Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr, former Times intern Logan Marxhausen and sports fan Ben Johnson. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: The Minnesota Twins are 37-48 and 10 games behind Central Division leader Detroit following an 11-5 loss at Toronto Sunday. That’s just one game better than they were at this point during the horrible 2012 season. Scott Diamond, the team’s rising pitching star last season, was battered by Toronto and is a dismal 5-8. The team has nine players batting under .250 and just two (Joe Mauer, Oswaldo Arcia) hitting over .280. The bullpen has joined the starting rotation in going into the tank. Attendance at Target Field is sagging, roughly 170,000 behind last year’s pace. How big of a mess is this franchise in?
-Dorr: I wouldn’t call it a mess but I think this season is about to become a lost one, as far as wins and losses, unless the team can rattle off about 10 wins in a row. A couple weeks ago the Twins were three games under. 500 and everything seemed headed the right way. Then they lost a couple on the road before coming home for an eight-game home stand that I thought could get the season going well again. They went 2-1 against Kansas City but lost the final game of that series and then were horrible in losing four in a row to a not-so-good Yankee team. I thought the tone for that series was set the first night with the Twins leading 4-3 after seven innings. Manager Gardenhire sent Jared Burton, a right-hander who had an ERA of about 7.00 in June, out to face Robinson Cano, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner. Cano and Hafner are left-handed power hitters and it was ridiculous to send Burton to the mound. He quickly gave up three runs, the Twins lost, and they also lost leads in the next two games. Here are the ERA stats for the Yankee starters the Twins couldn’t beat: Hughes – 4.55, Phelps – 5.01, Sabathia – 4.06, Petitte – 4.40. Nothing great there. And the boys just can’t seem to get hits with runners in scoring position. I wouldn’t say the bullpen has gone into the tank so I disagree there. To show how little many Twins fans know about baseball and/or how biased they are about Kyle Gibson, many in the crowd stood and applauded wildly when he left his start against the Yankees last week. He had given up 6 runs in 5 1/3 innings and eventually it was 8. That’s an ERA of 13.51 for the game and the fans went wild. Why? Two more Twins items: Is there a team in baseball that takes more fastballs for called strikes than the Twins? I guess they’d rather hit those 1-2 curves than the earlier fastballs. And did you notice that SEVEN ex-Twins made the two All-Star teams?
-Marxhausen: What do you expect to have happen when you have former Twins having success all around the AL and NL? The Twins are sending two players to the All-Star Game and yet there are seven former Twins who are making the trip to represent their teams. Players include Michael Cuddyer (OF), Carlos Gomez (OF), Torii Hunter (OF), J.J. Hardy (SS), David Ortiz (DH), Jesse Crain (RP) and Joe Nathan (RP). All that talent slipped through the fingertip of the Twins management. As of now 15 players and 16 pitchers formerly with the Twins could come back and start in their respective position. In the last 16 games the Twins have lost 12 and have a record of 1-7 in July. It looks like all those offseason moves that Terry Ryan made only paid off for the first two-and-a-half months of baseball.
-Larson: The Twins are a mess, from top to bottom. Last Friday manager Gardenhire urged his players to start having fun and play baseball. He should’ve been kicking some butt. This isn’t Little League, high school, Legion or town team baseball. These players are getting paid big bucks to perform and they haven’t. Same goes for old Gardy and pitching coach Rick Anderson. Both look clueless in the dugout.
Attendance figures will continue to slip the rest of this season and that could prod ownership to make changes and upgrade the roster. But, I wouldn’t count on it. It will be interesting to see just how many “outdoor baseball” fans are out there now that the draw of Target Field is starting to fade and the team is in the third season of a meltdown.
-Johnson: I predicted 100 losses for the Twins this year. Although they are not on pace to hit 100 losses, they have turned a corner towards it. The Twins lineup is full of AAA level players who are either a few years away from developing or who never will. Players like Florimon, Parmelee, Plouffe, Hicks, and Dozier have shown signs of talent but are far too inconsistent for the Majors. Samuel Deduno is the only starter that is worth watching, with all others continuing to struggle. The Ben Revere and Denard Span trades are starting to look terrible with no hopes of Vance Worley and Trevor May making an impact for the Twins. I’m not sure what it will take to get the front office on the market this coming offseason but I think their fan attendance in 2014 and thereafter will depend on it. They need to spend a good chunk of money (which they have) for some proven big league pitching. I think the first step towards recovery would be trading Justin Morneau for some players that will benefit the Twins in 2013 and 2014, not 2016.
•Question: After making a trade with Utah, the Minnesota Timberwolves ended up picking UCLA forward Shabazz Muhammad and Louisville center Gorgui Dieng in the first round of the NBA college draft. Some fans and members of the media were highly disappointed with new general manager Flip Saunders’ performance in the draft. Saunders rebounded and soothed over some of those feelings last week by signing free agent shooting guard Kevin Martin, who played for Oklahoma City last year, and resigning forward Chase Budinger, who missed most of last season with an injury. Are the Timberwolves now a better team than last season and, if so, how much better?
-Dorr: I know nothing about the draft choices, except that Muhammad was brutal in his team’s loss to Minnesota in the NCAA tournament. I’m told he’s strictly a shooter and won’t pass the ball. Kevin Love might not like that. But then, Muhammad and Dieng haven’t played one minute of NBA ball so we have no idea how they will do. I know nothing about Kevin Martin. Budinger showed some good things in his few minutes with the team last year and he might help. One of the big questions is whether or not the center, Nikola Pekovic, will come back. I have no idea if the team is better now than it was a couple months ago. I don’t think anyone will know that until the middle of the next season. Then we’ll see if the honeymoon for Saunders continues or not.
-Marxhausen: Injuries plagued the Timberwolves last year. Ricky Rubio was unable to start the season, still rehabilitating his injured knee and Kevin Love found himself with a broken hand towards the start of the season and upon his return broke it again, leaving him sidelined for the rest of the year. Spark Chase Budinger gave the Timberwolves some solid play last year but his season was also cut short by injury. If there are zero injuries at the start of the season, then they are already better than last year’s team. With the recent addition of Martin the Timberwolves are a threat in the Western Conference (if the injuries remain a minimum). Nikola Pekovic has yet to sign, but as soon as that happens, the Timberwolves will be a force to be reckoned with.
-Larson: On paper, the Timberwolves are a better team now than they were last season. They should score a ton of points and will likely need them with a defense that is highly suspect. As the other sportswriters pointed out, staying injury-free will be vital. If that happens this team should make the playoffs. And, be fun to watch.
-Johnson: The Timberwolves needed another player who can put up points. Muhammad is a guy who can do that. With a good ball-handler like Rubio, the Timberwolves can set up a much better offense with Muhammad. I don’t know much about Dieng but I hear he can block some shots. I guess if he can score a few seconds on the highlight reel by denying some players, more seats might sell. I don’t think it will be hard to improve on a 31-51 record but I think the real key to next year’s success will be keeping Rubio and Love healthy.
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