Glove, and he and Justin Morneau were given Silver Sluggers for being the best hitters at their respective positions (a little strange, considering Kevin Youkilis topped Morneau in BA, OBP, SLG% and HR). Despite missing out on the hardware, the Twins did get some pretty serious respect from the voters.

Ron Gardenhire came in 2nd in the Manager of the Year voting, the 4th time he's been runner-up for the award. I'll be the first to admit that he is often very slow to make personnel changes, and he pretty consistently makes some bad picks out of spring training. But the fundamentals of the team are always pretty strong, and by July, he's usually got things figured out. The Twins seem to outperform the projections every year, and Gardy's leadership is most likely a factor. His career win percentage is now .549 (average season: 89-73). He has his shortcomings, but I'm still glad to have him around through at least 2011.

Morneau came in 2nd for AL MVP and Mauer was 4th. Each of them received more than one first-place vote. Morneau might have come even closer had he managed one more big hit over the season's final 2 weeks - that might have brought him the RBI title and brought his team to the postseason. For him to finish ahead of Youkilis shows tremendous respect from the national writers. The same goes for Mauer, who drew a lot more votes than you'd expect for a big #3 hitter who had just 9 HR and 85 RBi. Clearly, the Twins have 2 elite players in the heart of their lineup, and don't need too much more around them to be a perennial force in the division. (Also, this wouldn't be a bad time to start thinking about an extension for Mauer - don't want to end up in the same situation they were in with Santana last year.)

It was also nice to see a couple of Twins rookies get some votes in the ROY balloting. Denard Span drew 3 3rd-place votes even though he spent almost half the season in the minors. Had the Twins wisely chosen to give him the CF job out of spring training, his numbers might have been better than those of the 3rd-place finisher, Jacoby Ellsbury. And Nick Blackburn got 1 point. His season was bookended by 1-0 losses, and in between he got 5 no-decisions after handing a lead to the bullpen. How many more votes would he have earned with 15 or so wins to go along with his 4.05 ERA and 193.1 IP?

The Twins have some very exciting players on the roster, and most of them are just entering their prime. They're all under team control for at least the next two years. We have a lot to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No Neshek


Pat Neshek's attempted recovery appears to be on the same trajectory as Francisco Liriano's in 2006 - meaning that we should get Neshek back in some pretty decent form by mid-2010. As important as Neshek was to the Twins' 2008 plans, he was just as important for 2009, and his absence changes the calculus for the Twins' offseason moves.

First of all, the Twins have lost all luxury they might have had in disposing of their present in-house options. I had been advocating that they make an effort to re-sign Dennys Reyes, but I think that's essential now. If Jose Mijares is going to be the primary 8th-inning setup man (and, after his splendid September, it's got to be his job to lose), and Craig Breslow is a 6th or 7th inning option, then the Twins will still need that matchup lefty to bring on in the middle of a dicey inning. Reyes has done the job against lefties for 3 seasons with the Twins, holding them to a .531 OPS, striking them out at a high rate and inducing a ton of grounders.

Say Nick Blackburn runs into trouble in the 6th inning, leaving the game with 2 on and only 1 out and the big lefty coming up. Reyes can come in and face him with a high probability of a strikeout or DP grounder. Jesse Crain could finish the inning against the subsequent right-hander, and you'd still have Breslow and Mijares available to pitch complete innings in front of Joe Nathan.

I'd been ambivalent about the Twins keeping Matt Guerrier around for next season. No longer. Though he melted down in the final 3rd of 2008, he was very effective for 3 and a half seasons before that. I don't doubt that he'll bounce back and pitch more like his old self in 2009, particularly if he's allowed to return to some lower-leverage situations. Boof Bonser should also be brought to spring training and given an opportunity to show that his strong finish to the season out of the bullpen was an indication of things to come.

The Twins should also be hesitant to trade away any of the AAA relievers who were performing well last season, including Bobby Korecky and Ricky Barrett. Those folks, along with Arizona Fall League participants Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama, should be invited to spring training and given the opportunity to compete for a spot in the Twins' 'pen.

There is ample payroll available for free agents, and so the Twins should look into some of the available right-handers. I would be interested in giving a shot to some of the veterans who are coming off recent injuries - guys like Brendan Donnelly, Keith Foulke or Jason Isringhausen. Each had tremendous stats prior to their DL troubles, and bring a wealth of experience working in high-leverage situations. One of them might be willing to join a contender for a low-base, high-incentive contract while he proves that he can still compete.

Finally, I think this takes any potential moves that would have involved a member of the rotation off the table. With question marks in the bullpen, the Twins cannot afford to put themselves in a situation where they might need to get more than 15 innings from their relievers every trip through the rotation. The 5 starters they have now are very likely to average more than 6 IP/start. The closer the starters can get to Joe Nathan, the better. Therefore, the Twins should only consider moving minor league pieces in a trade, which probably limits them to working with the very worst teams in the league. Otherwise, they should look to free agents to upgrade their roster.

Speaking of the worst teams in the league, it has been suggested that nobody from the Nationals would be untouchable. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman would be another guy to potentially target - his career numbers are about on par with the Buscher/Harris tandem, but he'd be a bit of an upgrade defensively.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fixing the Left

The left side of the Twins' infield, that is. Now that the World Series is over, the Hot Stove season is upon us. is running a series briefly assessing the needs of each MLB team for 2009. Jonah Keri had some decent insights about the Twins, such as this one:

"If not for an ill-advised bout of loyalty toward washed-up sunk cost Livan Hernandez, the Twins might've beaten out the White Sox for the AL Central crown and made some noise in the playoffs with their deep pitching and the deadly duo of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau."

Well put. And while I think he may be overstating the potential value of Kevin Mulvey and Anthony Swarzak for 2009, he is largely on the mark. He concludes his piece with this:

"If the Twins do little more than stand pat this offseason they should still be dangerous, especially if Cuddyer and Neshek bounce back from injuries and Young takes a step forward. Solid bullpen contributions from the next wave of pitching prospects combined with one well-placed trade for a shortstop or third baseman would make the Twins the favorites to win the division in 2009."

Correct. As I outlined last month, the Twins are in better shape than any of their rivals for 2009. If they merely show the fortitude to ask Carlos Gomez to work on his game in AAA, they can have a solid lineup even with their existing players, because the Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon would be batting 8th, and Nick Punto or Matt Tolbert would be batting 9th. Do not go trading right-handed power bats (Michael Cuddyer) in order to acquire other right-handed power bats! And absolutely do not go trading any starting pitchers unless the return is unimpeachably awesome!

And when I say unimpeachably awesome, I mean drastically better than what we have now. Overall, Twins 3rd-basemen were most unimpressive in 2008, but Mike Lamb did a lot to drag the numbers down. Buscher's OPS ended up at .730, obviously subpar for a 3B, but bear some things in mind:

1. His R/L splits were severe - .455 OPS vs. LHP, .799 vs. RHP, including all 13 XBH.
2. He's been a slow starter at each level of the minors, improving his OPS each year once he had 250-300 ABs (he currently has 300 career MLB ABs).

Based on his past performances, I would say that Buscher is likely to do no worse than an .800 OPS vs. RHP (the only sort he should be facing) in 2009, and there's a very good chance that he could do much better.

Harris, for his part, amassed a .721 OPS in 2008, and had virtually identical numbers against RHP and LHP. Earlier in his career, though, he hit lefties much better (almost .900 OPS in 2007). For his career, he's hit .295/.360/.440 vs. LHP, an .800 OPS.

So, the Buscher/Harris platoon can be expected to OPS at least .800, which, were they one player, would put them solidly in the middle of the MLB pack among 3Bs. The downside is that neither one of them is a particularly strong fielder or baserunner.

Conversely, Nick Punto's OPS can be expected to land somewhere in the mid .600s (it was .664 over the past 3 seasons), but he is an above-average defender and baserunner. (Punto's value as a versatile defender, switch-hitter, and baserunner make him worth keeping in a bench role for the next couple of seasons. I would advocate the Twins signing him to a 2-year deal at $2.5-$3 million/year, but with incentives that would up his salary if he ended up starting. For example, add $1 million if he goes over 300 PAs, and another million if he goes over 500 PAs.)

When we think about potentially trading for people who could upgrade these positions, it would be a mistake to consider just the value of the incoming player compared to that of the outgoing player. Rather, we should look at how much of an improvement the new player is over the baseline - is what we're adding a net gain compared to what we're giving up?

Consider one of the current trade rumors: Michael Cuddyer and/or Kevin Slowey/Nick Blackburn for Garrett Atkins. Over the past 3 seasons, Atkins' OPS away from Coors Field is .790, and his defense is only a little better than that of Buscher/Harris. Cuddyer's career OPS is .785. While replacing Cuddyer in the outfield with Gomez would greatly improve the Twins defensively, it would be a net loss to the lineup, since Gomez is only a .650 OPS hitter right now. Replacing Blackburn or (gulp!) Slowey with Philip Humber would also likely diminish the rotation a bit, all so Atkins could play essentially just as well as what we've already got. No thanks.

Here are the career OPS numbers for the other available 3Bs (either free agents or available for trades), and a brief rating (+, - or =) on how their defense compares to Buscher/Harris:

Casey Blake: .781, =
Russell Branyan: .813, =
Joe Crede: .753, +
Mike Lamb: let's not go there
Doug Mientkiewicz: ditto
Ramon Vazquez: .686, =
Adrian Beltre: .786, +
Andy LaRoche: .560, +
Kevin Kouzmanoff: .753, =

As you can see, none of those guys has historically hit very much better than Buscher and Harris can expect to. A lot of them would hit more homers, but would be on base much less often overall. The few who play better defense are a bit of a step down at the plate. Blake, Beltre and Atkins mash lefties, but are average or worse against righties, the sort of pitchers a regular 3B will be facing most of the time. Crede's splits are opposite.

None of these guys bring enough to merit the sacrifice of any of the Twins' projected starters. Were I Bill Smith, I would only offer trade pieces I didn't think I could use, like Boof Bonser, Humber, Bobby Korecky, etc. A couple of teams might be deep enough into rebuilding that they'd be willing to take on some of the 2008 Rochester pitchers. The best trade would be with Pittsburgh for LaRoche. The Pirates need all kinds of pitching help - guys like Matt Guerrier and Humber should look pretty good to them. LaRoche was a top-50 prospect for 3 straight years before injuring his thumb in spring training. He went on to have a horrendous 2008 in the Majors, dropping his stock a great deal. He still has plenty of upside, and has shown a terrific eye at the plate at all levels. If he were to bounce back to the numbers he put up in the minors (career line: .295/.382/.517), the Twins would have a right-handed bat to stick between Mauer and Morneau for the next 5 seasons.

As for the free agents, Crede is the best choice. He's been hampered by injuries the last 2 seasons, and is therefore likely to take a 1-2 year deal for reasonable money in order to try and raise his value for his next contract while he's still in his low 30s. If he could repeat his 2006 numbers (.283/.323/.506, 30 HR), the Twins would have the bat they're looking for, while also improving themselves defensively. If he performs closer to his career average, they're still getting good pop from their #8 hitter. But I'd definitely keep Buscher around in case Crede gets hurt again.

There are a lot more options at shortstop. I'll repeat the exercise from above (in comparison to Punto's defense), and also rate how the available players compare to Punto's baserunning.

Orlando Cabrera: .721, -, -
Juan Castro: Yeah, right!
Alex Cintron: .713, -, -
Alex Cora: .660, =, -
Craig Counsell: .687, =, -
David Eckstein: .712, =, -
Adam Everett: Been there, done that
Rafael Furcal: .764, -, +
Chris Gomez: .685, =, -
Cesar Izturis: .629, =, =
Edgar Renteria: .753, -, -
Omar Vizquel: .693, +, =
Michael Young: .788, -, -
JJ Hardy: .775, -, -

Young and Hardy would certainly command at least Blackburn in a trade. Young's numbers have declined for 3 straight seasons - with his best years behind him, he wouldn't be worth it. Hardy, however, is just 26, and has averaged 30 doubles and 25 HR the past 2 seasons. Though he doesn't have Punto's range and isn't much of a threat on the bases, his hitting ability more than makes up for it. Having that much more production from shortstop for at least 2 seasons would be worth the potential dropoff in performance from Blackburn to Humber or Mulvey.

As for the free agents, Furcal would be the best all-around choice. Coming off of back surgery that cost him most of last season, he may not be in position to command the sort of years and dollars he otherwise would have and, like Crede, may take a shorter deal in order to up his value while he's still relatively young. Even so, he would probably get 8 figures, but the Twins have enough payroll space available in 2009 and 2010 to sign one splashy free agent.

The other intriguing option would be Vizquel. His bat has declined drastically over the last couple of seasons, but he's still a superlative fielder and savvy small-baller. He might be a good fielding influence on Alexi Casilla, and Gardy would love putting plays on while he's batting out of the #9 spot.

At this point, the only player I can see worth trading a projected starter for would be JJ Hardy. The Brewers are going to need some pitching, so it's a deal that could easily be worked out. But my ideal scenario would be for the Twins to sign Rafael Furcal to a reasonably short-term deal for $12-ish million/year while trading some of their spare pitching parts for Andy LaRoche. Those guys, at the top of their games, could eventually provide the Twins with this lineup:

1. Span
2. Furcal
3. Mauer
4. LaRoche
5. Morneau
6. Cuddyer
7. Kubel
8. Young
9. Casilla

Very good OBP 1-7, a nice mix of R/L, good speed as the lineup turns over. That lineup, combined with an intact pitching staff, would certainly compete for the top spot in the division. But even without big improvements on the left side of the infield, that pitching staff would probably take the Twins pretty far.

Once again, I urge Mr. Smith: don't repeat your mistakes from last year, weakening the team with trades and signings when what you already had in the system was actually better. Would it be nice to have more power from 3B and SS? Absolutely. Will it make this team a champion? Not if we rob Peter to pay Paul.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The More Things Change

In my 32 years on this earth, I haven't been witness to very much profound history. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, signifying the end of the cold war, was probably the biggest deal of my life until last night. That wall had been in existence for 28 years, the German nation divided for 44. The wall that fell last night with the election of Barack Obama has been with us ever since the first slave arrived on this continent nearly 400 years ago - our nation has been divided since its inception.

As a middle class kid from lily-white Stillwater, MN, I can't pretend to know the depth of affirmation that was felt by the black community last night. I have never known what it's like to feel as though the ideals and opportunities of our wonderful country didn't really apply to people like me. But it was evident on the many faces throughout the country, jubilant and tearful, that America had renewed itself in millions of hearts and minds. I had supported Obama because I believed he could be the thoughtful, pragmatic, concensus-building leader our nation has been hungering for, and because the Republican party that opposed him pandered to the worst aspects of our nature in trying to defeat him. I really hadn't considered until a few days ago just how much Obama's election would mean to the growing minority population. Good for them.

(But if you think America has turned a corner into an era of equality for all, I would point you to the results of the ballot initiatives in CA. There, in one of the 3 most progressive states in the union, voters showed more compassion for factory-farm chickens than for gays and lesbians. It's absurd that a state constitution can be changed by a simple majority of the voting public, but the sales tax cannot be increased without 2/3 of the vote. This structural problem is one of the many reasons that California is a mess right now.)

The voters delivered a mandate last night, but it wasn't for Obama, though his 52.4% of the popular vote was the highest total for a Democrat since the year I was born. And it wasn't for the Democratic party, whose net of 19 House seats and 5 Senate seats so far is actually lower than a lot of people predicted. The mandate was for change - change of legislative and regulatory priorities, and change of tone in Washington.

Many of John McCain's supporters were voting for change as well, hoping that his history of bipartisanship and independence from his party would lead to better things from the government. His exceptionally gracious concession speech was evidence that he had understood the message from the electorate. Now that the campaign is over, I hope he will return to the senate as the maverick he has historically been, putting his country ahead of his party and working with the new administration to solve the considerable problems that face us.

Obama's acceptance speech indicated that he understood the directive from the voters as well. He was humble and generous in reaching out to those who did not vote for him, suggesting that he has no intention of pushing around the diminished Republican caucuses. If he is to succeed as a President, he needs to govern in such a way that at least the moderates on the other side can get on board with his policies.

To that end, here are a few things I'd love to see happen between now and the end of January:

Build a Team of Rivals

Obama's transition is already off to a better start than Bill Clinton's, with a team in place and an offer out to Rahm Emanuel to be Chief of Staff. Emanuel is a fairly moderate democrat, having riled liberals with his stances on welfare reform and free trade, so his selection tells us that Obama is aiming for the center.

He can prove it even more strongly to the rest of the country by emulating the cabinet of Abraham Lincoln. That group had representatives from both parties, in an effort to hold together the remaining constituencies of a disintegrating union. They had their own agendas, but Lincoln deftly placated each faction while convincing them to support his policies. Whether Obama has the same political skill remains to be seen, but he would do well to start off with at least a couple of moderate Republicans in his administration.

Many have speculated that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be invited to stay on in his post when Obama takes the reigns. Another obvious choice would be Colin Powell, whose endorsement of Obama a couple of weeks ago was influential in lending credibility to the candidate. Powell could resume his work in the State Department, which he left in frustration in 2005, or perhaps be a national security adviser. Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel are Republican senators with great expertise - Obama might tap them as well.

Be a Check on the Congress

One of the many failures of the Bush administration was its unflagging complicity with the Republican Congress. Bush didn't veto a single measure until the Democrats took over in 2007 - 6 years into his Presidency. That's not the relationship between the branches of government that the Founders envisioned.

The Republicans made it an issue down the stretch that the Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid congress would run wild with liberal legislation with a Democrat in the White House. Obama can soothe the fears of nervous conservatives by vetoing bills that do not pay for themselves or fit with the focus of his agenda. And, while we're on the subject...

Shake Up the Congressional Leadership

Why should Pelosi and Reid automatically get to retain their positions? There have been enough moderate Democrats elected in formerly Republican districts over the past couple of cycles to seriously pull the aggregate balance of the caucus toward the center. Pelosi is from one of the most liberal districts in the nation - she is absolutely justified in offering liberal policies that represent her constituency. But does she represent the Congressional Democrats as a whole? Why should she be the one who sets the priorities?

Reid has been at times obnoxiously combative with the Republicans. Will he be able to set the conciliatory tone the Democrats need if they are to deal with monumental issues troubling the country? Does he have the temperament to reach across the aisle and quickly move important legislation?

Remember, Congress' approval ratings are very near those of President Bush - abysmal. Reid and Pelosi had 2 years to show that they were going to change the way things worked on Capitol Hill, and I don't see that they were able to. I'd love to see each of them at least challenged when the new caucuses convene in January. Even if they are ultimately reconfirmed, it would at least show everyone that the Democrats are serious about trying to govern for the center.

Reconcile with Lieberman

With the filibuster-proof 60-seat majority likely out of reach for this session, Senate Democrats may be tempted to punish Joe Lieberman for his active support of McCain - especially his prominent speech at the Convention in Saint Paul. But, even though they don't really need his help in the caucus, it would send a positive signal to everyone if they kept him in. It would show that they don't intend to be punitive, that they want to work with McCain supporters.

The next few months will be a time of important choices for the new Democratic regime. If they don't take seriously the voters' demand for change in Washington, they'll find out in 2010 and 2012 just how quickly the voters can change their minds.