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: Luther leaves on his annual spring trip to Florida this week where he spends much of his time at the Minnesota Twins training camp. The Twins have been in camp for a while. What piece of news or story from spring training has caught your eye so far?
-Dorr: The biggest thing so far – and I’ve learned that the early days of spring training can lead to false hopes – is that Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer appear to be in good physical condition. Mauer had a decent year in 2012 if you accept the fact that he’ll never be a home run hitter and that his 28- homer season in 2009 was a fluke. (22 in the three years since). Still, it’s important that he be healthy and productive. Even more promising has been the early hitting of Morneau, an unknown quantity the past couple years after his concussion-shortened year of 2010 during which he appeared headed for an MVP award. The team needs power badly and Morneau, if he can get close to previous form, could provide maybe 25 homers and a bunch of RBIs. He’s off to play with the Canadian team in the silly World Baseball Classic and that should give us a little better idea of where he’s at. Also, a couple of the new pitchers have had good outings. But, unlike Mauer and Morneau, they don’t have the history of producing like those two have. If at least two of the projected starters do the job. I’ll be happy. Three would be a bonus. And, if Aaron Hicks can make it in center, that would be nice.
-Marxhausen: The American League’s worst team last year has a lot of question marks surrounding it this spring. The outlook for the season is looking optimistic and also doubtful. The Twins come into spring training with a revamped team, thanks to general manager Terry Ryan taking control over the team yet again, hoping for a better season than 100 tallies in the loss column. Stories around the team include Justin Morneau in the last year of his contract, the middle of the field is up for grabs, and the starting pitching rotation is completely revamped. Morneau is looking at his possible departure from Minnesota before the July 31 trade deadline and will be working to make a splash to improve his worth. Second base and shortstop are up for grabs, with the likes of Brian Dozier, Pedro Florimon, Jamey Carroll and Eduardo Escobar vying for the starting role. Center field is looking at competition between Darin Mastroianni, Aaron Hicks and Joe Benson. The starting pitching rotation looks to include Scott Diamond, Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia and Vance Woorley, but has a final opening for Kyle Gibson, Liam Hendricks, Cole De Vries, Sam Deduno, P.J. Walters and Rich Harden. A lot of news stories have caught my eye so far, but I think the one that caught my eye most is that Joe Mauer and his wife are expecting twins.
-Larson: So many questions surround this team. Look for Luther to provide some possible answers during his Florida stay. Starting pitching, of course, is up in the air, and will the Twins be able to come up with a couple of middle infielders who can bat over .200? That would be nice. Luther likes pitching duels. I like home run battles that end up 10-9. So, I’m interested to see if Chris Parmelee takes over in right field. He’s been billed as a power hitter and he may end up at first base if Justin Morneau is dealt in July. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe had some pop in his bat in 2012 but tapered off the second half of the season. Plouffe finished with 24 home runs but just 55 runs-battle-in. As commentator Bert Blyleven so often says, “those solo home runs don’t hurt you.” Plouffe needs to boost that RBI total and improve in the field. Maybe he’ll end up in right field if Morneau is traded and Parmelee moves to first base. Another player I’m following is outfielder Joe Benson, who also has been billed as having some power. He’s had some health and attitude issues but when seeing him in the field and in the batter’s box, he reminds me a little of former Twin great Bob Allison. I don’t think he’ll win the battle in center field but he might end up as the team’s fourth outfielder.
•Question: The Minnesota Wild is currently in second place in the Northwest Division of the Western Conference with 11 wins and eight losses. It appears to have a shot at the playoffs. The team added two stars last summer and hopes were high for this season. Has the Wild lived up to expectations in this shortened season?
-Dorr: My hockey-playing grandson and myself were in the stands for the win over Edmonton Sunday night and the Wild looked like a complete hockey team, especially in the second period when they outshot the Oilers, 18-0. I’ve never seen an NHL team go without a shot for a whole period. My expectations for the Wild were probably lower than for others, simply because I didn’t think two players, no matter how good, could turn a team around that played so poorly last season. Zach Parise had a bunch of goals early this season but hasn’t done much since, although if you watch him closely he always plays hard, never taking a shift off like some stars do. Ryan Suter has been good lately after a slow start. Those two stars have helped the recent surge but it takes a team of role players for a team to perform well consistently. And lately Minnesota has gotten good games from other players, including a couple of the younger ones. Minnesota looks like a team that can make the playoffs. How far they get will likely be determined by how well distributed the scoring becomes.
-Marxhausen: Did the Miami Heat live up to their expectations the first year they signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwayne Wade? No. The Heat made it all the way to the finals in 2011 before falling to the Dallas Mavericks. I do not think that the Wild is going all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals this year, but the team has made that leap towards becoming a power and is coming closer to making that a reality. The start for the Wild was abysmal and many questions surrounded the legitimacy of its playoff hopes, but this shortened season has forced it to play a team sport at a high level in a short amount of time. The defense is looking phenomenal, ranking seventh in the NHL in goals against with 2.4. Also, its penalty kill percentage ranks fifth in the league with 86.2 percent. The problem is the offense will sometimes fail to show up in those close games.. The Wild has not lived up to my expectations, yet. The team is still playing exciting hockey and the progress it has made makes the excitement grow with each win.
-Larson: The bar for this season was probably set too high after the acquisition of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The team is often exciting to watch but then disappoints. I like Logan’s point that maybe we’re expecting too much, too soon. The current team should be able to reach the playoffs and even scratch its way past the first round.
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