Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr and former Times intern Logan Marxhausen. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: The Minnesota Twins head into the 2012 season trying to shake off a disastrous 2011 season that saw the team lose 99 games and finish last in the American League Central Division. What are the prospects for this year’s team? What concerns you the most?
-Dorr: You’d like to say that the team can’t help but be better. But then you remember that Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel won’t be in the lineup. And they’re in a division where most are picking them to finish near the bottom. What concerns me the most is finding a way to score runs. Next on the list of concerns is preventing runs – much of the pitching staff is untested and the season begins with two of the starting pitchers unable to pitch. There are just so many question marks, paramount among them the hoped-for return to form by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Last year was an absolute disaster in the injury department and that can’t happen again if this team is to improve. It’s hard to be optimistic but, until last year, the Twins usually found a way to get things done in the past decade. Let’s hope that’s the case again.
-Marxhausen: What I like about the Twins this season is that they moved a lot of people around and brought in some new faces. That is exactly what concerns me about this season for the Twins. Bringing in new talent and prospects, you have to quickly integrate them into the Twins system and what the Twins and manager Ron Gardenhire believe in to win games. First baseman Chris Parmelee is only 24 and has a bright future ahead of him if he can utilize his potential. Also newcomers outfielder Josh Willingham and shortstop Jamey Carroll have experience, but whether they will be able to thrive under a new system and finish the entire season strong is questionable in my eyes.
-Larson: “Hope” is the word being used the most in Twins Territory this spring. The team hopes Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau can remain healthy and be productive. The Twins hope an aging Jamey Carroll can stabilize what’s been an erratic shortstop position. They hope second baseman Alexi Casilla can avoid another up-and-down season. They hope a starting pitching rotation, that really doesn’t have a No. 1 or No. 2 guy, can hold together for 162 games. They hope their relief pitchers, led by closer Matt Capps, won’t be trotting to the pitching mound to a chorus of boos six weeks into the season.
Where is this team better than last year’s team? If Mauer and Morneau stay healthy, that will be the only area where the Twins are improved. And, that won’t come close to off-setting its deficiencies.
•Question: After a shocking 99 losses last year, how many games will the Twins lose this season?.
-Dorr: On April 2, with no idea of how some of the new players will do, my guess is that the Twins will win about as many games as they lose. And my optimism as a Twins fan may be getting the best of me there. I noticed that one national publication picks the team to have a record of 72-90. Maybe that’s more realistic than me thinking the Twins can win about 80 games.
-Marxhausen: I like to start the season optimistic with the Twins adding a lot of “what if” to the equation. My favorite “what if” is if the Twins could make a push at the beginning of the season, maybe they will be in the hunt towards the All-Star break and will be able to snag some talent before the trade deadline. But I don’t see that happening. The Twins will not be in the hunt for the Central Division championship nor will they be in the hunt for second place in the Central Division. Optimistically I see the Twins having a .500 season at best, with another “rebuilding” year in store.
-Larson: Don’t look for the Twins to put much of a dent into those 99 losses. With the exception of Chicago, the other Central Division teams are improved over last season and even the dismal White Sox may be better than the Twins. I’ll be a bit generous and spot the Twins a 73-89 record.
•Question: Will there be a “race” in the Central Division or will the favored Detroit Tigers run away with the title? How will the final Central Division standings look?.
-Dorr: Everyone – and I mean everyone – is picking the Tigers to win the division. Their pitching looks solid and the addition of Prince Fielder to an already-strong lineup makes the Tigers the easy favorite, although I’m not sure having Miguel Cabrera play third base will work out well. Detroit will have to fall on its face not to win the division and then it will be Cleveland, Kansas City, Minnesota and Chicago. Minnesota could move up if everything goes well.
-Marxhausen: With the additions the Tigers have made over last season (Delmon Young) and the offseason (Prince Fielder), I feel they have run out of excuses not to blow the rest of the Central Division out of the water. The Tigers will run away with the title and will be striving for a 100-win season. The Tigers will finish on top with the White Sox, the Indians, the Twins and the Royals following in order.
-Larson: Detroit will lead the Central Division by at least 12 games at the All-Star break and will have the division title locked up Labor Day as it surges while the rest of the division beats itself up.
•Question: Who wins the other AL division titles and who wins the three National League division titles? Who emerges as the two wild card teams in each league?
-Dorr: I’m thinking of terminating my contract for this question-and-answer feature because I have no time for research, having to run off today to watch a Minnesota friend’s son play baseball here in Florida. And there are 147 players who switched leagues this year, making it harder than ever to keep up with things. But I’m going to take some wild guesses. The Angels and the Yankees (with better pitching, but a lot of aging veterans) win the other divisions in the American League. Texas and Tampa Bay will be the wild cards, although Boston could sneak in there. In the National League it will be pitching-rich San Francisco, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, with the wild cards being Jason Kubel’s Arizona team and the Miami Marlins if Ozzie Guillen doesn’t create a riot there.
-Marxhausen: The LA Angels are another team that is looking to crack the three-digit win record as they win the AL West while the Yankees reign supreme as the AL East champions. Tampa Bay and Texas will occupy the wild card teams. On the National league side Philadelphia (East), Cincinnati (Central) and San Francisco (West) will claim division championships with the two wild cards being Atlanta and Arizona.
-Larson: In the American League, the division winners will be New York in the East, Detroit in the Central and Los Angeles in the West. That’s really going out on a limb, huh? Tampa Bay and Texas are the easy wild card picks.
In the National League, division winners will be Philadelphia in the East, Cincinnati in the Central and Arizona in the West, with Miami (formerly Florida) and San Francisco meeting in that one-game wild card playoff.
•Question: Let’s look way, way ahead. What’s your guess at what teams will be playing in the 2012 World Series and which wins the title?
-Dorr: If there are no key injuries, the Angels and the Phillies, with the Angels behind the new bat of Albert Pujols winning it all. Having made all those predictions, I can almost guarantee you there will be one surprise team emerging before the season is over. Look at last year when the wild card St. Louis Cardinals won it all. The trick is to pick that surprise team. Could it be the Rangers, or the Nationals, or the Diamondbacks?
-Marxhausen: It is no guess that LA Angels will be much better this season with arguably the best hitter in the game right now as a long-term fixture for the ball club. With the addition of Albert Pujols, I don’t see anything getting in the way of the LA Angels besides maybe a tough matchup with Detroit in the playoffs. When I look at the National League, I am still flabbergasted with the pitching staff that works at Philadelphia. With that pitching staff, I see the Phillies moving to the World Series where they will lose to the Angels.
-Larson: If Philadelphia’s pitching staff stays healthy the Phillies should represent the NL in the World Series. A darkhorse could be manager Ozzie Guillen’s Marlins. Detroit will outmuscle Los Angeles in the AL finals, then tip Philadelphia in the World Series.
•Question: The 2012 Masters Golf Tournament is this weekend. Will Tiger Woods, coming off a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, contend for another Masters crown? Who’s your pick to win the tournament?.
-Dorr: It is impossible, at least for me, to pick a winner. Woods will likely be a contender, coming off a good performance two weeks ago. There are so many good young players on the tour these days, like Hunter Mahan who won last weekend. And there are Phil Mickelson and a number of other veterans who are capable of winning. In Sports Illustrated, of the five experts, two took Rory McIlroy, while Mickelson, Lee Westwood and Peter Hanson (raise your hand if you know of him) each got a vote. Kyle Stanley was picked by two of those experts as a sleeper, with Woods and Mark Wilson each getting a vote. Woods is the top pick of the odds makers at 4-1, with McIlroy second and Mickelson third. Last year’s winner, Charl Schwartzel, is given a 33-1 chance. If you want to make some money, bet on Ben Crenshaw or Craig Stadler, both at 5,000-1 on the board. If the experts don’t agree, how can I pick? I’ll take Mickelson, with Keegan Bradley as a sleeper.
-Marxhausen: The 2011 Masters was a heated one with a tight matchup between Jason Day and Adam Scott all the way through the final round only to lose to surging Charl Schwartzel. There are also Webb Simpson and Rory McIlroy, who are young, in their 20s, and are looking to make a splash at the Masters. But, the big story is Woods and his possible comeback to stardom. Whether he performs well or not, I cannot see myself picking the rest of the field over Woods because he has been working at his game to make it back to the top again. I have to pick Woods because of the experience and because of how he has shaped the game of golf. He has done remarkable things with a club and I would not be surprised if he did it again this weekend.
-Larson: Tiger Woods’ success at the recent Arnold Palmer tournament makes this Masters very interesting and it should add a pop to the TV ratings, especially if Woods stays among the leaders heading into Sunday. I’ll hitch my wagon to Woods and tab him for another green sports jacket. If not Woods, it will be either Rory McIlroy or Luke Donald.
•Question: Kentucky won the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Monday night. How would you sum up the tournament?
-Dorr: Call me old but I’m so tired of all the dunks. On Saturday night all of Kentucky’s late baskets were dunks. I’d like to see a screen, maybe a jump shot, or a good pass – something other than all those dunks. Make no mistake – there are great athletes on the floor, as far as running and jumping. But the college game has fallen off dramatically the last few years with many of the stars running off to the NBA after one or two years. The teamwork that playing together for three or four years gives you isn’t as prevalent as it was before. It was no surprise that Kentucky won. They had the best players. Ohio State should have been in the finals but the Buckeyes likely would have met the same fate as Kansas.
-Marxhausen: I thought the tournament held up to its reputation yet again. There were upsets and teams that were traveling further in the tournament than most could have imagined. Out of the West Region both Louisville and Florida took advantage of their matchups and rode their wins to an Elite Eight matchup. Three double-digit teams made it to the Sweet 16 round, but couldn’t make it past anyone to be considered the Cinderella team of the 2012 tournament like VCU had done in 2011. Kentucky was an unstoppable force throughout the tournament. When players didn’t perform well enough, other players on the team stepped it up to secure the next round. In the championship game, Wooden Award winner Anthony Davis shot 1-10 and finished the game with six points, but Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague stepped it up and made shots to keep Kansas at bay. It was a good championship game, but I felt that Syracuse would have made it and competed at a higher level if they had not lost star center Fab Melo for academic issues.
-Larson: Veteran coach Bobby Knight, now an analyst for ESPN, paid Kentucky freshman center Anthony Davis the ultimate compliment prior to the title game by comparing him to former Boston Celtics star center Bill Russell. Davis had a subpar game Monday night on offense but he made up for it by grabbing 16 rebounds, blocking six shots, dishing out five assists and notching three steals. Most don’t like Kentucky coach John Calipari’s practice of bringing in “one-and-done” elite players each year but the Wildcats were, by a wide margin, the country’s best college men’s team.
There weren’t many surprises in the tournament but there were many close, exciting games. I agree with Luther that Ohio State would’ve given Kentucky a better game than Kansas did.
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