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 Wild dominated the state sports scene last week after the team signed free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Parise and Suter, regarded as the top NHL free agents, each received a 13-year, $98 million contract. What do you think of the signings and to what level do you think the duo will lift the team, which hasn’t reached the playoffs the past four seasons?
-Dorr: If nothing else, the Wild grabbed the attention of newspapers, radio stations and television stations in the area. That’s all we heard about for days, until the Timberwolves had a signing of their own that was a bit surprising. That Minnesota will have a better hockey team is a lock. How much it will mean in the standings is something else, Lou Nanne, who I think knows more about NHL hockey than anyone in Minnesota, says the acquisitions will mean 12 to 15 more points in the standings for the Wild. If Nanne is right about the 15, that would have put the Wild 8th in the Western Conference and 13th overall among all 30 NHL teams last season. If the team got 12 more points, it would have finished 9th (and out of the playoffs) in its conference and 15th overall. The signings will give the team more depth, and if two or three of the first-round picks of Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin and Charlie Coyle can contribute, the team will be even better. I’m not convinced, even with Parise and Suter, that the Wild will be a great team. But let’s hope Minnesota at least makes it to the playoffs next season and gets even better the next year. If the team doesn’t, the signing of Joe Mauer by the Twins will look good compared to the Parise-Suter deals.
-Marxhausen: These signings take care of the last question asked. The signings of Parise and Suter make the Wild a playoff contending team. The run the Wild experienced at the top last season was very short lived and the team stumbled so hard they could not recover. As captain of the New Jersey Devils, Parise led a sixth-seeded team in the East to the Stanley Cup Finals. Parise was the most sought after player this offseason and landed in his hometown where he will retire if he plays out the rest of his contract. Another 27-year-old in Suter found a place close to home. Suter, originally from Madison, Wis., was also looking for a team that has a shot at winning. With Nashville, Suter made it to the playoffs for five out of the last six seasons and knows what it looks like to command a defense against high-powered offenses. The Wild is now a playoff team, but is not a Stanley Cup team because the team lacks depth and proper goaltending. A key will be whether the young players can contribute and everybody stays healthy.
-Larson: It was certainly the top Minnesota sports story so far this summer and likely won’t be matched for a while. The double signing had a lot of people talking about the Wild, including many who don’t know a lot about hockey, including me. Wild ownership should see immediate results this upcoming season and the team should claim a playoff spot. That’s the first step in challenging for the Stanley Cup. This past season the New Jersey Devils (seeded sixth in the Eastern Conference) and Los Angeles Kings (seeded eighth, and the last seed, in the Western Conference) advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, with the Kings claiming the title. Los Angeles had a mediocre (40-27-15) regular-season record, yet dominated in the playoffs. So, the key is getting into the playoffs where anything might happen. Minnesota should end its playoff drought.
•Question: The Minnesota Twins take a miserable 36-49 record into the all-star break and are 10 and one-half games behind the first-place Chicago White Sox in the Central Division. The team lost some tough games on its recent 3-4 road trip. Do the Twins have a shot at playing .500 or close to .500 ball the rest of the way?
-Dorr: Yes, the team can be close to .500 the rest of the way. But for that to happen Justin Morneau will have to hit a lot better, Brian Dozier will have to play defense better and hit better, and Ben Revere will have to keep up his surprising hitting. The losses to Detroit and Texas, with some very questionable pitching moves by the manager thrown in, were hard to take. I picked them as a .500 team for the season and that isn’t likely to happen. But there could be a good second half ahead, unless they start trading away players.
-Marxhausen: The Twins will flirt with the .500 line the rest of the season. Surprisingly enough, the team’s hitting has improved quite a bit since the beginning of the season and the pitching looks more promising. But, .500 is the highest the Twins will attain. The team has the ability to beat the teams in the AL Central no matter how dominating the other team may be at the moment, but the Twins struggle when it comes to dominating a series. The Twins can’t lose very many series the rest of the way if they want to move up in the standings. Minnesota would have to have everybody working hand over fist to get into contention for the playoffs and it starts with the leaders of the team and trickles down. The Twins will get close to .500 eventually, but will take another slide down to below .500 once they realize their little spurt was too little, too late.
-Larson: Starting pitching, while a bright spot of late, will remain the thorn in the Twins’ side and the team will continue to sink in the Central Division. A .500 or close to .500 mark the rest of the way isn’t in the cards.
•Question: Who’s been the Twins’ most valuable player so far? What player has been the biggest surprise? How about the biggest flop?
-Dorr: Josh Willingham has been the most valuable player and should have been the Twins’ representative on the all-star team instead of Joe Mauer. (A.J. Pierzynski, not a favorite of mine, should have made the all-star team at catcher instead of Mauer.) It’s close between Ben Revere and Scott Diamond but I think Diamond has been the biggest surprise, given what we saw from him in 2011. He’s the ace of the pitching staff at this time. The biggest flop has been Justin Morneau who recently went 24 games and 95 at-bats without a homer, and had only one homer in 126 at-bats. I personally like Morneau, and that he has continued to play hard. But he just didn’t produce at all in June and, even with a few hits lately, hasn’t been holding up his end as far as driving in runs. I thought he should have been benched for a few games. You know who the team really misses, surprisingly? Scott Baker. The last four years Baker averaged 170 innings pitched, had a winning percentage of .622 (outstanding) and struck out 7.6 hitters per nine innings while averaging 12 wins. Throw those stats into this year’s team and you have a lot better team.
-Marxhausen: Without a doubt newcomer Josh Willingham has been the most valuable player so far this season. Willingham has hit 19 home runs and has 60 runs-batted-in in spite of the Twins’ record. Willingham is the only player to be projected near or over 100 RBIs at this point, so if the team’s other players remain inconsistent, no one will jump ahead of his production. Biggest surprise would be Trevor Plouffe and his tie for the team’s home run lead. Although Plouffe is not racking in RBIs like Willingham, he still has 19 home runs going into the all-star break. After Danny Valencia’s start to the season, I thought the Twins had another hole to fill, but Plouffe has been taking it in stride and doing well. Ben Revere has also come along nicely, being one of two players to hit above .300 for the Twins. Revere is hitting .320 while all-star Joe Mauer is at .326. Although his disappointment for the team is nothing new since his concussion back in 2010, Justin Morneau has been the team’s biggest flop for the Twins so far this season. His .246 batting average, with 11 home runs and 38 RBIs, make him the biggest flop. Sure, those are not the worst statistics a first baseman could have, but after the way he started his career, expectations have been high since and the fans are still waiting for that comeback.
-Larson: I was skeptical when Minnesota signed Josh Willingham but, while his defense has been shaky at times, his production at the plate has been good enough to earn an all-start spot. Sorry Joe Mauer, but Willingham should’ve been in Kansas City. Scott Diamond has been the biggest surprise, edging out third baseman Trevor Plouffe. Diamond (7-3) gets the nod because he’s been there to keep the Twins from sinking even farther. The biggest flop has been starting pitcher Francisco Liriano, who edges out starting pitcher Nick Blackburn, who was sent to the minors after posting a 4-5 record and 8.10 earned-run average. While he’s pitched well his past few starts, he blew an opportunity to become the team’s ace this season and eventually was moved to the bullpen. Not many players get as many chances as Liriano has had this season, as well as past seasons.
•Question: It’s been rumored that Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano will be traded before the season ends. Is it time to give up on the erratic lefty and would you trade him?
-Dorr: In the eight starts since coming out of the bullpen, Liriano has held hitters to a batting average of .175. That’s unbelievable at that level, for 49 1/3 innings. And his ERA in that time is 2.74 and he has a 3-2 record. Do the Twins have any other starter who can throw the ball by people, and hold the opposition to such a low batting average? No, not even close. I don’t understand all the people who want to trade him, even though I agree that he drives us crazy in some games. Now, if you think you can’t sign him, and thus want to get something for him, that’s more understandable. But don’t trade him just because the Twins are floundering in last place of their division. And while we’re at it, shouldn’t we wonder a bit about why so many pitchers the Twins have gotten rid of are doing well? I wonder about that.
-Marxhausen: The only person on the Twins team who should be guaranteed to have a job after the trade deadline is Joe Mauer. Right now, I see the Twins sizing up their assets and looking to expunge big contracts and some talent for younger players who have more potential. Liriano is a good case of someone who has a lot of trade value right now because of his momentum swing before the all-star break. He is inconsistent, but he has the ability to control a game. Would I trade him? Sure, if the price is right and the potential for talent in return is there.
-Larson: After calling Liriano (3-7, 5.08 ERA) the team’s biggest flop this season, I’d still be reluctant to trade him. As Luther says, he’s been dominating in his recent starts and maybe he’s ready to fulfill the promise he showed when he was hailed as a future Johan Santana. And, the team’s lineup of starting pitchers this season has been long and not very imposing. The Twins don’t have a sterling record in recent trades and can’t afford to get rooked again.
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