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GM Levine Says Twins Can Play Better

May 19, 2019 - (0) comments

 

The Minnesota Twins finished last season with a disappointing record of 78-84 after playing in the postseason in 2017. During the past offseason, front office decision makers Derek Falvey and Thad Levine reshaped the club’s roster, and shook up the managerial and coaching leadership.

The performance so far of the hometown team has been stunning.

The Twins have key personnel who were on the roster last season, but three quarters of the usual infield lineup and multiple pitchers, particularly in the bullpen, are newcomers. Collectively, along with manager Rocco Baldelli and his staff, they have made the Twins’ performance one of the success stories in big league baseball this spring. As of this morning the Twins had compiled the second best record in MLB at 30-15 and a .667 winning percentage, just behind the 31-15 Astros.

Minnesota is 5.5 games ahead of second place Cleveland in the Central Division. The Twins have been in first place since April 21. In March-April their record was 17-10 versus 9-15 in 2018. So far in May the Twins are 13-5 (compared with 13-15 for that entire month a year ago), and the club is on a five-game winning streak including an 18-4 win over the Mariners last night in Seattle when Minnesota led 10-0 after three innings behind five home runs.

Consistency? The team is 15-8 at home and 15-7 on the road. The Twins have a winning record against opponents from the AL Central, East and West divisions.

Before the season started there were plenty of predictors who thought the Twins were a division contender, with the most optimistic hinting Minnesota might play something like 18 games over .500 and finish with a 90-72 record. However, that was an extreme outlook, and now the team is already 15 games over .500 with slightly more than 25 percent of the schedule having been played.

No one should crown the Twins the best club in the majors yet, but this does look like a coming out party where Minnesota just might be among baseball’s royalty by season’s end. Everyone likes what they have seen including Levine, the club’s impressive and intellectual general manager. He admits to the team exceeding expectations.

“I think when you look at the record we have, it’s hard not to say that this is a little bit further along than what we expected,” Levine told Sports Headliners Wednesday. “But when you look at the performance of the team, I think there is another level this team can reach. So in saying that, I don’t think this is necessarily that far exceeding expectations.

“I think (before the season) we thought very highly of this group of individuals and certainly what they could do collectively. I think the best baseball this team has is ahead of them, not behind them. … I think the future is very bright for the Minnesota Twins.”

Levine clearly likes the potential of his team, but dreams can get derailed by injuries and last week the Twins put two of their more productive offensive players on the 10-day disabled list. Catcher Mitch Garver is off to the best start of his MLB career with nine home runs but now is on the DL. DH Nelson Cruz, who joined the Twins last offseason, went on the DL having hit more home runs than anyone in the big leagues since 2014. His bat and leadership have helped fuel a long ball trend that seems likely to result in a franchise season record of more than 225 home runs this season.

Miguel Sano (photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins).

The Twins are also counting on their stingy pitching—four starters have won four games or more and five core relievers have ERA’s at 2.00 or less— and depth of positional players to keep them winning. Miguel Sano, as recently as two years ago viewed as the slugging centerpiece of the team, just rejoined the Twins after missing the first 40 games. Sano can play third base, first base and DH. He is part of a versatile and mostly under age 30 roster that includes players who can man multiple infield and outfield positions. They have performed well at bat and also with team defense. The club’s fielding percentage is among the better ones in baseball at .985.

Worth Noting

Twins home attendance will be surging between Memorial Day and Labor Day, with club president Dave St. Peter telling Sports Headliners: “…I think you’re going to see huge crowds here at the ballpark night after night.”

It looks like Vikings first round draft choice Garrett Bradbury will take over as the team’s starting center. Pat Elflein will move to guard. “He (Elflein) is a much better guard than center,” former Viking Pete Bercich told the CORES lunch group earlier this month.

Bercich, a radio gameday analyst for the Vikings, also said veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph is “not a very good blocker.” Rudolph could see his starting position go to rookie Irv Smith Jr. if he is traded or cut from the roster because of salary cap challenges.

Bercich played at Notre Dame for legendary (and flamboyant) coach Lou Holtz. Bercich said Holtz needed a strawberry shake at halftime of Notre Dame games “so he could get his sugar.”

Word is when Holtz coached the Golden Gophers he also ordered milkshakes during games.

CORES emcee and well-known public address announcer Dick Jonckowski ordered the printing of another 500 copies of his 2018 book It’s All About Me, Dick Jonckowski: A Minnesota Treasure.

Former Gophers football coach Jerry Kill, now athletic director at Southern Illinois, has landed the largest corporate naming rights agreement in school history. The 10-year deal will offer up to $10 million in the renaming of SIU Arena to the Banterra Center (Banterra Bank).

The Golden Gophers softball team can win the Minneapolis Regional today and continue to impress in the NCAA Tournament. So far this weekend Amber Fiser has pitched 15 innings, allowing five hits and one earned run, while striking out 20 and walking three batters.

WCCO Radio Sports Huddle co-host Dave Mona, along with his wife Linda Mona, are promoting their 10th and final Camden’s Concert. Popular country western singer and song writer Suzy Bogguss will entertain. Tickets are on sale now for the July 16th event at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. More at Hopkinsartscenter.com. Money raised from the concert helps research to find a cure for Cystic Fibrosis.

The annual Karl-Anthony Towns ProCamp will be July 18 and 19 at Providence Academy in Plymouth. The camp is open to boys and girls of all skill levels in grades 1-12. Participants will learn fundamentals and interact with the Minnesota Timberwolves star center, according to a team news release.

Former Gophers golfer and New York Times best selling author Harvey Mackay quotes this Arabic proverb in his syndicated newspaper column last week: “Write the wrongs that are done to you in sand, but write the good things that happen to you on a piece of marble. Let go of all emotions such as resentment and retaliation, which diminish you, and hold onto the emotions, such as gratitude and joy, which increase you.”

 

Twins’ Sano Seems a Trade Prospect

May 16, 2019 - (0) comments

 

Enigmatic Miguel Sano is back in a Twins uniform after missing the first 41 games of the season with a right heel laceration, and it’s worth speculating whether he will finish the year with the organization.

Before being recalled yesterday, Sano had played in 10 games on his rehab assignment. The goal had been 20 games but an injury to catcher Mitch Garver forced an early recall of Sano, who with Single-A Ft. Myers, Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Rochester, hit .316. He had two home runs and nine RBI.

The Twins lead the AL Central Division with one of the best records in baseball, 27-15. In the first quarter of the season the club has excelled in various ways including hitting home runs, a Sano specialty. Minnesota is on pace to break the club record for homers in a season, 225.

Sano has teased both the fans and the front office with his power and potential since signing with the team for a reported $3.15 million bonus as a 16-year-old in 2009 while living in his native Dominican Republic. However, in four seasons with the Twins the 6-foot-4, 270-pound third baseman has struggled with his weight, injuries and consistency. In 2017 he made the AL All-Star team and hit a career high 28 home runs, despite only playing in 114 games.

The Twins have thrived this spring without Sano, who fell back in his production last year hitting just .199 with 13 home runs in 71 games. When multi-positional newcomer Marwin Gonzalez plays at third he gives the Twins a better fielder than Sano, and since May 2 he is hitting .372.

It’s conceivable that because of new found success without him, Sano might not become a full time starter and centerpiece with the Twins like in the past. He seems likely—at least initially—to be in and out of the lineup while playing third base, first base and filling in at Designated Hitter.

During an interview yesterday, Twins GM Thad Levine wouldn’t single out Sano as someone the club is targeting for high expectations this season. Rather, he said it’s a “big season” for a core of younger players who have been around for awhile, including Jose Berrios, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Garver and Sano. “I think we feel like his (Sano’s) future bears a lot of promise,” Levine said.

Sano’s achievements and perceived potential should have value on the trade market if the Twins want to part with him. “I think it’s our responsibility to at least listen, but right now we’re not in a position where we’re looking to trade Miguel Sano,” Levine said.

Levine didn’t label any players in the organization as untouchable regarding trades, but he said there are individuals the Twins “would never make a call to another team” about, and bring up their names. He didn’t say who the players are, and whether Sano is included in the group.

Sano is 26 and in the last year of his contract. The Twins could look at Sano as having too much potential to cast away, or they might have seen enough during his spotty career to take the gamble of sending him to another organization either for immediate help or prospects.

In addition to Gonzalez, the Twins can play Ehire Adrianza and Willians Astudillo at third base. With Polanco playing at an All-Star level at shortstop, the Twins might be looking to eventually move top minor league prospect Royce Lewis from short to third base. It seems Minnesota has quality options at third base if the club chooses to move on from Sano.

Levine is impressed with the total performance of the team so far— offense, defense, starting pitching and relief pitching. “There is no glaring need as we see it but I think we’re going to continue to monitor the markets and evaluate the team,” he said.

Falvey & Levine

Levine sees it as his responsibility and that of chief baseball officer Derek Falvey to both recognize the “window” the Twins have this season to be a contender for a division title, while also continuing to strategize the building of the club for the future. Player acquisitions in coming weeks could fit into either of those goals.

Despite the club’s impressive start, Levine recognizes there are a lot of games ahead on the 162-game schedule. “…You kind of use April and May to assess your team, and then the remaining months to make the adjustments you feel necessary to improve it,” he said. “I would say we’re still very much in the assessment stage of the season.”

Worth Noting

The 2019 Twins’ roster is probably the most versatile in franchise history with so many players able to perform at multiple positions. Monday night against the Angels the Twins made use of all three catchers on the roster, with Jason Castro catching, Astudillo playing third base and Garver filling the DH role.

Yesterday the Twins drew a surprisingly large crowd for a home spring game in May. The 31,919 announced attendance for the day time game is indicative of growing interest in the team. Twins president Dave St. Peter said that there is a lot of ticket buying interest including for the June 15 date when Joe Mauer’s jersey number will be retired.  The Twins will play the Royals June 15, likely in front of a sellout crowd at Target Field.

ESPN college basketball authority Fran Fraschilla has followed Alihan Demir, the 6-9 forward and grad transfer from Drexel who is the latest member of coach Richard Pitino’s Golden Gophers 2019  recruiting class.

“I expect him to be a solid role player up front,” Fraschilla told Sports Headliners this week. “Not a star, but just a good role player for them. Someone that gives them power inside. He shoots the three but that’s not really his game. He’s more of a banger, plays with toughness. Very good passer.”

Demir, a native of Turkey who averaged 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds while making third team All-Colonial Athletic Association last season, joins a newcomers group that also includes 2019-2020 freshmen Sam Freeman (Dallas, Texas), Isaiah Ihnen (Boeblingen, Germany) and Tre’ Williams (Dallas, Texas).

Minnesota’s freshmen class is ranked No. 37 in the nation by 247sports.com.

Jeff Goodman, writing for Watchstadium.com last fall, interviewed coaches and then wrote an article ranking the best to the most difficult men’s basketball coaching jobs in the Big Ten. Criteria included tradition, national TV coverage, game atmosphere, facilities, budget, and geographical recruiting base.

Minnesota ranked No. 10—and surprisingly behind No. 9 Nebraska. Ahead of the Gophers and Huskers were (in order of No.1 thru No. 8), Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Maryland, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin.

The Gophers softball team, a No. 7 team in the NCAA Tournament and host of the Minneapolis Regional, will play North Dakota State Friday night with the 8:30 p.m. home game seen on ESPN 2. Senior Maddie Houlian realized last weekend there is a lot of interest in her team.

“I’ve already been getting calls, ‘Can we get tickets, can we get tickets,’ ” Houlihan said in a Gophers news release last Sunday. “It’s going to be a blast. I think this state is going to get behind Gopher softball.”

Bill Robertson

Congratulations to Bill Robertson, men’s WCHA commissioner and former Minnesota Wild executive, who was among the inductees into the Mancini’s St. Paul Sports Hall of Fame Monday night. The Robertsons are the only family to have three members in the St. Paul shrine, with Bill’s brother Mike and dad Norb having previously been honored.

Sad to report that former Timberwolves executive Rob Babcock passed away yesterday from pancreatic cancer.

 

U with Coffey Return Could be Top 20

May 14, 2019 - (0) comments

 

ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla believes next season could be very rewarding for Amir Coffey and the Golden Gophers if the junior guard-forward returns for his senior season.

In a telephone conversation Sunday night Fraschilla, who follows the Gophers closely, talked about Coffey’s interest in skipping his senior season to turn professional and also what a return to Minnesota might mean for the team. “I think if Amir comes back they definitely have a chance to be a top 20, top 25 (team in national rankings),” the former college coach said. “He would be a leading candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year. So right off the bat that says a lot.”

Fraschilla has confidence in several of Coffey’s teammates including the sophomore class of Marcus Carr, Gabe Kalscheur, Jarvis Omersa and Daniel Oturu. “I think they’re going to be very competitive even if Amir doesn’t come back,” Fraschilla said. “I think they’ll be competitive in the Big Ten and could be an upper tier team, first division team.”

Coffey, 6-foot-8 and about 205 pounds, was a third-team All-Big Ten selection last season and was at his best in March, often making key plays in important games. The Gophers’ leading scorer, he was among the league’s most versatile players both offensively and defensively. He played point guard and wing for Minnesota while averaging 16.6 points and starting every game.

Coffey has been playing in the May 12-14 NBA G League Elite Camp, a three-day tryout for NBA Draft hopefuls in Chicago. However, he didn’t receive an invitation to the NBA Draft Combine (also in Chicago) that begins today and runs through May 19. He has until May 29 to withdraw his name for the June 20 NBA Draft and still retain eligibility to play for Minnesota next season.

Asked about Coffey’s decision to explore his professional options, Fraschilla said, “I believe he is doing the right thing.” But Fraschilla acknowledged it’s a “red flag for sure” that the former Hopkins star didn’t receive an invitation to the NBA Draft Combine.

The Draft Combine invited 66 players based on input from the league’s 32 teams. Coffey not being on the list is a strong indication he won’t be a first round draft choice in June. First rounders receive guaranteed big money. Coffey could more likely be chosen in the second round (payouts and guarantees iffier), or sign with an NBA team as a free agent if he keeps his name draft eligible. There is the possibility, too, that he might play next fall in the NBA’s development league (the NBA G League), or overseas.

“I think he’s got a very good chance to get drafted because he’s a big guard and has shown improvement,” Fraschilla said. “He can handle the ball. He’s very versatile. Even if he doesn’t get drafted, he’s going to have a chance to play professional basketball somewhere next year, if that’s the decision he makes.

“He’s definitely a G League level player, which puts him a step away from the NBA. If he comes back to college, then I think he has a chance to not only make his mark in the Big Ten but I believe he has a chance to be on an All-American team if he continues the upward trajectory he showed at the end of the season.”

Amir Coffey photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications

Could Coffey improve enough next season with the Gophers to move into certain first round status? Fraschilla speculated there could be a 50-50 chance, adding that the former prep Minnesota Mr. Basketball might be somewhere between a top 20 to 40 prospect next year.

Fraschilla looks at Coffey and sees a player who needs to become a consistent “knock-down shooter,” and improve his physical strength and quickness. “There is no one area where he can’t continue to improve,” Fraschilla said.

Is it best that Coffey opt to stay in the draft process now, or return to Minnesota? That’s a decision that will have input from Coffey’s dad, Richard, who is a former Gopher and NBA player. Fraschilla’s advice is for the two Coffeys to listen carefully to NBA representatives.

“NBA teams will shoot Amir straight about his strengths and weaknesses, and his opportunity not only to get drafted, but to make a team,” Fraschilla said. “So they have to take information, factor it into the decision and then decide which route is best.”

Fraschilla said there are 450 players filling out NBA rosters but only a handful are stars. “Everybody else fills a role,” he added. “At lest initially, if Amir were to make a team it would be as a role player. That (also) might be what he is if he stays in the league a long time.

“Character is important (to be a role player). Versatility (too), and talent is obviously important. And then someone that is willing to work at his weaknesses and get better. Those are all key components that teams are looking for.”

Those are attributes that belong on Coffey’s resume. “I think there’s a good chance that at some point in his career, he can make an NBA team even if it doesn’t happen this coming year,” Fraschilla said.

With all this speculation about Coffey’s future, it’s certain Gophers fans are hoping with fingers crossed that he still belongs to Dinkytown on cold winter nights next season.

 

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