Now that championship trophies have been handed out in two more sports, let’s take a ride through the MN sports landscape to see if there is any evidence that our 22-year trophy drought may soon come to an end.
Twins: Somehow the Twins continue to hang around .500 and are only 7 games out of first. Although the chances of catching the division-leading Tigers are beyond slight, the Twins still have a chance to at least be in the race and play meaningful baseball come September. And now that MLB has added another Wild Card spot, a solid 2nd half could have the Twins flirting with a playoff berth. I wouldn’t bet big money on it, but stranger things have happened.
The starting pitching, the huge Achilles heel of this team, has been better as of late. Kevin Correia is starting to get more strikeouts and is going deeper into games, Sam Deduno has also been eating innings as he has shown improved control, and until his last start P.J. Walters was also throwing well. The arrival of top prospect Kyle Gibson may be just what this rotation needs to find some consistency, and if Scott Diamond or Mike Pelfrey can extract their head from their buttocks, the Twins may just have enough to be in the playoff race. The bullpen has been rock solid as usual, but they can be worn down if the starters don’t begin to go deeper into games on a consistent basis.
The Twins have been hitting the ball well enough to stay in games, but they have plenty of room for improvement. Joe Mauer’s sweet swing has been its usual self, as good ol’ Joe is batting .330 with an encouraging 8 homers, a power “surge” that may see him approach 20 for the season and get him into MVP talks. (Provided Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis get hit by buses.) Justin Morneau’s lack of power has been appalling, but he continues to hang around .300 and is driving in runs at a respectable pace. Josh Willingham continues to trend upward after his awful start to the season, and if he and Morneau hit for power as they are supposed to, the offense will win a few more games for the team.
The above mentioned veterans along with Ryan Doumit and Trevor Plouffe give the Twins some pop, but the player that could really put this offense in the upper echelon is Oswaldo Arcia. This 22 year-old outfielder slugs the ball well for a youngster and now that he is back with the big club after a short AAA stint, he should stick in the majors from here on out. He is a significant part of the team’s future, thus I want to see him get as many big league at bats as possible. If the Twins are willing to show Aaron Hicks almost unlimited patience, Arcia absolutely deserves the same chance to work through his struggles. When guys like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton arrive, having a game-tested and experienced Arcia raking the ball will only help the incoming youngsters blossom themselves.
I am interested to see if the Twins are buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. Given my low level of belief in a playoff run this season, I say you move Willingham and Morneau for prospects and/or picks and make Parmelee and Arcia everyday players. If Morneau is willing to take a colossal pay cut on a new deal to stay with the team, then it would make sense to keep him around, but the price the Twins would be willing to pay for a first baseman with so little power is scant, perhaps too scant to retain the big Canadian.
Vikings: The big news from Purpleville is the signing of former Packer LB Desmond Bishop to a one year contract. Before his serious hamstring injury, Bishop was an impact player for the hated Green and Gold, albeit in a 3-4 defense and not the 4-3 the Vikes play. Not that scheme should matter all that much, for if the guy can play, he can play. I certainly prefer a healthy Bishop at MLB than a mediocre Erin Henderson. Even if Bishop doesn’t win the job, at least he provides some competition to push Henderson and the LB corps as a whole. Before the draft, the Vikes’ depth at LB was shallower than a soup bowl, but with the two Penn State rookies and Bishop in the mix, a respectable unit may just emerge.
OTAs are completed, and the news from Winter Park was mixed. Of course coaches and players all talked glowingly of Christian Ponder, but beat writers and other observers not employed by the Vikes had differing opinions as to CP’s effectiveness. Yes, OTAs are not a reliable showcase for deciding a player’s future, but one would hope that Ponder, by this point in his career, would look like a Tom Brady-Johnny Unitas hybrid when playing in such a low pressure practice environment. I am willing to wait until the regular season arrives before making any concrete judgements on CP, but I am thanking the lord that GM Rick Spielman had the sense to bring in Matt Cassel, for if Ponder should revert to his crappy ways, an experienced and hungry Plan B QB is ready to take over.
Whoever ends up piloting the offense this season, they will have some talent to throw to. Despite Greg Jennings’ history with the much hated, much despised, easy to loathe Packers, I am happy to see him wearing purple and teaching young guys like the uber-talented Cordarrelle Patterson how to be a pro. Jennings, Patterson, Jarious Wright, and Jerome Simpson collectively are a solid group, and toss in Kyle Rudolph and AP, and the Vikes’ QB this season will have plenty of talent to make his job easier. The offensive line is also very good and improving, so there are no excuses this season. If Ponder can’t do it, hand it to Cassel. If Cassel can’t do it, it’s time to trade up and get a top QB in the draft.
Timberwolves: As fun as it was to root against the obnoxious Miami Heat, the NBA season held little excitement for me as the Wolves were once again decimated by injuries and settled into their usual place as a non-factor. But there is reason for optimism heading into next season. A healthy Kevin Love will obviously boost this team into playoff territory, and with Ricky Rubio, and Nikola Pekovic (if he re-signs) as the other anchors, the T-Pups should finally break their decade long playoff drought.
New team president Flip Saunders has some decisions to make. First is the draft. At pick 9, the odds of getting an impact player are slim, but for once in the history of this cursed franchise would it be too much to ask for them to find a diamond in the rough? And what to do with Derrick Williams? Coach Rick Adelman (who is expected to return) doesn’t appear to think to highly of the former #2 overall pick, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Flip move Williams, although getting much in return is unlikely given the inconsistency he has shown thus far.
Players like Alexy Shved, Dante Cunningham, Andre Kirilenko, and Chase Budinger (should the latter two re-sign) are reliable role players who can complement the three cornerstone players. If Flip can add another piece or two through the draft, trades, or free agency, the Wolves will be a lot of fun to watch next season—provided they don’t turn into a M.A.S.H unit again.
P.S. Flip, please get rid of J.J. Barea, I can’t take anymore of his maddening streakiness.
Wild: The good news for the Wild concerning the division realignment for next season is that they gain more geographically-appropriate rivals in their division such as Chicago and St. Louis; the bad news is that they gain top teams such as Chicago and St. Louis. Gone are the days of beating up on crappy Edmonton and Calgary, although horrid Colorado remains and weak Winnipeg joins.
Despite this schedule upgrade, I remain highly optimistic heading into next season. The Wild recently locked up Nicklas Backstrom for 3 more years at a very reasonable price, giving them a reliable #1 who can play the bulk of the games as their goalie prospects evolve into NHL-caliber tendys. Josh Harding’s MS battle makes him a shaky option, but he perform well in the playoffs so he may just be another solid netminder to hold the fort until a Darcy Kuemper or Johan Gustafsson emerges as a franchise guy.
Jason Pominville should be healthy, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, and Jonas Brodin will no longer be wide-eyed rookies, and Matt Dumba should make the team coming out of camp and show why he was a top draft choice, bolstering the defensive corps. I consider all of these to be upgrades over last season, and if the Wild can bring back Matt Cullen, ditch Tom Gilbert, and find the right mix of guys to keep and/or trade amongst Dany Heatley, Jared Spurgeon, Cal Clutterbuck, and Kyle Brodziak, they will be an improved team next season.
GM Chuck Fletcher has some big decisions to make, and while he hasn’t shown much ability when it comes to making trades (Leddy trade was horrible, Pominville trade highly questionable), he has drafted well and has used the owner’s deep wallet effectively to bring in good free agents.
Summary: The Twins, while only eliciting a “meh” from me, at least should provide some sporting interest as summer moves along, and perhaps some thrills if they get hot. I am really excited for this Vikings season, for even though they did overachieve last season, they appear to have improved the roster and signed a QB lifeboat should the S.S. Ponder sink back into incompetence. The Timberwolves, if healthy, will absolutely be better and fun to watch now that Rubio will have more talent to pass to. And finally the Wild are giving plenty of reasons to be fired up for the season ahead. Maturing young stars gelling with established veterans will have this team right in the mix with hopes of a longer playoff run. I plan to enjoy summer as much as I can, but the arrival of autumn will depress me much less this year, as MN sports teams are poised to be factors in almost every league.