Report: Twins ‘aggressively’ looking at catchers, could land Castro

castroJason Castro had a breakout season for Houston at the plate in 2013, posting an .835 OPS in nearly 500 plate appearances and landing on the All-Star team.

Since then, the left-handed hitting catcher has settled more into a high-risk, high-reward mode at the plate: double-digit home runs each of the past three seasons, but triple-digit strikeouts and a low batting average (between .210 and .222 each of 2014-2016).

But he’s a stalwart when it comes to pitch-framing metrics. And that — combined with at least a threat of getting ahold of one at the plate — has made him a coveted free agent this offseason.

The Twins have been linked to the 29-year-old Castro, with a fresh report coming Wednesday from ESPN’s Buster Olney. Writes Olney (Insider required):

The Twins are among the teams aggressively digging into a very thin market of catchers, and may turn out to be a landing spot for Jason Castro, who is expected to get at least a three-year deal from some team. Castro excels at pitch-framing, and Derek Falvey, who heads the Twins’ baseball operations, just saw the impact of that as Roberto Perez steered the Indians’ pitching staff through the postseason.

Indeed, Castro was fifth in the majors last season when it came to framing pitches for strikes. He was similarly good in 2015 and 2014. Last year he got 96 more strikes called than would have been expected.

Primary Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki was a minus-38 in the same category last season, while Juan Centeno was a minus-127 (second-worst in the majors). John Ryan Murphy was about average (minus-1). Add those three up and you get minus-166. Castro was a plus-96 — in other words, 262 strikes better than those Twins catchers.

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, consider these differences: after batters reached a 2-0 count against Twins pitchers, they had a .958 OPS. Switch a pitch to a strike and make the count 1-1, and suddenly batters had a .770 OPS after reaching that count. Better yet: batters had a .503 slugging percentage after getting to 3-1 against Twins pitchers. But after 2-2, again changing a ball to a strike, that slugging percentage went way down to .353.

Even if it only amounts to a couple of stolen strikes per game, it can make a huge difference if it comes at the right time.

We’ll have to see if the Twins’ pursuit of Castro is, indeed, as legitimate as Olney makes it sound. But it’s the kind of move that would make sense as Falvey tries to improve the pitching staff.

Top teams have invested more in offensive line than Vikings

linemenAn oft-repeated statistic as the Vikings have struggled with their offensive line this season is this: in the past decade worth of drafts — 10 of them between 2007 and 2016 — the Vikings have invested a grand total of two picks in the top three rounds to offensive linemen.

Both picks — second-round tackle Phil Loadholt in 2009 and first-round tackle Matt Kalil in 2012 — were mainstays when healthy (to varying degrees of effectiveness), but neither is contributing right now.

Two premium picks (defined as one in the top three rounds such since the draft now is divided into three days, and the final day is rounds 4-7) doesn’t sound like a lot over a 10-year span, but without a frame of reference it’s hard to know for sure.

So here is the frame of reference:

Pro Football Focus ranked all 32 NFL offensive lines heading into training camp in the 2016 season. I took a look at the top 12 teams to see what they have invested in the top three rounds of the draft during the same 10-year time frame as the Vikings — while also looking to see how much each team has invested in the past four drafts, when the Vikings haven’t drafted any O-linemen in the top three rounds. Here are the results:

1 — Cowboys: 6 offensive linemen picked in the top three rounds in the last decade, including three in the last four years.

2 — Raiders: 6 and 2.

3 — Packers: 3 and 1.

4 — Bengals: 4 and 2.

5 — Falcons: 6 and 1.

6 — Panthers: 4 and 1.

7 — Eagles: 3 and 2.

8 — Saints: 4 and 2.

9 — Cardinals: 3 and 2, all of them in the first round.

10 — Bills: 5 and 2.

11 — Texans 6 and 3.

12 — Redskins: 6 and 3.

The average of the 12 teams: 4.7 offensive linemen drafted in the first three rounds of the last 10 drafts, and 1.8 in the last four years.

Now: this isn’t to say all the picks have panned out. But it does show a definite gap in commitment to choosing linemen in the top of the draft between those teams and the Vikings.

The Vikings’ strategy, instead, has been pretty clear: choose players at more athletic skill positions on offense and defense in the early rounds while trying to bolster the offensive line by hitting on late-round projects.

Can you guess how many offensive linemen the Vikings have chosen in rounds 4-7 of the last 10 drafts?

A whopping 11, including SEVEN in the last four drafts. One can be considered a major success: John Sullivan, chosen in the sixth round in 2008, was a very solid starter until his health betrayed him. Brandon Fusco, a sixth-rounder in 2011, has started 59 career games with the Vikings. T.J. Clemmings, a fourth-rounder in 2015, has been pressed into action each of the last two seasons with mixed (at best) results. The rest largely have been non-factors to-date.

That led the Vikings into the free agent market this past offseason, where they grabbed Alex Boone and Andre Smith. Those additions, it should be noted for an apples-to-apples comparison, were enough for PFF to rank the Vikings’ offensive line No. 15 entering this season — not great, but squarely middle-of-the-pack and hardly a disaster.

PFF concluded: “This is a line that, if everyone is at their best, will be very good; if not, it will be below-average.” The latter has played out because of injuries and less-than-expected depth.

That said, the Vikings were in the position of hoping for the best because of their draft strategy. In the last four years, the Vikings have used No. 1-3 round picks on: one QB, two WRs, one RB, three DBs, three defensive linemen and two linebackers.

Those eight defensive players helped fuel last year’s 11-5 season and were the backbone of this year’s 5-0 start. But the shortcomings of the offensive line, more than anything, are threatening to derail this season.

As Mark Craig wrote today, the Cowboys have taken the opposite approach and are thriving behind a fantastic offensive line. It’s something the Vikings will need to remedy in future drafts — but that doesn’t do them any good in 2016.

Blair Walsh is Ron Davis; Kai Forbath might be Jeff Reardon

walsh2If you are a Twins fan of a certain age, you will never forgive Ron Davis. You still have nightmares about his glasses. You will get the shakes when you remember what he did to the 1984 season.

And yes, in that one season, Davis was objectively awful as the Twins’ closer. Given a chance to help a young Twins team steal a bad division, Davis instead had an amazing 14 blown saves (to go with 29 he converted). So many of them were in spectacular, mind-blowing, body-numbing fashion that you might think he was the worst closer in the history of the world.

But he wasn’t — at least if we go by body of work. In his four seasons as the Twins’ primary closer from 1982-1985, Davis actually had three decent years. He converted 77 of 88 save opportunities in 1982, 1983 and 1985 combined. For the four years, even including that awful 1984 season, he converted 80.9 percent of his saves.

I’m not here to say that’s good. But bear with me.

Davis, not the primary closer in 1986, was so terrible that season that he didn’t survive the full year in Minnesota. By August, he was with the Cubs. Two years later, he was out of baseball.

The Twins in 1987 acquired veteran Jeff Reardon to be their closer. The best thing about Reardon, other than the fact that he was a “proven closer,” was that he was not Ron Davis.

He had never blown a single save for the Twins when he arrived in 1987. And in his first season here, of course, the Twins went on to win the World Series. Reardon was on the mound when the Twins recorded the final out in Game 7, earning the save. Everyone here remembers him as a hero and a great closer.

But: In Reardon’s three seasons with the Twins, he actually converted a lower percentage of saves than Davis did in those four years ol’ Ron was the closer.

Reardon blew 10 saves in 1987, eight more in 1988 and 11 in 1989. For the three years, he converted 78.2 percent of his regular-season save chances. He blew two more save opportunities in the 1987 ALCS (one in a game the Twins still won).

We remember, though, what we want to remember. The narrative our mind constructs is a powerful thing. Some might say it’s the only thing.

That leads me, briefly, to Blair Walsh.

Walsh has made 84.2 percent of his career regular-season field goals for the Vikings.

Kai Forbath, the man who is replacing Walsh as the Vikings kicker in the middle of this season, has made 84.1 percent of his career field goals.

What Forbath has never done is miss a field goal in a Vikings uniform — which means he definitely has never missed a chip shot in the freezing cold that would have won a playoff game for the purple.

Like Ron Davis before him, Blair Walsh could never be forgiven and his deficiencies abetted his downfall.

Like Jeff Reardon before him, Kai Forbath might not perform any better than the man he replaced. But if he performs well at the right times we will remember it much differently.

Chris Kluwe tweets about ‘karma’ after Blair Walsh is waived

kluweIt’s been almost three years since former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe went public with allegations that he lost his job because of his political views — and that special teams coach Mike Priefer was a “bigot.

Not long after Kluwe published those allegations on Deadspin, clear sides started to form. And Blair Walsh was on the side of Priefer. Walsh, a rookie in 2012 and Kluwe’s teammate that season, said (among other things) in a statement shortly after Kluwe’s post:

In my time here at Minnesota, Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier have exemplified true leadership. Contrary to Chris’ statements, they have promoted a workplace environment that was conducive for success.  At no time did I ever feel suppressed or that I could not be myself.  I firmly stand behind Rick Spielman, Leslie Frazier, and Mike Priefer.

I’m not sure if you believe in karma or the statute of limitations on it, but Kluwe seems to be a believer. Shortly after news broke Tuesday that Walsh has been waived after missing eight kicks this season (and a big one in the playoffs last January), Kluwe tweeted, “Karma’s a nasty lady.”

It’s safe to say there isn’t a ton of love lost between the two, who certainly didn’t see eye to eye on things.

Karl-Anthony Towns is ready for his close-up

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????It’s Wednesday, Oct. 5. Timberwolves star forward Karl-Anthony Towns got his hair cut less than 24 hours ago by his barber, Akeem Akway. He cuts hair for a lot of athletes in the Twin Cities at his shop in Spring Lake Park, including Tyus Jones and Anthony Barr; for Towns, Akway comes to him.

And now he’s back.

“I did it last night,” Akway said. “But I came by to freshen it up.”

Akway is one of more than a dozen professionals on site for Towns’ ESPN The Magazine cover photo shoot, which accompanies a lengthy article in the issue that hits newsstands later this week.

As a working guest invited to watch the process unfold, I’m struck by the attention to detail — though given what we know of Towns’ already-stated quest for greatness, perhaps it’s not all that surprising.

Towns — who turns 21 today — is ready for his close-up.

Brandon Williams — Towns’ personal stylist — is here from Los Angeles with an entire rack of clothes for the shoot. Peter Yang is also here from Los Angeles to take the pictures, a process that will take several hours. ESPN has a makeup artist on-site. Production assistants are inflating basketballs, just in case. The fake trees and clouds that Towns will pose with have already been specially made.

Williams, who is busy steaming Towns’ clothing options, explains his role.

“Keeping in mind his position as a franchise player and future of the NBA in my mind … we want to make him look like he’s ‘there,’” Williams said. “We want to arrive before anyone has the opportunity to take credit. … We want to make sure than on Day One, you look the way you’re supposed to.”

Like one of the best.

townsmakeupAfter Towns has makeup and moisturizer applied, he disappears with Akway for the aforementioned freshen-up. The shoot, which is taking place in an unassuming studio in Northeast Minneapolis, is running late because Timberwolves practice ran late. Williams is already worrying that he’s going to miss his flight back to Los Angeles, but this is the price of perfection.

During the down time, I ask Yang how he prepares for a photo shoot like this. Capturing personalities is at the heart of the shoot, Yang said. With Towns, Yang said he already felt like he knew him well because of “thoughtful interviews” he had read and seen.

“When I found out it was Karl, I said, ‘Awesome. I know he’s going to be really great,’” Yang said.

More than two hours after the shoot was scheduled to begin, it begins. Towns drops down and does a bunch of push-ups. I ask if that’s to make his biceps look better, and he smiles and nods.

Then he’s lost in a world of basketballs, clouds and trees. Yang clicks away for several minutes, giving instructions along the way. When that part of the shoot is finished, Towns wanders over to the computer where photo editors are getting an early look at the in-progress shots. Towns takes several pictures of the images on the screen to post later on Instagram.

They move on to the next set, with Towns still in uniform. He’s asked to dribble, and he executes some fanciness off his elbow. “I’m crazy enough to do that in a game,” Towns quips.

He seems at ease but self-aware at the same time. The production team tries to get him to dance.

“I’m not going to dance on camera,” Towns says, laughing.

Later, he dances on camera.

Then it’s time for the first of multiple wardrobe changes. Williams, who by now has missed his flight, selects a jacket, white top, jeans and white Nikes for Towns. Towns looks good and fresh before adding the finishing touch: a necklace that Williams was wearing.

Every element has a specific function, even if the end result is just a few pictures — just like every jump shot over the summer has a purpose, even if the end result is just one critical basket.

Cris Collinsworth savagely owns Bill Simmons with tweet, then deletes it

collinsworthNeither Sunday Night Football nor Bill Simmons’ HBO show have had a great year in the ratings department.

But, uh, one was worse than the other. SNF is still very much on the air and being watched by millions. Simmons’ show, after being watched by thousands, was canceled by HBO and had its final live airing last week.

That has perhaps given Simmons even more time to devote to his beloved Patriots. He crafted a tweet Sunday night that read: “Somebody needs to gently break the news to Collinsworth that the Pats have a weak front 7 and that’s why Seattle’s O-line looks good.”

Cris Collinsworth, the Sunday night analyst, took umbrage to the gentle barb.

He tweeted — then deleted — this on Monday: “Thanks Bill, we’ll look for you ‘gently’ breaking it down on that hit show of yours.”

Oh, that’s cold.

Fox is now apparently pasting Sam Bradford’s head on Matt Cassel’s body

Remember the good old days when the Vikings were 5-0 heading into their bye week and it seemed like their biggest problem was that Fox kept using an image of Sam Bradford’s head pasted onto Teddy Bridgewater’s body?

The Vikings had some fun with it. Fox apologized and said they would get their act together. All was good.

Yeah, well it’s not so funny anymore. The Vikings haven’t won a single game since this became a story. And Fox apparently hasn’t gotten its act together. On Sunday’s broadcast, some shrewd viewers noticed that a new image of Bradford didn’t quite look right. Was his head pasted on Teddy’s body again? Nope. Was it fellow QB Shaun Hill? Nah.

It sure looks like Bradford’s head on Matt Cassel’s body.

What?!

Pics don’t lie, and the Vikings are annoyed again — tweeting “stop the madness”:

Bradford has played eight games for the Vikings — more than enough of an opportunity for Fox to find an original photo of Bradford in a Vikings uniform. More than that, though: Photoshopping someone’s head onto someone else’s body isn’t exactly ethical.

Strange twist: Wolves dominant on 3-pointers, getting crushed on 2-pointers

thibsTom Thibodeau had plenty of points of emphasis when he took over the Timberwolves as head coach and president of basketball operations, but two that stood out were an increased commitment to defense and a desire to improve from three-point range.

One of those things is fun. One of those things is not fun. Guess which one the young Wolves have embraced first?

Yes, it’s the three-pointer. And it’s not even close. In fact, it’s by as wide a margin as you can have — and it helps explain why the Wolves, in spite of making some strides, are just 3-6 on the young season.

In a stunning early turnaround from previous seasons, when the Timberwolves neither shot many threes nor were much good at the ones they took, they are in the middle of the pack in made three-pointers per game this season (9.3) and No. 1 in the NBA in three-point percentage.

Yes, the Wolves are the best three-point shooting team in the NBA at 41.8 percent, and it’s not even close. The next-best team, San Antonio, sits at 38.6 percent. Individually, Andrew Wiggins — barely a 30 percent shooter from 3-point range in his first two seasons — leads the NBA at 54.8 percent from long-distance (17 for 31). Zach LaVine (23 for 50, for 46 percent) is in the top 20.

So far, though, the gaudy three-point shooting has shown up in its fullest force in three blowout victories. The Wolves have won by 16, 26 and 36 points in their three victories. They are a combined 38 for 70 from long distance in those games (54.3 percent).

They’ve taken a few lopsided losses, too. But they’re also 0-3 in games decided by four or fewer points. And they’re 1-6 in games where they give up at least 100 points.

Ah, yes, that leads us to the defense. It hasn’t been good. And here’s the thing: three-point defense hasn’t been the problem. Minnesota is allowing opponents to make just 8.4 three-pointers per game. That’s among the best in the NBA. Percentage-wise, opponents are around middle of the pack at 35.0 percent from long distance. The Wolves are winning that battle.

Where the Wolves are getting crushed is on those simple, old-fashioned two-point shots.

Minnesota’s opponents are shooting 52.9 percent from two-point range, which puts the Wolves dead last in the NBA in that category. Perimeter players are too often letting the guys they are guarding get easy looks. Their big men are getting exploited by bigger, bulkier and craftier opponents.

In short, the Wolves have been over the course of nine games one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA in large part because of three-pointers. They’ve been one of the least efficient defenses in large part because of two-pointers.

The Wolves’ three-point shooting figures to regress as the year goes on. That doesn’t mean they can’t be good at it, but Wiggins — even with all the work he put in this past offseason to improve his shot — won’t keep making 54.8 percent of his attempts.

To compensate — and to win close games period — they’ll have to finally buy what Thibodeau is selling on defense. We’ve known all along that would be a key to success. And we’re seeing that play out in the early part of the season.

Vikings 5 GIF game story: Come for 2009, stay for 2003

It’s all falling apart, and the hardest part is we all know why. The Vikings rode a wave of resiliency and masked deficiencies to a 5-0 start this season that had plenty of us talking about the Super Bowl. They’re 0-4 since, and the only thing keeping them afloat is the alarming mediocrity of the NFC North (Packers fans, let’s go out for beers).

If you thought this was 2009 — a quarterback coming in at the last minute and turning a weird season into a great one — my friends I believe we were mistaken. The closest parallel now feels like 2003, when the Vikings started 6-0 before losing to every 4-12 team in the league and missing the playoffs at 9-7.

The reasons for Sunday’s 26-20 loss to Washington are all-too-familiar, but they bear repeating. So let’s take another run through the game story told in 5 GIFs (and a bunch of words).

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CAN’T RUN: The Vikings finished with 21 carries for 47 yards — another comically weak effort. Their short-yardage offense is a train wreck. It would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata, but the Vikigns actually averaged 4.4 yards per carry in 2014 when they were the primary backs. But this offense is increasingly one-dimensional.

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CAN’T HIDE: When you watch Washington run block and pass block, you see gaping holes and spaces to operate. The Redskins averaged 4.6 yards per carry and largely protected Kirk Cousins beautifully. The Vikings’ offensive line — we repeat, since we say it every week — is a mess. They’re paying for years of neglect, and they’re paying for it dearly. Injuries have not helped, but it is massively disingenuous to say that is the primary reason for this unit’s dysfunction.

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CAN’T KICK: I don’t know if Blair Walsh’s fourth missed extra point of the season — this one at the end of the first half — caused a shift in momentum, but the Vikings never scored again. More than that, it had a direct impact on the game, allowing Washington to tie with two field goals in the second half. If you were holding your breath about a possible tying field goal before Sam Bradford’s interception or about a possible winning extra point before the final drive fizzled, you are not alone. That’s a hard way to live. I don’t know if there are better kickers out there, but I do know there are a lot of kickers out there who have never missed a kick in a Vikings uniform. As a friend texted mid-game, maybe giving a streaky kicker a long-term extension was a bad idea. You think?

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CAN’T STAY HEALTHY: The defense was carved up by a good Redskins game plan, but the losses of Eric Kendricks, Xavier Rhodes combined with already missing Sharrif Floyd and Captain Munnerlyn made for a pretty ordinary looking group. The pass rush hasn’t been there, which makes everyone’s job harder.

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CAN’T EVEN: Mike Zimmer got away with some more poor clock management when the Vikings scored as time expired in the first half. The second half story boiled down largely to the stubborn refusal to try something other than Asiata into a pile of bodies on a pair of failed 3rd-and-1 plays that led to punts. The short passing game is working. If you can’t do something, don’t.

Five things that would make the Twins better in 2017

falveylevineDerek Falvey and Thad Levine have an uphill climb when it comes to remaking the Twins after five 90-loss seasons in a six-year span — including a bottoming out at 103 losses in 2016.

Included in their long-term vision will be plenty of major decisions — including whether to trade second baseman Brian Dozier. Contending teams, though, often thrive because of a combination of good fortune and smart decisions on minor details. To that end, here are five things that would help the Twins — and their new bosses — improve immediately in 2017:

*Stability in center field: The Twins traded Denard Span and Ben Revere after the 2012 season. Since then, center field has primarily been a mess. Aaron Hicks wasn’t the answer. A variety of short-term fill-ins were collectively inadequate. Byron Buxton has been up-and-down.

Buxton’s final month of 2016 — in which he posted an OPS of 1.011 while clubbing nine homers — offers hope that he is here to stay, while his age (turning 23 next month) is a reminder of his potential. But one good month isn’t enough to be counting on anything yet (remember, Chris Parmelee posted a 1.035 OPS for the Twins in September of 2011, and look where that got everyone). That said, if Falvey and Levine managed to time their arrival just as Buxton is ready to claim center field for good, everyone’s job will be easier.

*Upgrade at catcher: Kurt Suzuki was a decent hitter,  below league average at throwing out would-be base-stealers and a subpar pitch framer. The Twins tried to upgrade at catcher last season by trading for John Ryan Murphy, but that experiment stalled after Murphy was sent back to the minors following an awful April. The Twins don’t need an All-Star here, but they need a defensive upgrade. A guy like Astros free agent Jason Castro — an excellent pitch framer, which could help the staff — might be a good target.

*Return to health of Phil Hughes: Hughes pitched like a top-of-the-rotation starter in his first year with the Twins in 2014, logging 200+ innings and winning 16 games. His average fastball velocity that year was 92 mph. The next season, it dipped to 90.7 and his production dipped. Last year, it dropped again to 90.4, and he threw it just 49 percent of the time — compared to 64 percent in 2014.

If surgery in July helps Hughes — who is owed $40 million over the next three years — regain his velocity and helps him return closer to his 2014 form, it would be a huge boost to the 2017 rotation.

*Get the bullpen right: Twins relievers threw the fourth-most innings in MLB last season with the fifth-worst ERA. That’s a terrible combination. This is where shrewdness on the part of Falvey and Levine could really come into play. It’s generally regarded as easier to upgrade a bullpen than to upgrade a starting staff, at least when time is of the essence. If the Twins don’t think they can upgrade the rotation significantly, they could still stock the bullpen with more good arms to compensate.

*Expanded baseball staff: As Twins beat writer Phil Miller wrote recently,the most important free agent the Twins add this offseason may be a data analyst, not a starting pitcher.” Minnesota has lagged behind the rest of the AL Central in terms of bodies and modern thinking. Getting a more robust evaluation team in place quickly should pay dividends in both the short-term and long-term.