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Twins Could Delay Alex Kirilloff Debut

February 24, 2021 - (0) comments

 

No everyday position in the Minnesota Twins starting lineup will receive more scrutiny during spring training than left field. Eddie Rosario was plugged in there for several Opening Day starts but the Twins cut him from the roster last winter, leaving a void in left field that 23-year-old Alex Kirilloff might fill during most of the 2021 season.

Kirilloff is one of baseball’s top prospects but it could be the Twins will start the regular season in early April using utility man Luis Arraez in left field. Kirilloff, even if he dazzles in spring training, might be assigned to the Triple A St. Paul Saints roster but later called up to the Twins.

Why wouldn’t Kirilloff begin 2021 in the majors? A factor could be MLB’s service time policy that determines when players eventually become eligible for free agency. If a player accumulates 172 days on a big league roster (either in one year or multiple seasons), he earns a year of service time. After six seasons a player is eligible for free agency. By delaying “the clock” on a prospect like Kirilloff, perhaps adding him to the roster in May, the Twins gain a future financial advantage.

In three previous minor league seasons the left-handed hitter had 1,103 at bats with a .317 batting average, 36 home runs and 177 RBI. Minnesota’s first round draft choice in 2016, Kirilloff makes solid contact with the baseball, hitting to all fields with line drives and also demonstrating power.

Kirilloff has the athleticism, including a strong arm, to play left or right field for the Twins. He also has experience at first base, making him a versatile player already. If anything, the excitement about Kirilloff becoming a big contributor to the Twins has been slowed by past injuries but he has the profile of a top 30 MLB prospect.

Kirilloff is already the answer to an intriguing trivia question. Who is the only MLB player to get a base hit while making his big league debut in a playoff game? Kirilloff, starting in right field, singled in four at bats for the Twins in their final playoff game last September.

Worth Noting

The Twins announced this morning all 14 of their home spring training games at Hammond Stadium sold out within 30 minutes.

Fox Sports North will televise the Twins’ first spring training game starting at 12:05 p.m. March 3 (against the Boston Red Sox).

MLB.com offered its first power rankings of spring training Monday. The Twins are No. 7, one spot behind their newly hyped division rival, the Chicago White Sox. The top five teams are the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets.

The Detroit Tigers may have three former Twins in their regular lineup, with left fielder Robbie Grossman, catcher Wilson Ramos and second baseman Jonathan Schoop.

Former Twin and free agent starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi remains unsigned. He turns 31 next month and could help a club as a No. 3 or 4 starter, but with the Twins’ starting rotation apparently set it doesn’t look like his future will be in Minnesota.

Happy early birthday wishes to Twins TV announcer Dick Bremer who will be 65 next Monday.

It looks like status quo for head coach P.J. Fleck’s Gophers football staff who had expiring contracts January 31. New one year deals are in place including for Rob Wenger who leads special teams that struggled in 2020.

Because of the pandemic, the Minnesota Football Coaches Association’s outstanding annual clinic will be held via Zoom April 8-10.

The MFCA announced its 2020 Mr. Football Award winner Sunday—Wisconsin Badgers-bound Jake Ratzlaff, a strong safety/tight end from Rosemount High School. “As a high school football player, I have never seen one player impact a game in so many different ways,” Rosemount coach Jeff Erdmann said in a news release. “He could start for us at any position offensively or defensively. He could have been our starting QB, offensive tackle or even nose guard because of his athleticism, aggressiveness, and style of play.”

Fired Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders, 34, could resume his career with a college job. If so, he might be interested in using the famous and entertaining pre-game warm-up routine that rocked Williams Arena when Ryan’s dad Flip played for Gopher coach Bill Musselman. Although Flip was a Gopher before Ryan was born, the warm-up show that filled the arena with delirious fans is something the younger Saunders knows about.

Ex-Gopher center Janel McCarville, 38, is still playing professional basketball in Sweden. McCarville and playmaker Lindsay Whalen are the names best remembered from Minnesota’s 2004 Final Four team that played in New Orleans.

Paige Bueckers

Next year the women’s Final Four returns to Minneapolis for the first time since 1995 and the field will likely include Minnesota prep legend Paige Bueckers leading the Connecticut Huskies. Coach Geno Auriemma won the first of his 11 national titles here that year.

 

Timing of Saunders Firing Debatable

February 22, 2021 - (0) comments

 

Ryan Saunders was fired as the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach last night, but the timing is debatable. Why replace him now rather than wait until season’s end? When all is considered, would the Wolves benefit more by switching coaches this spring?

The Wolves are hiring Toronto Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch to replace Saunders. Wolves basketball boss Gersson Rosas decided not to ride out the season with Saunders, or replace him with an interim coach. Either move could have provided additional time to identify the best candidate to lead the woeful Wolves. One candidate could have been Minnesota native and former NBA head coach Dave Joerger, now an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s Rosas’ job to plan ahead for various scenarios and you can bet he has been thinking about Finch for awhile. No doubt he believes Finch is the right leader for his team. But Finch has no NBA head coaching experience, and neither did Saunders two years ago when he took over as interim head man, and later was hired permanently by Rosas. Rosas and Finch worked together with the Houston Rockets so the two presumably have the rapport needed between the front office and the bench.

Gersson Rosas

Even if hiring Finch turns out to be a terrific decision, he likely would have been available when the NBA season ends this spring. So why rush the hire when the candidate pool might be even better?

Also, taking over the job now isn’t nearly as ideal as having an offseason and training camp for Finch to formulate decisions including systems to implement and assistants to hire. The impressions he makes on players now might be better in a new beginning rather than during the frantic NBA marathon of games. It is a positive that Finch will get a firsthand look at his Timberwolves personnel now, both players and staff, including their talents and quirks on and off the court.

There is often a honeymoon period for a new coach and the expectation is a fresh voice in the locker room will spark more wins than Saunders was going to produce. That may not be as positive as it first sounds. The Wolves, 7-24, have the worst record in the NBA. At that pace Minnesota has a realistic chance of ending up with a top three selection in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft later this year. In the NBA’s 14-team draft lottery, the worse a club’s record, the better the chance of lucking into a high draft selection. Even more to the point this year is that Golden State owns the Wolves first round selection unless its a top three pick (Minnesota got that protection in a 2020 trade).

A dream scenario for the Wolves in the draft is to find hometown hero Jalen Suggs—the Minnehaha Academy alum now leading 22-0 Gonzaga as a freshman—available to them among the top three picks in the draft. Mock drafts have Suggs going early, perhaps No. 1, and the 6-4 Suggs is just what the Timberwolves need.

Saunders would probably still be coaching if he had a better point guard. Before he was fired last night his team lost by four points to the New York Knicks. Minnesota has a maddening list of close losses, and in February alone the Wolves have lost six of 12 games by five points or less.

Those were games the Wolves couldn’t close out, partially because of poor decision making on the floor from the likes of D’Angelo Russell, or the missing and diminished skills of Ricky Rubio. Suggs, with his size, length, quickness, unselfish approach, scoring, passing and defensive skills, could be an immediate upgrade over Russell and Rubio. With Suggs directing, the Wolves could have a rocking offense with the scoring talents of Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Malik Beasley and Anthony Edwards.

The decision to let Saunders go had to be emotional for him and owner Glen Taylor. Saunders, 34, has known the 79-year-old billionaire since he was a boy. The connection between the Saunders family with the Wolves has included a minority ownership share in the franchise and prominent roles coaching and in the front office by the late Flip Saunders, Ryan’s dad.

Ryan is a high character person, well liked by those who know him. After assistant coaching jobs for his dad and Tom Thibodeau, Rosas and Taylor thought he was ready to be a head coach. He wasn’t. His teams were often dreadful defensively and seldom succeeded in big moments.

Worth Noting

Suggs, along with three Gonzaga teammates and head coach Mark Few, is on the cover of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. The No. 1 ranked Zags appear headed to a national championship showdown with No. 1 Baylor, 17-0 and led by a coaching staff that includes assistant and Minnesota native Jared Nuness, son of former Gophers captain Al Nuness.

The 2021 Gophers are a troubled team at 13-10 and have lost three consecutive games and four of their last six. Minnesota’s chances of being invited to the NCAA Tournament have nosedived from all but certain to precarious since defeating No. 3 ranked Michigan last month, the Wolverines only loss of the season.

Coach Richard Pitino’s team is dealing with injuries and wounded pride. Gabe Kalscheur, the team’s best perimeter defender, is out indefinitely after finger surgery. Center Liam Robbins and guard Both Gach are playing but injured, with Robbins perhaps hurting the most with an ankle restricting him.

Robbins has been the Big Ten’s leading shot blocker. “It’s really hurting our defense. He’s really hobbled right now,” Minnesota coach Pitino said on KFNX Radio Saturday after the Illinois game.

Illinois embarrassed the Gophers at Williams Arena, winning 94-63. The Illini assaulted Minnesota with dunks and other easy shots. At times the Gophers played with minimal effort. Senior center Eric Curry acknowledged as much after the game when asked how Minnesota can improve future outcomes. “Have a sense of pride. Can’t let the other guys come in like today, just do what they want to do.”

The Gophers, 6-10 in Big Ten games, have 3-13 Northwestern at home Thursday night. Then Saturday it’s 1-12 Nebraska in Lincoln, with two more remaining regular season games, March 3 at Penn State (4-11 record), and March 6 Rutgers (8-9) at home. The remaining opponents are mediocre at best but the Gophers are in no position to disrespect anyone.

Former Golden Gophers basketball public address announcer Dick Jonckowski will receive his third chemo treatment for cancer Tuesday and he reports feeling good. He has stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Condolences to family and ex-teammates of former Gophers linebacker Tim Wheeler, who passed away earlier this month. Wheeler was an undersized but hard hitting linebacker for Minnesota in the mid-1960s, earning three letters in football. His father, Roger Wheeler, was an All-Big Ten end for Minnesota in 1926.

 

Only Football for Coach Mike Grant Now

February 17, 2021 - (0) comments

 

Mike Grant, 63, is more than a month into a new experience at Eden Prairie High School. As of January 1, he is retired as the activities director but continues with his legendary career as head football coach. No complaints, though.

“My days are certainly full.” Grant told Sports Headliners. “Football takes as much time as I want to put towards it.”

With no administrative or teaching responsibilities, football is his only focus at the school he has been coaching at since 1992 and where his Eagles have won 11 state championships. As activities director, Grant was sensitive to other sports and their coaches, and he didn’t want to offend others by being outspoken about the value of football. “Now I can promote it all I want,” he said about the game he loves and learned from his famous dad, Bud Grant.

The EP varsity and junior varsity teams were undefeated last year. The sophomores and freshmen each lost a game. But Grant believes it’s not winning that is the most important reason kids come out to play football at his school and others across the state.

“You can have a great experience in football and win one game because you are with your buddies,” Grant said. “There’s camaraderie in football that is very different than any other sport.”

With all the success Grant has had at Eden Prairie, readers might scoff at his remarks. But before coming to EP he was head coach at Forest Lake where the wins were few and opponents could almost predetermine the final score.

“I have been there,” Grant said. “I look back on that and those were some of my fondest memories with those kids that were playing. I still see those guys. They are men now and they have nothing to say but great things about playing football way back then.”

A lot of youth are specializing in one sport these days. An industry has developed of paid trainers from outside the school systems who work with young athletes with ambitions of earning college scholarships and even professional careers.

Mike Grant

Sometimes disillusion sets in long before high school graduation. By focusing on one sport, kids may eventually realize they are missing out on their full potential as high school athletes, or that the advice from others isn’t working for them. Grant has seen some of his better players take a circuitous route to his roster. “Because they come back out (for football) as juniors and seniors after being told that they should focus only on basketball, or only on hockey, or only on whatever. …”

During the last several years the safety perception of football has taken a nosedive with the public because of negative publicity concerning concussions in the NFL and college football. Even though the incidence of concussions in high school football is reportedly less than some other activities, parents have been apprehensive in allowing their sons to participate in the sport.

“I don’t know that we had one concussion last year,” Grant said. “But there was so much hype and media hype about concussions, that a lot of parents pulled their kids from it (football). So football numbers everywhere are down and we’re certainly no different. I always look at it (as) if we’ve got a problem, everybody else has got a bigger problem in terms of numbers.”

Enrollment at Eden Prairie High School has for decades been among the largest in the state. In the EP football system, Grant estimated participation numbers are off by about 30 percent. The trend is more skilled athletes are likely still participating but the marginal players, who Grant said can really benefit from football, may not be.

The varsity Eagles were a senior dominated team last season. “I thought we were the best team in the state last year,” Grant said. Only a few starters return for 2021 but a lot of others on the 2020 roster came off the bench and gained experience. “We’ll be as good as we’ve ever been,” the coach said about the coming season.

Worth Noting

This week will significantly influence whether Richard Pitino’s Golden Gophers basketball team earns an invitation next month to the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota lost at Maryland Sunday, but tries for its first road victory of the season tonight (Wednesday) at Indiana, and then plays No. 5 ranked Illinois in Williams Arena Saturday.

A major positive is the Gophers, 6-8 in the Big Ten and 13-8 overall, have tied a school season record by defeating five top 25 ranked teams. A road win tonight and a home upset of Illinois would bolster Minnesota’s wobbly win-loss record. That’s not likely to happen but if the Gophers could pull to 8-8 in league games by Saturday night, NCAA prospects boldly brighten with two of their three remaining games at home. Northwestern (Feb. 27) and Rutgers (March 6) come to Williams Arena, with Minnesota playing at Penn State March 3.

University officials provided no update at last week’s Board of Regents meetings about borrowing money to cover the system’s anticipated budget shortfall of perhaps $166 million. Details are apparently yet to be finalized including a significant portion of the loan targeted to Gophers athletics whose deficit this fiscal year is speculated to be $40 million or more.

The Timberwolves’ next road game is Sunday in New York where the Knicks feature familiar faces. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, whose demanding style helped the Wolves to a rare playoff appearance before being fired, has the lowly New York franchise earning a better record than the Wolves, 14-15 versus 7-21. This is Thibodeau’s first season with the Knicks and two of his player favorites are former Wolves Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose. New York media speculates whether Thibs will clash and last with controversial Knicks owner James Dolan.

Don’t fret yet but offseason additions by the Chicago White Sox, including former Twins pitchers Liam Hendriks and Lance Lynn, have crystal ballers making the Sox favorites, or co-favorites with the Minnesota Twins, to win the AL Central Division. Hendriks has ERAs under 2.00 the last two seasons as a late inning stopper. Lynn could win 15 games or more for the Sox. Vegasinsider.com lists the Sox as 10-1 World Series favorites, with only the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and San Diego Padres more likely to win out in 2021.

Ben Reppenhagen, the Edina native who played high school football at St. Thomas Academy, is a redshirt freshman tight end at TCU and grandson of the late Mike Wright, the 1959 Gophers football captain.

Three Minnesota natives took half of the six spots on the WCHA 1990s All-Decade team announced by the Twin Cities-based league Tuesday. The team includes former Gophers Brian Bonin (forward, White Bear Lake) and Mike Crowley (defenseman, Bloomington) and ex-North Dakota goaltender Karl Goehring (Apple Valley). All-decade teams this winter are part of the league’s 70-years celebration.

Guess who is only four years away from eligibility for Social Security? Michael Jordan is 58 today.

 

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