Sometimes You Just Need To Excoriate The Seattle Times

FYI, I started blogging at The Urbanist. Some posts will be cross-posts from here; others will be originals. Yesterday I published a piece called “Pass Prop 1 and Never Take Transportation Advice from the Seattle Times.” In it I excoriated the Seattle Times for balking at the $930 million dollar levy’s price tag (which is spread out over 9 years) when the benefits are clear (Safe Routes to School, seven new rapid ride lines, 50 miles of protected bike lanes, ect) and when the Seattle Times has a sordid history of supporting very expensive highway projects with much lower benefits like the $4 billion dollar Bertha tunnel, which seems poised for boondoggledom.

Overview of Move Seattle project showing the new Rapid Ride corridors, bike corridors and other improvements. (Let's Move Seattle)

Overview of Move Seattle project showing the new Rapid Ride corridors, bike corridors and other improvements. (Let’s Move Seattle)

My article on Seattle Squandering Its Public Land is also picked up on the Urbanist, as is the piece, Will Soil Save Cities From Climate Change. Gotta toot my own horn a little bit. Those articles were gussied up a bit for The Urbanist so read them there if you haven’t yet.

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Seattle is squandering its public land

One of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee’s 65 recommendations was that the city prioritize its surplus properties for affordable housing. That doesn’t appear to be happening. The Seattle Times ran a story on the 210 “orphan” properties the city owns that might be used for affordable housing should the city find the political will and capital to do so. The city says many of the properties are owned by Seattle City Light or Seattle Public Utilities and by law can’t be developed as housing without paying fair market value for the land. In their opinion, that leaves only 33 of those properties are large enough (15,000 square feet was their benchmark) to be worth developing as affordable housing, and, even then, the city doesn’t seem to be moving with any haste to actually get the projects moving on these locations.

The Seattle Times illustrated the 33 city-owned properties city say might be suitable for affordable housing.

via the Seattle Times

Rethinking our housing assumptions

The city rationalizes their inaction by using some dubious assumptions to claim huge subsides would be needed to operate affordable housing. Budget directer Ben Noble claimed a 100-unit building affordable to low to moderate income tenants would need an annual subsidy of $1.4 million. That’s a shortfall of $14,000 per household per year, or $1,167 per month. Studio apartments, albeit crummy ones, can still be rented in this city for not much more than that. Seattle must plan on building some expensive units and renting all of them below market value.

One way to cover operating and financing costs is for the city to rent some units at market value so that the city-owned building is truly mixed income. Another way is make more inexpensive units. The simplest way to do that would be to build some smaller units so that more units can fit in a similar sized building. For decades, we’ve been building low-income housing is to middle class specifications, but previously smaller units were the norm. Rooming houses and residence hotels offered another option: small apartments with shared kitchens and bathrooms (I’m going to delve deeper into rooming housing in a future post). And they didn’t contain private parking spaces, a huge expense in any building project. Smaller rooms and shared amenities allow a lower price point. Granted, the city council needs to legalize this type of housing again.

Or, of course, the city could stick with their assumptions and just fork over the money. Providing affordable housing is a good use of funds and bonding. Long term though, enacting zoning and land-use codes that allow both the city and private developers to use their land and to build affordable housing is a surer way to alleviate Seattle’s housing shortage.

So far the city has offered more excuses than proactive solutions to maximizing the potential of their landholdings. Take this quote from the Seattle Times article: “’The point is, there’s not ginormous amounts of free land out there,’ said Miriam Roskin, Office of Housing deputy director.” I hate to pick on Roskin, but another point is high ranking city officials are using the term “ginormous” while publicly discussing city business. And in all seriousness, 33 decently sized plots producing even a modest average of 100 units each is still 3,300 units that wouldn’t otherwise be on the market, and we need all the help we can get. Plus, if we wanted to buy some parcels of underused land owned by Seattle City Light or Seattle Public Utilities sure that’d be an added cost for the housing project, but wouldn’t that also, as an added funding stream for our utility companies, drive down utility rates in the city?

Civic Square: The Boondoggle that Mind-Boggles

One choice city-owned block, Civic Square, right across from City Hall was overlooked as an affordable housing site. Instead the city targeted the site for a public plaza after they tore down the Public Safety Building in 2005. In 2007, the city made a deal with Triad Capital Partners whereby Triad would design and build the public plaza (deemed a 25 million-dollar value) and in return get rights to use part of the block to build a 43-story market-rate tower with offices and 125 market-rate condos. The recession scared away investors apparently, but the tower was approved in 2009 while Triad scrounged up financing. It seemed inevitable.

The Civic Square strives for Platinum LEED certification but aesthetically is a rather nondescript boxy structure.

The Civic Square strives for Platinum LEED certification but aesthetically is a rather nondescript boxy structure.

That is until this week, when Mayor Murray announced he had no desire to work with Triad after city council candidate Jon Grant exposed text messages from Triad senior vice president Brett Allen that he said amounted to political blackmail. Allen wanted Grant to get the Tenants’ Union to drop their lawsuit and claimed he could make $200,000 in independent expenditures against Grant’s campaign “go away” if that happened. Triad is up against a city-imposed Dec. 31 deadline to close the deal for the city property or face a million-dollar extension penalty.

Just one week earlier Allen was claiming Triad would finally close the deal after an eight-year delay and would begin construction in 2016. Now the office tower’s future is very murky. Triad fired Allen on Tuesday for his bungling, it would appear so Triad CEO Fred Grimm can try to salvage the project.

If the Triad deal falls through, maybe the city can better leverage the site for affordable housing. Since the city owns the land, it holds the power. Why not get a better project? Public plazas are all fine and dandy but it seems the city is squandering a prime land holding for a vanity project rather than using an extremely visible and valuable block to send a message that city hall is serious about affordable housing. The lot has sat vacant for a decade, wasting a prime piece of real estate. Now Seattle has the chance to show it seriously about maximizing the value of its city-owned land.

I hope to see a new project that includes some affordable housing take the place of the Triad tower, or, at the very least a renegotiation of terms so that Triad pays the real value of the land rather than a nearly decade old price. If they do this right, city officials will have the chance to look out the windows of city hall every day and admire a tower dedicated to housing justice.

Enriching Urban Soil and the Cities Above

After reading Kristen Ohlson’s The Soil Will Save Us I was tempted to pack up and head for the countryside to become an organic farmer. The promise of restorative no-till agriculture is so great that it could fully offset all human sources of carbon emissions with as little as 11% of the world’s cropland, at least according to one pair of researchers in New Mexico that Ohlson referenced. So I thought trade the smog and the corruption of the city for the fresher, if manure-tinged, country air and be part of the solution. I didn’t go through with my bucolic daydream; I’ve just too set in my wicked city ways and hooked on the artisan coffee, the micro brews, the sushi, and being bathed in a neon street sign glow. Even in urban areas, though, restorative agriculture principles can be applied—whether in parks, urban farms, or home gardens—to improve the health of the soil and sequester carbon from the air.

How Soil Captures Carbon

The soil is little understood which is part of the reason why it’s overlooked as a solution to climate change. The key to capturing carbon is the vibrant ecosystem of microorganisms that builds up around root structures in healthy organic soil. A healthy soil ecosystem builds up carbon-rich humus. The organisms draw carbon from the atmosphere thereby counterattacking the greenhouse effect.

I'd highly recommend this book. It'll blow your mind.

I’d highly recommend this book. It’ll blow your mind.

Another soil writer Courtney White (author of Grass, Soil, Hope) explains “soils contain about three times the amount of carbon that’s stored in vegetation and twice the amount stored in the atmosphere. Since two-thirds of the earth’s land mass is grassland, additional CO2 storage in the soil via better management practices, even on a small scale, could have a huge impact.” The soil is a huge part of the equilibrium that until recently had existed as carbon cycled through the atmosphere, the oceans, the flora and fauna (i.e. life above ground), and the soil (i.e life below ground). Our carbon imbalance not only warms the planet and destabilizes weather patterns, it also contributes to ocean acidification since an estimated 30 to 40% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide dissolves into oceans, rivers and lakes lowering their pH level.

Under industrial farming techniques, little carbon is captured in the soil. Chemical fertilizers co-opt the microorganisms that normally trade nutrients for sugars from the roots in the soil. Herbicides and pesticides stifle the biodiversity not only above ground but below it in the soil, further limiting its carbon capturing capacity. The combine’s plows devastates any microorganism networks that did manage to survive the chemical bath. The result is soil with alarmingly low carbon content. Relative to healthy soil, it’s inert and lifeless. Industrialized farming took the soil depleting techniques to the next level, but ever since humans began plowing their fields, they’ve been damaging the soil carbon beneath their feet.

Interestingly, the first spike in anthropogenic carbon emissions predates the industrial revolution and goes back to the agricultural revolution and the advent of the plow, the widespread adoption to mono-cropping, and deforestation to make way for these new farms. “Thousands of years of poor farming and ranching practices—and, especially, modern industrial agriculture—have led to the loss of up to 80 percent of carbon from the world’s soils,” Ohlson writes. The switch to extractive farming depleted soil carbon and unleashed it into the air, and moreover it also damaged some land beyond productive use. Part of the reason the fertile crescent in the Middle East today is largely desert is because farmers unwittingly contributed to desertification through their overgrazing and overfarming that depleted the soil. Shifts in climate also share some blame, but regenerative farmers have shown soil-carbon rich fields can thrive even in dry conditions that would cause conventional farms to fail. This first piece of the puzzle in understanding greenhouse gases is largely overlooked, but I think therein lies one part of the solution. Obviously using regenerative farming to capture carbon is not to give carte blanche to fossil fuel burning. But cutting back marginally on emissions alone isn’t a solution. It’s controlled decline.

Rising Oceans

It’s in cities’ self interest to take the lead in limiting global warming. In fact, some cities’ very survival depends on halting global warming (I’m looking at you, Miami). Rising oceans imperil coastal cities around the world—Seattle included. Eight of the world’s ten largest cities are on the coast. Global warming causes oceans to rise through a double whammy of melting glaciers and ice sheets and thermal expansion (the ocean takes on greater volume at higher temperatures). So far the process has been relatively gradual. The ocean has risen about a foot in the last century. However, the pace is accelerating and it might not continue to be so gradual if say a giant glacier in Greenland suddenly plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. The Jakobshavn glacier alone contains enough water to raise the ocean by at least a foot, and it appears to be deteriorating and slipping into the sea. The Greenland Ice Sheet in sum contains enough water to raise the ocean by 20 feet.

The Jakobshavn glacier has steadily been losing girth and the pace of ice loss is only accelerating as the planet warms. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory.

The Jakobshavn glacier has steadily been losing girth and the pace of ice loss is only accelerating as the planet warms. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory.

In 2012, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predicted the ocean would rise by between 11 and 38 inches by the year 2100—already enough to be quite a problem—but they didn’t factor in land ice such as the Greenland Ice Sheet. In August, NASA scientists issued a statement saying the IPCC estimates were too conservative and suggesting the ocean will rise much more than predicted. In other words, we aren’t doing enough to slow carbon emissions. We’ve been burying our heads in the sand and hiding behind the hope we’ve got the science wrong and this problem isn’t so big and maybe will go away.

Reversing The Warming Trend

The benefit of the restorative agriculture approach is that it actively takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Implemented on a large enough scale, it could potentially not just offset carbon emissions, but actually decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. We passed the 400 parts per million carbon threshold in 2013 for the first time in 3 million years and the carbon emissions haven’t let up. There is already enough carbon in the air to continue the warming pattern for centuries even if emissions stabilized. Carbon sequestration could help us return to a safer level and snap out of the warming pattern before the ocean rise too high. Soil carbon is most practical, sustainable and affordable way we have to sequester carbon.

Switching even a tenth of cropland to restorative techniques would require a huge paradigm shift from the industrial mono-cropping that predominates. Restorative agriculture advocates will have a hard time winning over the “nozzle heads,” a term for conventional farmers always looking to apply petroleum-based fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides from the nozzle of their applicators in search of short term profits. Ohlson reports that restorative farming can be more profitable than conventional farming since, unlike nozzle heads, no-till organic farmers do not require expensive chemical inputs from the likes of Monsanto. We aren’t asking farmers to be martyrs to global warming. That can make healthy profits from healthy soil producing organic food using regenerative techniques.

Call in an airstrike! Nozzle heads call in the big guns in their neurotically neat rows of corn. Don't know what they're spraying but I'd take cover. Photo courtesy of Aurora Coop (Dawn Caldwell)

Call in an airstrike! Nozzle heads call in the big guns in their neurotically neat rows of corn. Don’t know what they’re spraying but I’d take cover. Photo courtesy of Aurora Coop (Dawn Caldwell)

Some cap and trade climate plans would further compensate farmers for sequestering carbon with direct payments. However, implementation gets extremely complicated. To make a carbon credit trading system work, you’d have to establish a baseline of carbon in the soil and then demonstrate how much additional carbon you were able to capture to earn the credits. Measuring the soil carbon isn’t easy. Conventional techniques included sterilizing the soil in a kiln before measuring which had the drawback of burning off some of the carbon. Luckily, some regenerative minded soil scientists came up with a better technique. You’d still have take many samples because the soil carbon levels can vary widely in different points within one plot. It becomes a bit of bureaucratic nightmare then to set up an exhaustive carbon monitoring regime that would probably be required before cold hard cash is handed out in the form of carbon credits to these diligent farmers. And, ironically, the soil regenerating pioneers like Gabe Brown might not benefit as much from a carbon credit system since they’ve already significantly boosted the carbon in their soil and their starting carbon baselines will be much higher.

Stormwater management

Climate change also threatens cities with intensified droughts and floods. High carbon soil is much more resilient. It’s able to lock moisture away longer in times of drought; cover crops dampen the scorching sun and prevent the soil from being blown away. During times of flood, high carbon soil can absorb more runoff and is much less likely to be washed away. The resiliency and absorbency of the soil can be a huge and bankable asset for cities. Sewer systems are a huge expense. Philadelphia received accolades for its green storm water management plan that saved the city the expense of adding storm sewer capacity by greening the riverfront to reduce demand. Other cities are following Philadelphia’s lead and restorative land management could amplify those efforts by capturing more carbon and make the soil even more absorbent and healthy.

Philadelphia's vision is to become America's greenest city which might look something like this rendering. Every city I've lived in has had that vision, Minneapolis and Seattle included. Seattle also claimed to be the greenest city now. Photo by Philadelphia Water Department.

Philadelphia’s vision is to become America’s greenest city which might look something like this rendering. The green roofs, freeway caps and solar panels are a nice touch. Every city I’ve lived in has had that vision, Minneapolis and Seattle included. Seattle also claims to be the greenest city now. Better get to work to keep up with the Jones and Philadelphias. Photo by Philadelphia Water Department.

The virtuous cycle green management techniques foster isn’t well documented, but Philadelphia has found many perks: “The widespread implementation of green stormwater infrastructure also promises what city officials like to tout as a ‘triple win’ for Philadelphia: a cleaner environment; cost-effective stormwater solutions that provide jobs for local people; and a social fabric reinforced by better neighborhood parks and public spaces. Another benefit is that unlike pipes known only by engineers, many elements of green infrastructure can be seen and tended by the entire community.” This is also what restorative agriculture looks like in an urban setting.

Using healthy bio-diverse soil to retain stormwater not only helps the sewer system, it should also help replenish aquifers that are being depleted in many highly paved urban and suburban environments dotted with the thirsty green lawns integral to the suburban experience. In my home state of Minnesota, many cities are dealing with aquifer depletion. A prominent lake in the northwest metro of the Twin Cities, White Bear Lake, has dropped 6 feet as the area has drank greedily from Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer that feeds the last. Some lakes have lost ten feet in a decade. Obviously those cities are not on a sustainable course for water use, and their story is all too common. Cities like Wichita, Kansas on the heavily depleted Ogallala aquifer are approaching chronic water shortages as their wells dry up.

The City of Philadelphia prepared this illustration to explain their plan for green stormwater infrastructure. City do cockblock aquifers big time it would seem.

The City of Philadelphia prepared this illustration to explain their plan for green stormwater infrastructure. Cities, with all their paved surface, cockblock aquifers big time it would seem.

Healthy carbon rich soil at least allows an ecosystem to make the most of the precipitation that it gets, and more water will find its way trickling down to an aquifer rather than flushed into a storm drain and washed down the nearest river carrying a lot of soil nutrients with it. It doesn’t do away with the need for more sustainable water use, but it does given the aquifer a better chance of keeping up with modern civilization’s voracious appetite for fossil water.

Let Your Lawn Grow Wild

Cities are not all concrete and glass, and some, like Seattle, are quite green and teeming with life actually. Take a walk around a Seattle neighborhood and you will find some epic gardens where a boring plot of grass might normally reside. Some even have “Rain Wise” lawn signs showing the homeowners were aware of the ecological benefits of their garden. There are many reasons why people turn their yards into vibrant gardens. Some are interested in pollinator pathways in times of bee colony collapse. Bird-watchers hope to attract an interesting breed into their midst. Others just prefer the aesthetic appeal of a garden to a blob of green. Shy residents like the privacy a row of towering shrubs, plants and trees provide. Add to that list doing your own small part to sequester carbon because organic gardening makes the most of these small urban plots and puts more carbon in the soil. This isn’t to totally vilify lawns. Even a closely cropped lawn can have a vast root structure that can support the soil organisms beneath. However, generally the greater the diversity above the ground, the great the diversity in the soil.

Wallingford sidewalks overflow with shrubbery and flowers.

Wallingford sidewalks overflow with shrubbery and flowers.

Apartments are getting into the act, too, as more and more add green roofs and gardens on their roofs and balconies. The amount of carbon these green roofs can capture is likely limited by their dept. Typically they don’t seem to be more than a foot or two deep. At ground level, roots can penetrate much deeper and bring dense network of soil organisms down with them. We could build deeper green roofs to magnify their carbon capturing capabilities, not to mention their insulating quality and ability to support large plants or trees. Even shallow green roofs help cities combat climate change. At the very least they replace a highly heat absorbent material such as concrete with something green and less absorbent, decreasing the urban heat island effect.

Eat Shit: The Soil Organism Story

One of the most shocking and counter-intuitive revelations of Ohlson’s book was that the best way to manage grasslands from a soil health perspective is to periodically graze a small plot with a veritable stampede of cattle tenderizing the ground with their hooves and depositing a deluge of shit to wake up the soil microorganisms and set them to work on the all you can eat cowshit buffet. Conventionally cattle on the range are given a large pasture to nibble at on their leisure. This allows cows to target their favorite particular grass species which they gobble down to the roots. Confined on a smaller plot and competing with the whole herd, a cow will be less picky and is less likely to greedily eat its favorite plant to the root. The herd is moved on to the next small plot and the trampled, manure-laden and urine-soaked field they left will spring back to life, with juggernaut of microorganism activity unleashed in the soil and a great diversity of life throughout.

Cities are limited in how much regenerative grazing its citizens will tolerate in their midst. Obviously, some people don’t like having any livestock in their neighborhood, let alone a large herd depositing a layer cake of shit which is ideal from soil health perspective. Still cities contain spaces where sustainable grazing might be possible. Freeways are often lined with with buffers of grass in the median and along the ditches. These spaces are neglected save for a guy who comes by in a tractor a few times a year to mow and the occasional errant motorist. Perhaps, these grasses could be managed to boost soil carbon and a herd of livestock could come through periodically in place of the lawnmower.

It seems the logical extension of the “Rent a Ruminant” goat herd for hire business that gained notoriety when it joined Amazon Service (meaning there’s an app for renting goats now.) Mostly these goats clear unwanted blackberry bushes, apparently, but unintentionally they may have given soil organisms a boost with the manure they left behind, especially compared to the pounding the soil would take in the alternative of clearing the bushes with heavy machinery or herbicide. Maybe these goat herds could also be conscripted as part of a plan to boost soil carbon in city parkland. The goat might be a better match for urban land management that their bulkier bovine cousins but either way it’s better than using heavy equipment and chemicals.

Apparently, the goats are one step ahead of me, tending the grass along this stretch of I-5 in Seattle. Photo by Jean Sherrard.

Apparently, the goats from Rent-a-Ruminant are one step ahead of me, tending the grass along this stretch of I-5 in Seattle. Photo by Jean Sherrard.

Also note that since the best method for grassland management seems to involve intensive livestock grazing, a sliver of an opening exists for carnivores seeking to justify their appetites ecologically. Industrial livestock raising is still pretty indefensible, but livestock certified as sustainably raised via regenerative ranching could have a place in future diets and provide a generous source of income for the responsible ranchers that treat their livestock and soil well. It would be difficult to convert every human to vegetarianism but making sure we are raising animals using sustainable methods that give back to the soil would be a huge step forward. It’s a glimmer of hope, albeit possibly a mirage in the larger moral framework, to assuage the guilt of this omnivore.

Compost Haste

Ohlson was critical of the compost that large-scale composting programs produce saying that much of it decays anaerobically means nastier stuff such as fungus does what microorganisms would do in healthier compost, and worse the potent greenhouse gas methane can be a byproduct. Compost’s bigger benefit, she argues, is that it introduces microorganisms into the soil more than just a simple combination of decayed food scraps and lawn clippings of dubious nutrient content. A good compost pile needs to be tended carefully, layered with green and brown organic materials and rotated, which isn’t necessarily easy to do on a huge scale. I expect Seattle’s compost program doesn’t produce the world’s best compost but it’s better than the organic waste ending up incinerated (which would release carbon dioxide) or in a landfill (which would release methane).

I believe this is the pile where Seattle's compost ends up. Photo by Elaine Thompson.

I believe this is the pile where Seattle’s compost ends up. Photo by Elaine Thompson.

As regenerative agriculture takes off, perhaps local practitioners can advise the city with what kind of compost would be most beneficial for their soil and we can find way to adjust the city’s program so the rest is less like lifeless sludge. Part of problem is that in a apartment building like ours compost sits in a bin in the garage for nearly a week before it’s picked up and shuttled to Cedar Grove Composting where they struggle to make a usable compost material from the refuse it in their industrial compost heap where I expect they struggle to find the right balance to get that thing cooking.

Composting is mandatory in Seattle and scofflaws can be shamed with stickers on their bins and fined. It’s probably a necessary step as the EPA estimate Americans compost only 3% of their food waste. Compost done well could be both food and catalyst for the soil organisms we are trying to grow under our feet to eat the carbon byproduct of our filthy fossil fuel habit.

Overcoming Big Ag Orthodoxy

The problem with switching to restorative agriculture is that the model of industrial farming is extremely entrenched and supported by enormous influence both in DC and at the universities where agricultural research is conducted. Big Ag literally hold the purse strings in many agriculture programs and research has to toe the company line to get funded. Ohlson’s final chapter does an excellent job of documenting Big Ag lobbying power in DC and their infiltration of the universities that should be conducting unbiased research rather than acting as the government subsidized R&D arms of corporations.

Thanks to Big Ag’s lobbying muscle, the Farm Bill is tilted heavily toward industrial farming and trying to even the playing field for small scale regenerative farmers and ranchers should be priority in lieu of a program that actively promotes regenerative techniques and perhaps rewards farmers for boosting the carbon in their soil.

Despite Big Ag hegemony the demand for organic food is high, but not all organic food is created equally. Some organic food still relies heavily on industrial techniques on plowed land. Most organic farmers don’t actively try to raise their soil carbon, but perhaps we can find a way to certify those who do and see if consumers would prefer this doubly organic sustainable food. In this way, urban consumers can influence farming practices in their rural surroundings and perhaps even draw more small-scale agriculture near the city center.

Conclusion

This got to be a long rambling piece, but I think there is a lot cities can do to combat global warming on a variety levels. Regenerative agriculture is a new frontier in carbon sequestration and sustainable land management. Urbanites don’t haven’t to leave in exodus for the agricultural hinterland to apply these principles to improve the health of the soil around them and in the process pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Homeowners can turn their yards into gardens rich with life above and below the surface by just being a bit more conscientious and diligent gardeners. Apartment dwellers can rent a garden plot on their roof and nurture it into a thriving mini ecosystem or grow some plants on a balcony or window seal.

From a fossil fuel standpoint, urban living is less carbon intensive than the suburban lifestyle thanks to shorter commutes, higher transit use and lower heating costs per resident. From a soil carbon standpoint, urbanites can also take the lead by providing a market for organic food grown using regenerative methods, composting well, maximizing the soil health in their yards, gardens and green roofs, and demanding their governments manage public lands sustainably with eye toward capturing soil carbon.

2016 Twins: Building a Playoff Ready Roster

The Minnesota Twins ran a good race in 2015, but they just shit their pants on the last leg of the marathon, getting swept by the division leading Royals. They finished 83-79, their first winning season since 2009 and things are looking up for next year given the wealth of young talent.

The Twins infield is surprisingly consistent and seemingly locked in for next year thanks to the emergence of Eduardo Escobar at shortstop and solid years from Mauer, Dozier and Plouffe (admittedly each did take a bit of a step back from stronger 2014 campaigns).

Joe Mauer: Can He Bounce Back?

Joe Mauer had an off-year for his standards hitting .265, but still managed to lead every other player not named Sano in on-base percentage (OBP). Mauer’s OBP was at a healthy .404 as recently as 2013 but declined to .360 in 2014 and now reached .338 in 2014. Hopefully Mauer can reverse that statistical decline and boost his OBP. He still managed a 1.5 WAR in 2015, as per ESPN. Now on the bright side, when Mauer did produce it tended to be in big situations. His OPS is .922 with runners in scoring position (RISP), .986 with 2 outs and RISP, and .821 in “high leverage” spots as defined by Baseball Reference. Mauer’s .718 OPS ranks near the bottom for MLB first basemen: of the 35 with at least 300 plate appearances, he is 31st in OPS. Lest you forgot, Mauer will get paid $23 million per year through 2018.

Brian Dozier: A warrior with a slipping WAR

Brian Dozier had an all-star first half and a mediocre second half. He ended up hitting just .236/.307/.444. Those aren’t lead off numbers despite being the Twins’ leadoff man more times than not. The seriousness of his second half slump was masked by his leading the team with 28 home runs. Dozier defense also slid from the high standard he set in the last two years. The end result was that ESPN pegged his WAR at 2.4 down from an impressive 5.2 mark in 2014. Dozier is planning to get an MRI on his hip after the season, possibly signaling he’s wasn’t 100% healthy during his second half slide. Dozier is signed through 2018 in a favorable back-loaded deal with $18 million remaining.

Eduardo Escobar: Shortstop of the Future

Eduardo Escobar had a breakout year on top of what should have already been a breakout year in 2014. Escobar numbers are on par with Dozier’s and Plouffe’s, even though he got much less respect and routinely batted ninth in the order. While playing solid defense at short, Escobar batted .261/.307/.446 and showed a marked improvement in pitch selection, suggesting the best is still ahead. Escobar boosted his WAR from 1.1 in 2014 to 1.8 in 2015 even though he played in fewer games (while the Twins stubbornly rode out the struggles of Danny Santana). The Twins paid Escobar just $532,500 in 2015 and have him under arbitration control through 2018.

Trevor Plouffe: Good glove, solid bat

Plouffe hit .243/.307/.434 in 2015, which was a slight drop off from his 2014 production although his home run total was up to 22. Plouffe had a 2.5 WAR in 2015 compared to a 3.9 WAR in 2014. Plouffe led the club in RBI’s for the second year in a row with 86 but also led the MLB in grounding into double plays with 28. Plouffe made $4.8 million in base salary in 2015 and will be under arbitration control for the next two years.

Trevor Plouffe has been a positive at third base, but, with Miguel Sano knocking on the door, his job is somewhat in jeopardy. There is some speculation that the Twins will trade Plouffe, but I think a little infield depth is a good thing. The biggest reason he will play a lot of third base next year is that while Plouffe has turned himself into an above average third basemen with a .6 dWAR, Sano has been suspect defensivly, earning -0.7 dWAR in just 9 games, according to ESPN. Hopefully Plouffe can thrive next year in a possible timeshare situation with Sano.

Miguel Sano: The offense’s new beating heart

Miguel Sano’s line at the end of 2015 was .269/.385/.530 with 18 home runs in 279 at bats. The Twins haven’t seen those kind of numbers since Josh Willingham’s flukishly good 2012 season and before that a pre-concussed Justin Morneau. Sano strikes out a lot. He will set team records in strikeouts, but he will also likely be the first Twin since Killebrew to surpass 40 home runs in a season all while getting on base in the .400 range thanks to his ability to draw walks. Sano is exactly who you want batting third in your line up.

Aaron Hicks: Breakoutfielder

Aaron Hicks scuffled to start the year but really hit his stride in June and despite dealing with injuries and slumps to close the year posted a solid .256/.323/.398 line with a 1.4 WAR in 352 at bats. He plays good defense and has some speed on the base paths.

Eddie Rosario: The Cannon

Eddie Rosario has another surprise success for the Twins. Rosario is second in the league in outfield assists with 16 while displaying great range. He hit for power with a .748 OPS including 18 doubles, 15 triples and 13 homers. His OBP is a problem at a paltry .289 caused largely by a dismal 15 walks in almost 500 plate appearances. Still ESPN pegs his WAR at 2.3 on the strength of his defense and his power numbers at the plate. Thanks to his cannon arm strength, Rosario projects as a right fielder and could play the position for a long time as long as he hits well enough.

Byron Buxton: The Sparkplug

Byron Buxton really struggled in his first weeks as a major league but showed signs of strength at the plate to close the year, hitting two home runs. His average ended up being just .209 but Buxton seemed to be trending in the right direction. Plus, Buxton has such elite speed that he’d have value even as a pinch runner and defensive replacement in center field. You don’t give up on the #1 prospect in America so easily.

Max Kepler: Outfield Depth

Max Kepler had a spectacular year for the Chattanooga Lookouts, earning the MVP honors in the Southern League (Double A). His OPS was .930 and he hit three home runs in the championship series. He’s ready to make the jump the majors where he projects to be an above average defensive outfielder with speed, power and ability to hit for average and draw walks. Kepler bats left and absolutely crushes right handed pitching (.968 OPS ) and hasn’t been too shabby versus lefties either (.868 OPS) although the quality of left handers will go way up in the Majors. He could work in a platoon situation with Hicks who fares much better against left handed pitching (.870 OPS vs .661 vs Right). Or Kepler could platoon with Buxton, who is a righty who has struggled mightily versus lefties so far. Until Buxton figures that out, Hicks could relieve him time to time in CF versus left handed starters with Kepler filling in for Hicks in LF.  Meanwhile, Rosario is a lefty but has hit lefties better than righties so far (.811 vs. .727 OPS). However you play them, this is the most exciting Twins outfield since the “Soul Patrol” days of Torii in his prime, Jacque Jones and Shannon Stewart.

Torii Hunter: The Lingering Old Fart

Time for Torii to take off that Twins uniform for the last time and retire. Photo by Jim Mone.

Time for Torii to take off that Twins uniform for the last time and retire. Photo by Jim Mone.

Torii Hunter leveraged a strong blast from the past May into starting honors for the whole season despite a wealth of alternatives and a terrible two month long batting slump and woeful defense in right field. Hunter’s OBP was an anemic .293, although 22 home runs did blind some to his profound mediocrity. Even sadder, there is still a decent chance the Twins will bring Torii back year to clog up the outfield. The rumor is the Twins could ask for a pay cut from his ridiculous 10.5 million salary in 2015 and a role reduction. Even if Torii agrees to the role reduction, Molitor seems to play Torii frequently. More pressing, what will happen to the dance party situation if Hunter leaves?!?!?

Kurt Suzuki: The Offensive Catcher Who Cannot Hit

Suzuki took a big step back offensively in 2015 (.610 OPS) and was dead last in Caught Stealing Percentage with a pathetic 15% of basestealers caught. Suzuki is considered a poor pitch framer too so it’s not clear from where his defensive value comes. He’s signed for $6 million next year.

Shoring Up Catcher via Free Agency: Matt Wieters?

If Suzuki was bad, backup Chris Hermann was dreadful with a historically bad .486 OPS. Hence the need for improvements via free agency. The biggest name going into free agency is Orioles catcher Matt Wieters (.741 OPS). The Twins would have to pay to get him although probably not as much as they paid Hunter this year. Securing Wieters, they could treat Suzuki as the back up and play both regularly to keep them both fresh over the grind of the season. Even a less heralded catcher such as Alex Avila would be an improvement. Avila has struggled with concussions and bad knees but still manages to play strong defense and draw a ton of walks to boost his OBP.

Kennys Vargas: Power Potential

Kennys Vargas was a big disappointment in 2015 managing a pathetic .626 OPS mostly as a DH. Still, Vargas has shown power both in the minors and in his solid 2014 season when he hit 9 home runs with a .772 OPS in 215 ABs. Vargas needs to control the strike zone better and draw walks. His 5% rate in the majors will not cut it. The problem is that the only position the lumbering 290-pounder can play, albeit poorly, is first base and he’s blocked by Mauer there and by Sano at DH. Sano can play third base, though not nearly as effectively as Plouffe, so it would be possible to have Vargas in the line up as long as Plouffe or Mauer sits and Sano gets to play their respective position. Vargas would have to be hitting pretty well for that to be a good option, but it’s too early to give up on Kennys.

Kyle Gibson: Another Solid Season

Kyle Gibson had the highest WAR in the pitching staff at 3.2 largely due to his inning eating ways. He earned a 3.84 ERA in 194.2 innings with a team leading 145 strikeouts. It’s telling that Gibson’s 17 quality starts led the club far and away. By the way, a quality start is when a pitcher goes at least 6 innings while allowing 3 earned runs or less. The bar isn’t that high. Gibson won’t be a free agent until 2020 although arbitration could get pretty expensive for the Twins before then.

Tyler Duffey: Finally A Strikeout Pitcher

Tyler Duffey emerged as a strong starter for the Twins down the stretch earning a 3.10 ERA in 10 starts, 7 of which were quality. He needs to be in the rotation next year. He managed 8.33 Ks per 9 and has a track record of limiting home runs in the minors.

Phil Hughes: I’ve Made a Hughes Mistake

Phil Hughes had an Icarus-like fall from Cy Young contender in 2014 to mediocrity in 2015. He earned a 4.40 ERA in 155.1 innings serving up 29 home runs and managing only 94 strikeouts. Eleven of his 25 starts were quality starts. Hughes did battle some nagging injuries but it would appear his 2014 ace-like performance was an aberration. Hughes is signed through 2019 (thanks to the 42-million-dollar 3-year extension Terry Ryan gave him in December riding the high of his impressive 2014 season.) A Hughes mistake indeed. He’ll end up a decent, if overpaid, back of the rotation starter.

Ervin Santana: Juiced Up and Good to Go

Ervin Santana missed 80 games for performance enhancing drugs and looked a little rusty when he came back with his ERA ballooning above 6 in July. However, he started pitching like the mid rotation guy the Twins paid him ($55 million over 4 years) to be and ultimately dropped his ERA to 4.00.  Eleven of his 17 starts were quality starts.

Jose Berrios: The Ace in the Hole

Perhaps the greatest source of second guessing for Twins fans/armchair GM’s (i.e. me) came from Terry Ryan’s decision to leave 21-year-old phenom Jose Berrios in the minor leagues this year despite absolutely lighting it up with dynamite stuff. Berrios had a 2.62 ERA in Triple A with 83 strikeouts in 75.2 innings. Berrios has dominated at every level, earning a 2.98 in 4 years in the minors with 464 strikeouts in 440 innings. He should be the ace next year so that none of innings are wasted in the minors and we don’t repeat this innings count nightmare.

Mike Pelfrey: Jettison the Dead Weight

Mike Pelfrey gave the Twins a gift in 2014 pitching shockingly well for the first two months of the season. The Twins made the mistake of thinking that gift would keep on giving. Pelfrey instead pitched like garbage down the stretch providing one of the big sources of drag that kept the good luck Twins from flying into the playoffs. Pelfrey’s 4.26 ERA masks how terrible he was. Managing just 12 quality starts in 30 opportunities does a better job of painting that picture as does his 6-11 record.

Ricky Nolasco: Team Goat

Ricky Nolasco had bone spurs in his ankle which caused him to miss almost the whole season. He posted a 6.75 ERA in 8 starts, only one of which was a quality start. Note that Nolasco is touchy about how hitters celebrate the home runs he serves up, which causes problems because he serves up lots of homers (a club-leading 22 in 2014). Tragically, Nolasco is signed through 2017 and is making 12 million per year. Consider that a sunk cost and never let Nolasco touch the rubber again as a starter.

Trevor May: Rescue Ranger

Trevor May didn’t have a great ERA as a starter (low 4.00’s), but his raw numbers looked much better. Before the Duffey call up he was the only starter averaging anywhere close to a strikeout an inning. Seven of his 16 starts were officially quality. May stepped up a reliever posting 7 holds and settling into a high leverage role, often appearing in the 7th or 8th inning in close games. That means he might have pitched himself into a reliever role. However, if an opening presents itself, May should get another shot as a starter.

Glen Perkins and his Achilles Neck

Glen Perkins converted 29 of 29 save opportunities pre-All Star with a 1.21 ERA earning a trip to the All Star Game in which he later revealed he tweaked his neck in warm ups and pitched like garbage for the rest of the season as he battled nagging neck and back ailments. His post-All Star ERA was 7.32 with 7 home runs and 3 blown saves in 19.2 innings. Perkins’ injury and second half decline might have cost them their postseason bid, but his spectacular first half was a major reason they were even in the running. Perkins is signed through 2017 with a club option for 2018 at a salary of $6.5 million.

Kevin Jepsen: New Closer?

I was disappointed with reliever Kevin Jepsen was the only guy the Twins picked up at the trade deadline, but he turned out to be a great find. He stepped into the closer role when Perkins went down with injury and converted 10 of 11 save opportunities, posting a 1.61 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 28 innings. Given Perkins tendency to wear down over the course of a season, I believe the Twins should re-sign Jepsen as their closer and use Perkins sparingly earlier in the season to have him strong for a 2016 playoff run.

Other Bullpen Arms

Jepsen as closer and May as set-up man with Perkins used sparingly as late inning guy is a good start to a bullpen but the Twins have definitely suffered from a lack of bullpen depth. We need four trustworthy guys in the other spots. Casey Fien has been solid with a 3.55 ERA in 63.1 innings and 18 holds. Blaine Boyer gave them a good half before struggling late in the season, ending up with a 2.49 ERA, 19 holds and a 3-6 record. Ryan Pressly is solid when healthy; he had a 2.93 ERA in 27 innings before going down with a lat injury. Michael Tonkin looks like he’s ready after posting a 3.47 ERA in 23.1 innings despite getting bounced around by the Twins and set down several times. Those four guys seem to fit the bill, but the problem is that the Twins would be light in left handed relievers with Perkins being the only one (and he’s tougher on righties than lefties).

Finding a Lefty Specialist

Going with a bullpen with only Perkins as a lefty reliever is an option, but having another lefty would be preferable. Brian Duensing historically has filled that role, but seems to be showing his age with a 4.25 ERA in 2015 and actually allows better numbers to lefties versus right-handed hitters. You do not want your lefty specialist to allow .413 OBP to lefties but such was the Brian Duensing story. Neal Cotts is another options. Cotts was mediocre after the Twins made a waiver deal for him, posting a 3.95 ERA in 13 innings. However, Cotts did get lefties out allowing a .573 OPS to them in 2015, although he allowed a healthy .867 OPS to righties. Cotts is 35 but his ERA is a solid 2.84 over the past 3 years.

The Twins foolishly let another lefty option in Caleb Thielbar go to the Padres via waiver this year after they optioned him to make room on the 40 man roster for Kevin Jepsen. They gave up on him after just 6 outings despite a good season in 2014 and a fantastic season in 2013 (1.76 ERA and .83 WHIP in 46 innings). Five of 6 Thielbar outings were scoreless. In the other appearance on April 20th against the Royals, he was charged for three runs, but the team did him no favors when Dozier lost a towering pop-up in shallow center and centerfielder Jordan Schafer wasn’t there to back him up to allow the first run. Molitor really didn’t do Thielbar a favor by later bringing in tumbleweed journeyman Tim Stauffer (possessing a 9.64 ERA at the time) with two men on base to serve up a triple (both runs charged to Thielbar). So I’m really belaboring the point, but Thielbar was a good reliever and he should have been given Brian Duensing’s job on a silver platter. Instead we paid Duensing 2.7 million dollars to suck.

Terry Ryan needs to stop his over-reliance on mediocre journeymen to fill out the bullpen and give our young arms a real chance. And he definitely shouldn’t let talent on the level of Thielbar get pilfered by other teams while his roster is clogged with veteran dumpster diving finds. Surely, there were other guys in Minnesota’s bloated retread bullpen to option.

The Lineup

Here’s the lineup I’d go with I were the GM. Granted, Buxton will have to hit well enough to bat leadoff and Escobar will need to keep improving to earn the 5 spot but I wanted to prove a point that Plouffe, Dozier, and Hunter earned their choice lineup spots largely due to inertia rather than consistently producing in 2015. Note that even when Mauer was off his career mark, his OBP was still too high relative to everybody else’s to not put early in the order. Aaron Hicks is still a bit of a wildcard, showing the potential to be a high OBP guy, possibly even a leadoff hitter, but also suffering slumps that made him look like a back end guy. If Rosario ever stops swinging at everything he has the power to be a mid order guy as long as it’s paired with a solid OBP.

  1. Byron Buxton CF
  2. Joe Mauer 1B
  3. Miguel Sano DH
  4. Brian Dozier 2B
  5. Eduardo Escobar SS
  6. Trevor Plouffe 3B
  7. Aaron Hicks LF
  8. Matt Wieters C
  9. Eddie Rosario RF

Bench

  • Max Kepler OF
  • Kurt Suzuki C
  • Eduardo Nunez IF (or Danny Santana)
  • Kennys Vargas 1B

The Rotation

  1. Jose Berrios
  2. Tyler Duffey
  3. Kyle Gibson
  4. Ervin Santana
  5. Phil Hughes

The Bullpen

  1. Glen Perkins
  2. Trevor May, set up man
  3. Kevin Jepsen, closer
  4. Casey Fien
  5. Michael Tonkin
  6. Ryan Pressly
  7. Neal Cotts, lefty specialist

Dirty Little Nuclear Secrets: The Hanford Site

I’ve been learning more and more about my new home state of Washington, but something I just discovered the state doesn’t advertise much. That is: Washington was a nuclear weapons powerhouse. Washington has produced more plutonium than any other state at the Hanford Site in south central Washington. Hanford provided the nuclear payload for Fat Boy, the atomic bomb that leveled Nagasaki at the end of WWII and bathed the area in radioactive waste for generations. The United States produced more than 60,000 nuclear weapons during the cold war, the majority fueled with Hanford plutonium and uranium.

It feels an awful lot like karma that the Hanford Site, contaminator of Japan, is the most contaminated nuclear site in America and has spewed radiation by wind and water at varying levels of toxicity for seven decades. It doesn’t compare with the destruction of actually dropping nuclear bomb, but it’s nasty stuff nonetheless. The Columbia River was fairly radioactive at certain points in history and the problem could get worse if efforts to divert contaminated groundwater fail.

The Hanford Site in central Washington historically has been the single largest producer of weapons grade plutonium.

The Hanford Site in central Washington historically has been the single largest producer of plutonium.

The Hanford Site is adjacent to the Columbia River just north of the Tri-Cities, a metropolitan area of a quarter million consisting of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco at the confluence of the Columbia, Snake and Yakima rivers. The nuclear sector, largely via waste cleanup work now, continues to be a huge part of the economy in the Tri-Cities even though the site reportedly stopped producing plutonium in 1987. Cleaning up or at least “remediating” nuclear waste takes a very long time.

Now I’m going to quote from Wikipedia because I ain’t above that: “The Hanford site is one of the largest cleanup projects in the United States, costing over $1.4 million per day[12] to turn over 53 million US gallons (200 Ml) of nuclear waste into glass through a process called vitrification.[13] The process is proving to be one of the most dangerous in the world,[14] but is essential to staving off nuclear contamination of the nearby Columbia River.[15] Original estimates were $2.8 billion over five years to clean up the waste,[16] though estimates quickly grew in the early 1990s to $50 billion with a completion date of 30 years.[17] Costs are now projected at $112 billion with an estimated completion date of 2065.[18] Over 18 percent of all jobs in the Benton Franklin County area are nuclear-related, research-related, or engineering.[19]”

Seattle’s art scene is, for better or worse, dominated by Dale Chihuly and his blown glass sculpture installations. His museum sits at the base of the Space Needle sort of adorning it with elaborate glass lawn ornaments. Hanford could get some glass art of its own because, fittingly enough, scientists hope to contain Hanford’s sea of nuclear wastewater by forging it into glass tubes—a hideous, diabolical glass Medusa buried in a desert catacomb, the stuff of Salvador Dali fever dreams. Vitrification is apparently the best hope to keep the Columbia River from turning into a toxic radioactive stew.

Imagine the possibilities for a collaboration between Chihuly and Bechtel. The vitrified nuclear waste could be blown into whimsical shapes (maybe giant radiation resistant cockroaches?) and stored in an underground museum at Hanford where tourists and art enthusiasts could see a new frontier in installation art. Don't forget a hazmat suit and a Geiger counter.

Imagine the possibilities for a collaboration between Chihuly and cleanup contractor Bechtel! The dark vitrified nuclear waste glass could be blown into whimsical shapes (maybe giant radiation resistant cockroaches?) and stored in an underground museum at Hanford where tourists and art enthusiasts could see a new frontier in installation art. Don’t forget a hazmat suit and a Geiger counter. [Photo by Joshua Trujillo.]

How does glass contain the wastewater you ask? Well, Scientific American reports, “The glass is created by mixing sand with a few additives like boron; the waste is stirred in, and the whole mess is melted, then decanted into the steel canisters. After the glass logs solidify the waste is trapped and should be isolated from the environment for long enough for most of the radioactivity to decay to safe levels.” San Francisco based construction and engineering firm Bechtel has won the bid to perform this dark decanting sorcery and quickly set about bungling it and blowing past cost estimates by a factor of about 30 like any self respecting mega-contractor with a juicy government contract would do.

The Hanford Site gives tours of their facilities—apparently 60 per year—so strictly speaking they aren’t hiding their past. But Hanford isn’t a part of most schools’ social studies curriculum. Few learn about the nuclear industrial complex and the huge amount of radioactive waste associated with it. Generally, US history focuses on the scientific genius of the Manhattan Project in harnessing the atom and the need to drop nukes on Japan to break the will of the fanatical Japanese and save lives overall, thus rationalizing our unleashing the nuclear era and assuaging our guilt.

The costs both in money and in environmental degradation are decidedly less emphasized. But that is the reality people threatened by contamination from Hanford live with everyday. The astronomical cost of building the world’s largest nuclear arsenal (by far) is now paired with the huge cost of cleaning up the mess left behind. So I guess this turned into a diatribe against nuclear proliferation. So be it.

The United States still maintains a nuclear arsenal of 5.113 warheads (enough to destroy the world and to sink the world into nuclear winter many, many times over.)  So, next time a politician tells you the deterrent force of the US military isn’t enough and we need to boost our nuclear arsenal, tell them to shove it.