ASK THE SPORTSWRITERS
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: What are your thoughts on the Minnesota Twins’ third straight 90-plus losses season?
-Dorr: I didn’t think the record would be that bad. And if you go back to June 29 the team was 36-41, only five games under .500. But then the Twins lost 12 of the next 13 and from Aug. 24 to the end of the season they were only 9-16, including 10 losses in the last 11 games. The last two weeks were horrible, with a lot of one-sided losses. I made many, many notes in those last couple weeks but now it’s been so long since the season ended that I can’t find them. The number of strikeouts on offense was horrific. If that’s what Tom Brunansky brought to the team, he should be sent packing. So many fans wanted a change in the hitting coach and look what happened – one of the worst seasons ever in baseball for strikeouts. General manager Terry Ryan finally said a couple weeks ago what I have been writing for two years and that’s that the players, Joe Mauer included, take way too many first-pitch strikes. Maybe we need to change that, Ryan said. Of course they do – if you fall behind 0-1 on a fastball, you will get mostly breaking balls, change-ups or fastballs out of the strike zone after that. Why couldn’t they figure that out a couple years ago? Joe Mauer (we love him, he’s one of us) has been with the Twins 10 years now and missed an average of 44 games a year, thus averaging only 118 games a year (73 percent). In the last three years while getting paid $69 million, he’s hit 24 homers and driven in 162 runs. His lack of production, and his contract, have hurt the Twins. Meanwhile, there are so many ex-Twins playing well, even in the playoffs. The Twins, perhaps listening to the fans, panicked and traded Delmon Young after the 2010 season in which he hit 21 homers and drove in 112 runs. When he homered for Tampa Bay the other day that gave him 9 homers in 24 post-season games since he was traded for two players who haven’t helped the Twins. It’s easy to find fault but there have been so many bad decisions.
-Marxhausen: Another year gone and another hope dropped in the bucket of a 90+loss season. The Twins started off the season with the team flirting with .500 marker, but once they got below that line they had to fight to get back up. I would say that this season wasn’t as bad compared to the last few because of all the players the team doesn’t have to suffer paying through another year. They took a little long to part with Justin Morneau, but they didn’t have to pay the likes of Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Denard Span and Ben Revere. The Twins were playing their AAA team all season and their dismal season was what most people expected. Pitcher Samuel Deduno rose to the occasion and showed himself to be a starter next season. Brian Dozier had a hot second half to the season to show himself to be the second baseman. After that there isn’t much to be happy about other than closer save Glen Perkins. .
-Larson: Any Twins fans who didn’t see this train wreck of a season coming just weren’t paying attention. All general manager Terry Ryan did last winter was replace a few lousy starting pitchers with new lousy starting pitchers. And get rid of two capable outfielders/hitters (Denard Span and Ben Revere) and replace them with a bunch of light-hitting minor league outfielders. The top of the team’s batting order was a joke even before Joe Mauer suffered a concussion. Twins broadcasters Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven raved about the Twins’ bullpen. Now that’s something to hang your hat on in a 96-loss season!
-Johnson: I predicted 100 losses at the beginning of the season. It turns out I came pretty close. Although it doesn’t happen often, I agree with Bert Blyleven when he states that your team’s success begins with good starting pitching. The Twins’ starting pitching has been terrible the past three seasons. Look at any of the MLB pitching stats and almost certainly the Twin’s would fall into the bottom five percent in any category. The most shocking stat I noticed the other day was the Twins inability to strike out 1,000 batters in a season for the third consecutive year. They are the only team in the majors failing to do so in each of the past three seasons. It’s sad to know that Joe Mauer’s career has likely reached its plateau and that in the following years, injuries will probably increase and his production will decrease. Meanwhile, whatever prospects the Twins have (there aren’t many in Class AAA) are scrambling to adjust to the majors. Given that the Twins do not sign a number of big-named players, the next few years will look as familiar as the previous few years.
•Question: What does the team need to do to improve next year and do you think it will do much to improve its roster?
-Dorr: Pitching, pitching, pitching. But who will want to come to Minnesota? And for those of you who think spending more money is the answer, I refer you to the Angels and a number of other high-salaried teams that are not in the playoffs. Spending money is no guarantee of success. I think the team will try to make some roster improvements but I wonder how many good players will come here, even if offered a lot of money. After pitching, the Twins need more power. The Twins have traded, or let go (Cuddyer, Young, Hunter, Hardy, Morneau) the little power they had. Of course, who knew Josh Willingham was going to go in the tank this season, as well as Scott Diamond? The future doesn’t look bright unless at least two, and maybe three, real good players are purchased this winter. And if another season goes bad, season ticket sales will drop off drastically.
-Marxhausen: The Twins were addressing the starting pitching staff last season and that is what they need to do again. They don’t have any more selling blocks so I don’t think we will see many new faces next year. The Twins believe in the organization’s promotion process of bringing players up from the farm clubs. Apart from Joe Mauer, Glen Perkins, Samuel Deduno, Brian Dozier, Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit, they should replace the remainder of the roster.
-Larson: This team needs major help at nearly every position. But, the 2014 team will look a lot like the 2013 team and will again have 90-plus losses. Don’t expect the Pohlad boys to provide much cash for Terry Ryan, who’s basically their puppet, to bring in legitimate talent. Luther is right when he says spending big money doesn’t guarantee success. However, it often does. Big spenders like the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers are evidence of that in 2013. As a fan, I’d prefer having my team spending lots and lots of money.
-Johnson: In 1994, the owners of MLB teams proposed a salary cap to the players union which escalated into a strike. The result was a comprised “luxury” tax that high-salaried teams had to pay to the low-salaried teams. This was supposed to make baseball more competitive among all teams but it really didn’t. The rich teams simply paid the tax and kept buying the best players. The fact is, rich franchises buy winning teams. It doesn’t necessarily mean they buy championships but they buy perennial-winning teams. To break a .500 record and compete for the playoffs, the Twins will need to spend money. They need to sign five proven major leaguers with two or three good starting pitchers. I think current free agents Matt Garza, Paul Maholm, and Ervin Santana would suite the pitching staff well. I think it’s better to have a good hitting catcher that handles the staff well than to have a first baseman who hits 10 home runs per year, so leave Joe Mauer behind the plate. Sign Mike Napoli, Paul Konerko, or another power hitting right-hander who can play first base. The next spot the Twins should address is the designated-hitter. The Twins have historically filled the D-H spot with bench-rolled players who don’t provide any power (or average for that matter). This spot in the lineup is expected to hit 30+ home runs and drive in 100 runs. Former Twin Delmon Young is a free agent and can do this. If the Twins can keep him on a leash in the dugout and off the field, he may be a steal in terms of money. He is just 28 years old and can flat out hit. If they do not get a D-H, they need to move Josh Willingham to the D-H. He is a below-average left fielder and we have plenty of good outfielders eager to crack the big-league lineup. Lastly, this will be a make or break year for Trevor Plouffe. A .254 average with just 14 home runs and 52 runs-batted-in is not going to cut it for a third baseman. If he struggles in the first half of next season, the Twins need to make a move. Knowing Terry Ryan’s history, he will sign one or two starters who have had a cup of coffee in the big leagues whom nobody has heard of and they will be expected to be the answer to next year’s success. He will remain silent in signing any position players and state that we have the talent to build from within. If this is the case, good luck Gardy.
•Question: What are your thoughts on manager Ron Gardenhire getting a contract extension and the team retaining general manager Terry Ryan?
-Dorr: It seemed to me that the Twins were going to let Gardenhire go, if for no other reason than public perception. But he didn’t have the players and that’s not his fault. The Twins, usually loyal to a fault, brought him back after first bringing Ryan back. They’ll both be under heavy scrutiny in 2014. If the Twins falter again, expect Gardenhire not to be back for 2015, contract or no contract.
-Marxhausen: There has been a lot of speculation as to whether the Twins should retain Gardenhire after the last three seasons. Some wanted him to be fired during the season and some even said to allow him mercy and let him leave halfway through the season. Gardenhire has not given up on the Twins yet. He thinks he is the best man for the job and right now so do I. Gardenhire knows the game inside and out, but there is no one available right now who could come and do what the fans want. Gardenhire is the only one who can turn the Twins around or at least set up the next manager with a solid core of players.
-Larson: Baseball’s all-time great managers couldn’t have won with the roster Gardenhire has had to work with the past three seasons. At times old Gardy looked disinterested this season but his signing a new two-year contract indicates either he’s still got some fire left or he’s a glutton for punishment. Ryan’s judgement of talent and reputation as a keen baseball mind has taken a huge hit the past three seasons (yes he deserves some of the blame for the Billy Smith mess).
-Johnson: Ron Gardenhire I like, Terry Ryan I do not. Early last spring the Twins held a press conference where members of the local media asked Ryan about the upcoming season. Ryan repeatedly stated that his acquisitions of Mike Pelfrey, Vance Worley, and Kevin Correia were going to put the Twins in contention for the playoffs. He stated that the Twins have the talent coming up from the minors to compete with any team in the majors. Ryan claimed that you do not need to spend money to win baseball games and referenced the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays didn’t need to spend any more money because they actually did have the talent to compete. The Twins do not have the talent and therefore need to bring talent in. Although he acknowledged Detroit was the division favorite, he stated he couldn’t foresee any scenarios in which the Twins would not be “in the mix” for a division championship. After watching this, I told myself I would reflect on his misconceptions of the talent he claimed the Twins had and on the acquisitions he brought in.
•Question: The Minnesota Gophers lost at Michigan 42-13 Saturday. And coach Jerry Kill suffered another seizure and did not make the trip to Ann Arbor. What are your thoughts on the game and the status of coach Kill?
-Dorr: Minnesota played better than it did the week before against Iowa but still was beaten badly, although the score wasn’t indicative of how close the game was for three quarters. There were some good moments but not enough. It looks as though it still comes down to the fact that Minnesota’s players aren’t as good as most of the other teams in the Big Ten. And with Northwestern next on the schedule, things aren’t likely to get better. I’ve supported Kill to this point but I think it’s close to being something that just can’t go on forever. Some callers to radio shows have said the seizures are a personal matter and have nothing to do with his job. Not true – he’s a highly-paid, very visible person in this state. He’s a good guy, probably a good coach, and most people wish him well. But …
-Marxhausen: The game went as expected, although with Michigan’s recent struggles, the Gophers were hoping for a closer contest. The first half went really well for the Gophers who only trailing the Wolverines by a touchdown. Quarterback Mitch Leidner played better than I expected. Though the score and his stats don’t indicate it, for a while Leidner was in charge of that game. Michigan came back strong in the second half and had its way with the Gophers. The Jerry Kill situation is tough. Kill wants to be on the sidelines, but sometimes his health does not allow him to be there. The only thing Kill needs to worry about is being able to make it through game day with no complications and go from there.
-Larson: No surprise that Michigan won by 29 points – it’s won 23 of the past so-called Little Brown Jug rivalry games with Minnesota. That trend isn’t going to change for a long time, if ever. Minnesota faces an uphill battle in finding two Big Ten wins to reach “bowl-eligible” status. Minnesota’s administration and many of the program’s strongest supporters continue to feel coach Kill can move forward with his health problems without the program suffering. Some have even expressed the ridiculous thought that Kill’s condition can be a boost for recruiting. We’ll see what happens if the Gophers continue to lose and Kill’s health issue becomes worse.
-Johnson: The Gophers looked OK in the first half and faltered in the second half. Although they didn’t win, I think Leidner was the right pick to start at quarterback (I had previously suggested Nelson). From the little bit I saw of him, he played well. The Gophers just do not have the big weapons like some of the other Big Ten teams do. It was sad to hear coach Kill had another seizure. Hopefully he get can find some effective treatment soon.
•Question: The Minnesota Vikings signed quarterback Josh Freeman Monday, less than a week after the Tampa Bay Bucs released him. What are your thoughts on the move?
-Dorr: I don’t know what to think. Is he going to be a starter or a back-up? Was he kind of an iffy guy with Tampa Bay or is the coach there kind of an iffy guy? He has had flashes of good play but hasn’t done well lately. Was that the coach-player relationship in Tampa Bay or did Freeman just not play well? I guess my thoughts are to wait and see what happens.
-Marxhausen: I figured it to be a waste of money on the Vikings’ end. They came into this season knowing that Christian Ponder was the starter, but would get competition from Matt Cassel. Cassel came in after the Vikings started 0-3 and had a decent game against the Steelers. Now they bring in Freeman to possibly start the second half of the season. He has to learn the system and mesh with the players, which will take at least a few weeks. I don’t see Freeman as the starter of the future of the Vikings.
-Larson: It was a wonderful move by the Vikings, even if Freeman never completes a pass for them. It allowed the team to steal the sports pages for a week or so during their “bye” week and push aside last week’s stories about high seat fees at the team’s new stadium. Freeman will likely become the starting quarterback, probably sooner than later. I thought Christian Ponder would become a reliable NFL quarterback but that didn’t happen.
Once again the Wilfs showed they will spend money if there’s a chance that will improve the team. Too bad the skinflint Pohlads don’t take that approach.
-Johnson: I think it will be a great trial period for the Vikings to see if he is a long-term solution at quarterback. He will have 10 games or so this season to prove he belongs in the NFL and hopefully he plays well. I will be happy to see Christian Ponder in some other team’s uniform at the start of next season.
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