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 got their 2012 season off to a rocky start by losing all three games at Baltimore over the weekend before losing 5-1 to the Angels in their home opener Monday. What were your impressions?
-Dorr: When the dust had cleared Sunday night, the Twins had the same record as the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants and Braves, all of whom are expected to be in the playoffs except the Braves. Unfortunately, all of those teams were 0-3. I don’t think anyone expected Minnesota to lose three games in Baltimore. And it didn’t get any better Monday afternoon at Target Field. I was impressed Monday that Nick Blackburn didn’t let Albert Pujols get the ball out of the infield. And Blackburn retired 15 in a row at one point. But he still gave up five runs. I talked with someone at Monday’s game who predicted the Twins would win three games this month. I disagreed, saying the law of averages would take over. Then I looked at the schedule that includes 16 games with the Angels, Rangers, Red Sox, Yankees and Rays over 16 days. Wins will hard to come by. Four games does not a season make but the start – especially by the offense – has been horrendous. The only two hitters that have done anything are Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau. And although it’s only been four games, Joe Mauer looks like the highest-priced singles hitter baseball has ever seen. Remember, four games is only about two percent of the season. But if things haven’t gotten much better a week from now, panic will officially set in.
-Marxhausen: Nothing like starting where the Twins left off last year. Losing an opening series to the Orioles does not show good signs with the rest of the season. The bats have been very quiet already, with just two runs or less in all four games. The way the Twins are playing, I am clueless on just when they will be able to pull out their first win. If the Twins do not get off this slippery slope, they will be facing many difficulties with the Rangers coming to town next, followed by traveling to Yankee Stadium and then to Florida to face the Rays. I spoke about not having a leader or someone to look up to when the team is in peril all last season. The Twins need to have a few players take over and start making plays and the rest of the team will follow suit. Impressions? My optimism for the Twins goes down with each and every loss..
-Larson: The Twins now have mascot races and super-sized meatballs (not the players…yet) at Target Field. And, we also have the Fox Sports North girls, who have been much more attractive than anything at the plate for Minnesota thus far. Getting swept by a team expected to finish a distant last in its division is a miserable way to start the season, but it did not surprise me. As Luther points out, the Twins face a rough schedule over the next few weeks. If they couldn’t hit against Baltimore’s pitchers, how bad will it get when they face the aces that the Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and Rays will put on the mound?
On the positive side, the pitching and defense haven’t been as poor as the hitting.
The most perplexing TV comment during the Baltimore series came from Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, who offered, “good pitching will stop good hitting.” The Twins are a good-hitting team?
•Question: Some more questions on the Twins that will require looking into your crystal baseball. Let’s assume the players stay healthy. Who will lead the Twins in home runs this season and how many will he hit?
-Dorr: Josh Willingham, barring injury, will probably lead in homers and he’ll have between 22 and 30. It will be interesting to see if he has as much trouble hitting home runs at Target Field as the team’s other home-run hitters have had the past two years. GM Terry Ryan noted something recently that I have said the last two years: Opponents don’t seem to have as much trouble hitting the ball over the fence at Target Field as the Twins do. The Twins hit a paltry 103 homers last season, worst in the league, and 58 of those were by players now on other teams or in the minor leagues. What does that say about management?
-Marxhausen: The Twins are not known for power, nor do they have many players known for hitting the ball out of the park. With Justin Morneau back in the everyday lineup, Twins fans are waiting for him to start hitting bombs over the fence again. Although Morneau will get his selective shots for home runs, I don’t think that he will be able to continue his old reputation and will finish in the lower 20s in home runs. Chris Parmelee is a big guy who has not had many opportunities to show his power, but has the ability to hit the long ball. At the end of the season, my crystal baseball predicts that newcomer Josh Willingham will be the Twins most powerful hitter. If played in most of the games this season Willingham will finish the season with 30 home runs or close to it.
-Larson: This is kind of an easy one, with only new outfielder Josh Willingham having a home run (two) after four games. I’ll peg Willingham to lead with 22 home runs. I don’t see anyone else with more than 15.
•Question: Which starting pitcher will lead the Twins in wins and how many will he have?
-Dorr: In the division championship year of 2010 the team had six pitchers with 10 or more wins, something no other team in baseball did that year. Last year not one pitcher had as many as 10 wins. Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing and Francisco Liriano each had 9 and only Scott Baker (3.14), of the starters, had an ERA under 4.30. Someone will probably win 10 or more but who? Was Liriano’s good spring a mirage? I’d give Baker the nod if he was healthy but he’s not (and hardly ever is). I’ll say Liriano, with 11, but I’m not sure why. He struck out the side in the first inning Saturday and then went in the tank.
-Marxhausen: I think it is safe to say that the winner in this category will go to either Carl Pavano or Francisco Liriano. Both pitchers have proven they can win and dominate when in rhythm. I would like to pick Liriano because he pitched a no-hitter last season and he can strike out the side like he did in the first inning of his first outing this season. The thing about Liriano is that he is way too inconsistent and I see him finishing around the .500 mark. For Pavano I would like to say he will finish slightly above .500. Pavano does not have the ability to strike out batters like Liriano, but his control and endurance make for a good combination and he can go deep into games. I would say that Pavano will finish with 14 wins.
-Larson: It must be reassuring to take the mound knowing you have to pretty much hold the other team to two runs or less. I can’s see any Twins pitcher winning 10 games. I’ll go with Carl Pavano, with nine victories.
•Question: Which relief pitcher will have the best earned-run-average?.
-Dorr: Probably Glen Perkins, although his ERA went up each of the last three months of the 2011 season. And it only takes a couple bad outings for a reliever’s ERA to take a big jump. But he’s the best reliever the team has.
-Marxhausen: Looking at last year as an example, I don’t see the Twins having too many of the same faces in the bullpen come September. The experience I see in the bullpen are Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Alex Burnett and Matt Capps. I think that Duensing will be shifted back in the starting rotation eventually with his few sparks of greatness. Matt Capps is notorious for giving up runs in the ninth inning. Alex Burnett did not get into the full grove last season, so my choice would be setup man Glen Perkins. Whether that is saying a lot is one thing, but I think Perkins has what it takes to step it up and put batters down.
-Larson: The only thing scarier than being a Twins starter this season will be being a Twins reliever. Everyone had high expectations for Glen Perkins, so he’s my pick to lead the bullpen.
•Question: After a great start, the Minnesota Wild slumped and finished in 12th place in the NHL’s Western Conference, well out of playoff contention. What happened after the promising start? How would you grade first-year coach Mike Yeo?
-Dorr: There were two factors, one of them that’s been a problem for years. First, the team had a lot of injuries and they were to key players. Pierre-Marc Bouchard (9 goals) played only 37 of the 82 games, Guillaume Latendresse played only 16 games (after scoring 25 goals in only 55 games two seasons ago), and Mikko Koivu missed 27 games and most consider him the team leader and the best player. And, has been the case for years, the roster didn’t include many players who can score even 20 goals. There just isn’t enough offense. How did Yeo do? I don’t know enough to answer that. Everyone was singing his praises when the team had the best record in the NHL for a month. I’m convinced, after four or five years of the same low-scoring offense, that the biggest problem lies with management for not getting enough goal scorers.
-Marxhausen: The Wild played top-notch defense throughout the beginning of the season, only allowing a few goals per game. Newcomers Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley made a splash right away, contributing to the first and second line. The turning point was when Pierre-Marc Brouchard and Mikko Koivu went on the inactive list. The Wild starting losing more games than winning. Even when Koivu came back they were slow and the defense never recovered from losing a high-powered offense and was always playing back on its skates. Niklas Backstrom was part of that defense that crumbled as the season wore on. Yeo was not able to bring his players together and rise to the occasion. Slowly, they slipped from the best record in the West to out of playoff contention. This team has talent and Yeo was able to get them on the right track. If he cannot turn it around quickly next season, he will be looking for new employment.
-Larson: Injuries, as Luther points our, were a big factor in the team’s demise. The Wild lacked the depth to overcome the loss of several key players. The prescription for getting into the playoffs next season is simple – fewer injuries and more good players. Yeo gets a B-minus grade.
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