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Off-Season Questions for Twins to Answer

October 08, 2019 - (0) comments

 

The Twins earned their first division championship since 2010 this year and hit an MLB record 307 home runs. They also won 101 games, one short of the club record for a single season, but the Twins were dominated in the postseason by the New York Yankees.

What’s next for the local MLB organization? Here are 10 pressing questions the club faces in the coming offseason.

1. Does Derek Falvey remain the club’s front office leader? Speculation continues the Boston Red Sox have interest in the Twins 36-year-old chief baseball officer who grew up in the Boston area. Losing the “boy genius” to another organization would be a setback as the Twins try to address offseason needs.

2. Is the ownership and front office zealous enough to elevate this franchise to a place among baseball’s elite? Success doesn’t always follow money but the Twins had a modest payroll in 2019 and certainly could expand it in the offseason because of their ongoing personnel needs. First-year manager Rocco Baldelli and his staff look like an asset in helping the franchise acquire free agents. Baldelli, 38, is a calm, steady leader who has surrounded himself with knowledgeable instructors, and they have created a welcoming culture for players.

3. Can the Twins find two or three new quality starters? It’s been obvious all season the team needs a better starting staff. The need wasn’t addressed during the season and has to be at the top of the off-season to-do list. Falvey, or his successor, will have to shop outside the organization for pitching help.

4. Will the Twins find a staff ace? It seems like the franchise has been searching forever trying to find a “bell cow.” Fans want to anoint Jose Berrios but he only flirts with success so far. The absence of a No. 1 pitcher is a huge handicap in the playoffs (see Berrios’ failed effort last Friday in the opener against the Yankees), and during the regular season when losing streaks need to be stopped or a must win is needed.

5. Who are the free agents the Twins want to retain? DH Nelson Cruz will be 40 next July but management has a club option on his contract for next season and will almost certainly want him back after he hit 41 home runs and became a dominant leader during his first season in Minneapolis. After Cruz, the Twins will need to sort through a number of players on their last year of contracts including quality starter Jake Odorizzi.

6. Next year will the Twins be anywhere near the home run producers they were in 2019? The core of expected returning players will offer power again but it’s not likely the Twins can hit 307 home runs in 2020. Maybe not even close because the prediction here is the MLB commissioner’s office wants to manufacture baseballs for next season that are more pitcher-friendly than the “rockets” flying all over the country this summer.

7. Is there any reason the 2020 Twins won’t have a roster again featuring personnel who can play many positions? The 2019 team had more players capable of playing various spots than any Twins club dating back to the franchise’s start in Minnesota in 1961. That’s a huge plus because it allows the organization to carry a max number of pitchers and allows Baldelli to move players around when injuries occur. It’s a long list of versatile Twins including Marwin Gonzalez, Ehire Adrianza, Luis Arraez, Jorge Polanco, Willians Astudillo, Mitch Garver, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario.

8. Can the Twins have a season without losing a key contributor to suspensions for violating MLB drug policy? Michael Pineda might have been pitching better than any of the Twins starters when he was suspended in September for the rest of the season. With Pineda available the Twins could have started him instead of former Uber driver Randy Dobnak in last Saturday’s blowout loss to the Yankees. In 2018 the Twins began the season without Polanco who was suspended for 80 games. That was a significant loss for a team that earned its way into the playoffs the prior season.

9. Can Byron Buxton have a healthy season in 2020? His acrobatics in center field are worth not only the price of a ticket but at least a couple of wins per season to the Twins. But Buxton’s resume has numerous entries detailing his injuries and missed games, with the latest setback a left shoulder subluxation that placed him on the 60-day injured list in September, making him unavailable for important late season games and the post season.

10. Will Miguel Sano keep his weight under 300 pounds and avoid off-field incidents? Sano, 26, has the potential to be the long-term captain of the Bomba Squad, and perhaps become the franchise’s greatest home run hitter after Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew. But Sano’s weight and conditioning rightfully worry Twins fans. He is advised to avoid carbs, get his entertainment at daytime yoga sessions, and perhaps avoid the party life.

Worth Noting

Tracy Claeys

Tracy Claeys acts on his convictions. He resigned a few days ago from his defensive coordinator’s position at Washington State, saying in a Tweet last Friday there was disagreement about “solutions” to the Cougars defensive woes. In his last days as Golden Gophers head coach in 2016 he backed his players instead of the University of Minnesota administration who had suspended some of them.

Cougars head coach Mike Leach hired Claeys in 2018. He told the Spokesman Review in an online story Saturday that “…I thought last season was as good a job by any defensive coordinator (as) I’ve ever had.”

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said on his KFAN Radio show today that his top three running backs, Shannon Brooks, Mohamed Ibrahim and Rodney Smith, are expected to be available for Saturday’s game against Nebraska.  Offensive tackle Daniel Faalele, who had to leave last Saturday’s game with Illinois, is also expected to be available.

Fleck said on WCCO Radio Sunday that freshman linebacker Donald Willis likely won’t play beyond the four games he has already participated in to protect his redshirt freshman status. Game action is ahead, though, for freshman linebacker James Gordon, Fleck said.

The Vikings defeated the Eagles, 23-21, last season in Philadelphia, and the rematch is Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Last Sunday against the New York Jets the Eagles became the first team in NFL history to record 10 sacks and score two defensive touchdowns in a single game (winning 31-6).

Several Vikings players, including Everson Griffen and Marcus Sherels, will visit The Richard M. Schulze Family American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Tuesday evening. Players will serve a meal to and spend time with residents and caregivers.

Another indication of volleyball’s success and popularity at Minnesota is tickets are sold now on Stubhub.com. As of yesterday, tickets started at $39 for home matches later this fall with Big Ten powers Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Bill Guerin, the Wild’s new general manager, has Minnesota connections including team executive Mike Modano who he played with on American teams competing internationally. Guerin’s first pro coach was the late Herb Brooks, first with the Utica Devils and then the New Jersey Devils in the early 1990s.

 

Watching Cousins: Here’s What Hurts

October 06, 2019 - 1 Comment

 

I have known a countless number of athletes through the years, mostly as a sportswriter. I have been in this business long enough to remember when we wrote stories on typewriters and sometimes transmitted them back to the newspaper office by telephone. Seldom do I meet a “hero” who makes a lasting impression with his or her persona.

This isn’t breaking news but there are a lot of dubious characters in professional sports. Many of them I wouldn’t choose to have as neighbors. A small number I don’t want in my county.

But Kirk Cousins is welcome to bunk at our house. Any time.

Cousins is paid $84 million to play quarterback for the Vikings. In 20 career games with the team it’s debatable whether he has been worth half that amount of money. As a result of his play and that of the team, he has been criticized and cursed. He’s been berated at office water coolers and via social media.

The Vikings, who were 13-3 without Cousins in 2017, finished 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs with him quarterbacking last season. With two touchdown passes, one interception and a subpar passer rating of 88.6 this year, the call to replace him as the team’s starter will be deafening if the 2-2 Vikings lose to the 2-2 Giants today in New Jersey.

During Cousins’ brief time in Minneapolis I have winced when he has been too slow in his progressions, or threw foolish passes. Yes, he compiled some great stats last season like completing a franchise record 425 passes. His 70.1% completion rate was the second highest in the league and second best in Vikings history. He was the first NFL quarterback to have over 4,000 passing yards, 30 touchdown passes and at least a 70.0% completion rate and 10 or fewer interceptions.

Give credit where deserved, but so far Cousins hasn’t been a winning quarterback in Minneapolis, nor with his former employer, the Washington Redskins where he was 4-19 against teams with winning records. Quarterbacks can compile all kinds of statistics but the one that matters most is winning games. Football is a team effort and many factors go into whether a team triumphs or not besides the quarterback’s performance, but no position is more important.

I have been around Cousins in the Vikings’ locker room. I heard him speak last month to the Twin Cities Dunkers group. I have listened to his speeches on Youtube and read about the charitable foundation he and his wife Julie started to benefit many worthwhile causes.

Conclusion? The man with one of pro football’s richest contracts has the kind of values and behavior that are priceless. The 31-year-old son of a preacher and a flight attendant is wise beyond his years. He is a Sunday and everyday hero even if the box score sometimes tells a different story.

Kirk Cousins

And that’s what is difficult, even painful, about following Cousins these days. His character exemplifies the best in us and I want him to succeed. Yet his performance on the field, and that of the Vikings, could fail badly, if not today against the mediocre Giants, then soon.

Truth is Cousins’ football skills aren’t good enough to carry a team like a Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. Also, the offensive line is suspect, and now the locker room must contend with disgruntled wide receiver Stefon Diggs who chose to skip practice last week.

Head coach Mike Zimmer said Diggs has been punished and is noncommittal about whether the star wide receiver with a $72 million contract will play against the Giants. The guess is Diggs isn’t happy about not being targeted for more passes in the offense.

Maybe Diggs should look up the speech Cousins gave at the 2011 Big Ten Conference football luncheon in Chicago. Going into his senior season at Michigan State, Cousins was asked to speak on behalf of all the players in the conference.

He told the audience being on a team was a privilege and players have a responsibility to do their best for teammates, coaches, family and fans. “Privilege should never lead to (a sense of) entitlement,” the three-time Michigan State captain said.

Don’t get the idea, though, that Cousins is preachy, or would scold Diggs. He might put his arm around his teammate and say, “Glad to have you back. Let’s get a win today.”

Cousins isn’t a judgmental guy in public. He’s more likely to apologize to a teammate or a janitor at the team’s practice facility than to criticize them. “He’s just an awesome dude. Just the way he treats people, everybody in the building…he treats with total respect,” said Sean Mannion, who is the team’s backup quarterback.

Mannion was asked last week how he thinks Cousins is handling a rough stretch that includes criticism of the starting quarterack’s work in NFC North Division losses to the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Mannion answered that Cousins remains dedicated to doing his best, preparing in every way he can to help the team. “The way he goes about his business, and his approach day in and day out is phenomenal,” Mannion said.

Focus might not be possible if Cousins listened to his critics including on social media. “Well, I am pretty naïve to it,” Cousins. “You know ignorance is bliss. The only time I am aware of it is when I have friends or family text me. The text they send me, you’d think somebody died. ‘Hey, man, I am thinking of you.’

“You know it’s like, boy, it must not be good out there. …But I honestly don’t see it, and so I think that helps…and you can just put your head down and go to work.”

At times this season critics claim Cousins has looked rattled on the field. Star running back Dalvin Cook doesn’t see a lack of confidence in Cousins.

“I want to get better with him,” Cook said. “I want to win football games with him. That’s my quarterback.”

Zimmer addressed the confidence question, too. “I don’t see that. I just think he needs to go play, just play the game. That’s usually what I tell him, just go play the game. Don’t worry about consequences, do what you do.”

Maybe that’s hard for Cousins—to just go play the game. He thinks about things, contemplates them. He cares deeply about who he is on and off the field. He is tuned into life and what others are experiencing. He wants to over deliver, not under deliver. With all his fame as a rich NFL quarterback, he could choose to flaunt his vanity but instead he has acted on his core values and convictions.

Earlier this year Michigan State honored Cousins with an honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities. He also gave the spring commencement address at his alma mater. In that speech he talked about how others helped him including a coach who stressed the importance of being a “great decision maker.”

Football hasn’t always come easy to Cousins who helped MSU to the 2010 Big Ten co-championship. He had only two Division I scholarship offers until MSU offered him the chance to play in the Big Ten. He made the right decision in choosing the Spartans even if at times his confidence sagged while in college.

Cousins published a book in 2013, Game Changer: Faith, Football & Finding Your Way. He frequently speaks at churches delivering inspirational messages. He is a supporter of Urban Homeworks, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing in urban areas. He and wife Julie founded the Julie and Kirk Cousins Foundation “to expand our giving opportunities and to inspire generosity in others,” according to their website.

On the website Cousin writes: “Julie and I are committed to giving 15 percent of our gross income on an annual basis and are challenged to continue increasing our giving percentage in subsequent years.” The foundation targets support for multiple causes including famine relief, justice, human rights, community development and “Bible translation.”

At the MSU commencement address the introduction of Cousins referenced what the Chicago area native might do with his life besides football. There was a reference to his considering medicine, and coaching in the past. Then a couple weeks ago I was talking to a sports industry friend about Cousins and a possible post-football career. He suggested Cousins could be the first ever commissioner of college football, a position that has been in the talking stages for awhile.

Me? I say, Kirk, go into politics. Lord knows this country needs leadership reflective of the millions of Americans who live their lives in exemplary ways.

 

Don’t Expect Vikings to Change ID

October 03, 2019 - (0) comments

 

A Thursday notes column, focusing on the Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota Wild:

The 2-2 Vikings produced just 40 rushing yards last Sunday in their 16-6 loss to the Chicago Bears. But it will be a surprise if Minnesota doesn’t emphasize running the football against the 2-2 New York Giants this coming Sunday at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer wants a physical, rushing offense and that was his message long before the season started. While the offensive line and quarterback Kirk Cousins have been inconsistent, no one doubts the skills of running back Dalvin Cook who ranks second in the NFL in rushing yards at 410.

“I think the way Dalvin is running the ball, I think it’s just kind of building things off of that…and just finding different ways to get people involved,” backup quarterback Sean Mannion told Sports Headliners when talking about what’s next for the offense.

Even when the offense is slowed like it was against the Bears (perhaps the NFL’s best defense) the Vikings are advised to still focus on their playmakers starting with Cook who makes both short and long gains with only minimal running space available. Wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs can also make the proverbial “something out of nothing” plays.

Looking toward next Sunday and beyond, Cook said “it’s important to get the running game going early” to open passing routes so wide receivers can make plays. He also expressed confidence in Cousins who has struggled in both of the team‘s losses, games that came against NFC North Division rivals the Bears and Packers—the two best teams Minnesota has played so far.

The Giants will offer a mediocre defense to test the Vikings playmakers. The unit ranks No. 25 in the 32-team NFL, giving up 389.2 yards per game. Former Viking Matt Birk predicted on KFAN Radio yesterday his old team will win by more than three touchdowns.

The Vikings’ defense has impressed after four games. Minnesota has allowed only one rushing touchdown and has made 24 tackles for loss (tied with Carolina and Pittsburgh for most in the league). The Vikings are giving up 321.8 yards per game, sixth best in the league.

The Giants have names familiar to Minnesota sports fans on the coaching staff. Head coach Pat Shurmur, now in his second season with the Giants, was the Viking offensive coordinator in 2017 when he was named NFL Assistant Coach of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association.

Giants offensive coordinator Mike Shula was head coach at Alabama when the Golden Gophers defeated the Crimson Tide in the 2004 Music City Bowl.

John Gilbert, among the preeminent hockey writers in the country, is upbeat about the Wild’s likelihood of returning to the playoffs. “I think they got a great chance to really have a good season,” he told Sports Headliners.

For 30 years Gilbert covered pro and college hockey for Minneapolis daily newspapers, and he now lives in Duluth working as a freelance writer. He believes it’s no mystery why the Wild, who open the regular season tonight in Nashville against the Predators, didn’t make the playoffs last spring. He said injuries causing the absences of defenseman Matt Dumba and center Mikko Koivu put an end to six consecutive playoff runs by the Wild.

Gilbert regards Dumba as perhaps the top defenseman in the NHL. He considers Koivu to be among the league’s best centers when judged by all around play including coverage of the other team’s leading defenseman. “And he is a great leader,” Gilbert added.

Gilbert is confident that with Dumba and Koivu, Minnesota would have been in the 2019 postseason. “They (the Wild) lose those two guys, and they barely miss the playoffs,” he said.

Two key players can make that much difference, according to Gilbert. “So you look at every team that made the Stanley Cup playoffs last year, and you take away their best two-way centerman and you take away their best offensive defenseman, they don’t make it.”

The Wild didn’t do much to change the roster in the offseason but the club did sign free agent wing Mats Zuccarello who had 40 points playing for Dallas and the New York Rangers last season. Gilbert likes Zuccarello’s skills, believes goalie Devan Dubnyk “can stop anybody, at any time,” and refers to Bruce Boudreau as a “great coach.” With Boudreau’s coaching and a roster that includes the return of Dumba and Koivu, Gilbert has this forecast: “They’re going to be really strong this season.”

Of course, the prediction comes without a guarantee. “No league has the parity that the NHL has,” Gilbert said. “You can finish 16th, and scratch your way in, and win the Stanley Cup if your goalie gets hot and your guys are playing well.”

Gilbert just finished authoring a book, Miracle in Lake Placid, that celebrates the 40th anniversary next year of the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s stunning march to the Gold Medal in 1980. Gilbert covered the team back then and had access to players and coach Herb Brooks that others didn’t.

Gilbert saved his notes from covering the American team almost 40 years ago. “I could recreate the West Germany game (for example) like it happened this afternoon,” he said.

Quoting new Wild general manager Bill Guerin’s message to the team: “I am not here to win friends. I am here to win games.”

Anthony LaPanta, the TV play-by-play voice of the Wild, is also an assistant football coach for the 4-1 Totino-Grace football team.

Gophers coach Richard Pitino, with seven new players, acknowledged he probably would have a different team if Amir Coffey hadn’t passed up his senior season of eligibility to turn pro. “But you can’t hold these guys back from doing what’s great for them and what they have dreamed of their whole lives,” he said at Big Ten Media Day yesterday in Rosemont, Illinois where expectations were high for teams like Michigan State and Ohio State, but low for Minnesota and Nebraska where Fred Hoiberg will coach his first Cornhuskers team.

Hoiberg, the former Minnesota Timberwolves player and front office executive, won’t lack for fan support in Lincoln. Despite minimal success predicted for his first team, all home games are sold out.

Union Hill champs

Forty years ago Mike Prochaska, Joe Hoffman, Kevin Keohen, and Dale Lapic were members of the Montgomery, Minnesota team that won the 1979 Babe Ruth state championship. The four are now part of the Union Hill Greyhounds team that last weekend won the amateur baseball Class 6A state championship for players over 50 years old with an 11-10 win over the Alexandria Redbirds. Hoffman scored the winning run for his team whose roster includes Dave “Greek” Wagner, a member of the Minnesota State Amateur Men’s Baseball Hall of Fame.

 

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