Five predictions about the 2017 Twins

sanoWith the Opening Day countdown soon to hit hours instead of days, here are five predictions about this year’s Twins:

1) The roster will look a lot different on May 1 than it will on April 1. There was a lot of consternation and surprise Thursday when ByungHo Park was sent to the minors after a strong spring, with the Twins instead opting to keep 13 pitchers.

It’s a good guess that he’s one of a handful of Twins who won’t start the season on the MLB roster but will be here soon. Infielder Ehire Adrianza, a slick fielder who did some good things this spring but is starting the year on the disabled list, is another. Last year the Twins called up seven different players (five of them pitchers) during April. The roster is, as always, subject to change.

2) Pitching will continue to be this team’s downfall. Park’s demotion underscores what figures to be the main problem for the Twins again: pitching. Ironically, now it’s impacting the hitting.

The need to carry 13 pitchers — an acknowledgment that there might be some short starts and shaky relief work early — meant there was no room for Park on the initial roster. Overall, the pitching staff is still filled with tons of question marks. If anything keeps the Twins from more than just a small jump from their 59-victory total from a season ago, it will be the pitching.

3) The Twins will have the biggest victory total increase in MLB. Even if the pitching struggles to an expected degree, it’s still a good bet that Minnesota will experience the biggest gains in victories among any major league team.

Part of that, of course, is because the team set such a low bar last season in going 59-103, the most losses for the franchise since moving to Minnesota. The Twins could win 13 more games than they did a season ago and still finish with their sixth 90-loss season in the past seven seasons. Still, an online wagering site recently gave the Twins the best odds of all 30 teams of making the biggest jump in victories from last year to this year. So that’s something, right?

4) This is the year the Twins’ attendance bottoms out. Attendance at Target Field has decreased every year since the ballpark opened in 2010. It was over 3.2 million the season the ballpark opened, when the Twins won 94 games. Last year it dipped below 2 million for the first time since 2004, and it could very well go even lower this year.

But the guess here is that 2018 is the year the trend swings up again — at least a little. Those 3 million fan days might be hard to imagine for a long time, though.

5) To get more fans, the Twins need some of their young players to emerge. To that end, the prediction here is that someone other than Brian Dozier — who has led the team in homers each of the past four seasons, hitting 42 last year — will grab the team lead this year. The best guess: Miguel Sano is that guy.

The time Rick Pitino had Jeff Van Gundy bring Richard Pitino to the carnival

pitinosIn an amusing but somewhat strange moment during one of the most anticipated regular-season NBA games of the year last night, ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy busted out the type of story usually reserved for 30-point blowouts between mediocre teams than a tight battle between the Warriors and Spurs.

But hey, who are we to complain?

Van Gundy started talking about when he was an assistant coach at Providence under Rick Pitino, who was the head coach at the time. Apparently Rick asked Van Gundy to take his son — yes, Gophers head coach Richard, who was quite young at the time — to a carnival in Rhode Island.

How did it go? Eh, it could have gone better.

Rick gave me like $10, and he said, ‘When it’s out, it’s out.’ The kid burned through the money in like the first 10 minutes and looked at me like I was gonna chip in,” Van Gundy recalled. “I had no money, so Richard Pitino, you were a brat that night.”

Van Gundy estimated Richard Pitino was 6 or 7 at the time. My guess is the little Pitino was more like 4 or 5 given that Van Gundy was an assistant under his dad at Providence during the 1986-87 season (before Rick went to the Knicks) and Richard was born in 1982.

Regardless, the thought of Rick Pitino giving an assistant coach 10 bucks to take Richard to the carnival plays out in my head like a scene from a movie. Richard, of course, has young kids of his own now. Maybe a trip to Valleyfair is in order?

You can watch the entire clip here, thanks to C.J. Fogler:

Hey, it’s an MLB coloring book featuring Joe Mauer

mauerbwThe Washington Post’s new slogan is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

I’m not sure the ultimate freedom worth fighting for involves being able to print out and color renderings of one player from every MLB team, but the Post’s new project by which you can do just that is pretty cool all the same.

Whether you do it for the kids or you’re part of the adult coloring trend, you have choices: Mike Trout … Felix Hernandez …

The Twins player? Joe Mauer.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say the headline inviting fans to “color in your team’s biggest difference maker” is wrong, it has been a while since Mauer was the Twins’ biggest difference-maker. The subtext indicates players were chosen for being the “heart and soul” of their clubhouses.

In any event, Mauer is still probably the best-known Twins player and has earned by virtue of three batting titles and an MVP award the right to represent the Twins in this online coloring book.

The image you see above is both the blank slate and the Post’s suggested colored-in version (lest you think my Microsoft Paint skills had changed over the years or you thought it was me who left out one of Mauer’s trademark sideburns).

But if you have a hankering to color in ol’ Joe, I’d love to see the results. Print one out and have fun.

Ready for this? ‘Wide Left,’ a Vikings documentary of the last 20 years

wideleftBailey Cossairt’s YouTube project on the last 20 years of Vikings history is probably not the documentary you wanted.

But dear Vikings fans, it sure might be the documentary you needed.

The Vikings from 1997 to present are such a mixed bag of huge hopes, big games, massive disappointments, memorable moments and, let’s face it, oddities that they probably deserved what Cossairt created: an 80-minute documentary set to be released at 5 p.m. Thursday on his Spawn Trapped page on YouTube.

Appropriately titled “Wide Left” to denote the missed playoff field goals that nearly bookend the 20 years, the epic ode was created by a St. Cloud State junior who is exactly 20 years old himself — adding to the quirkiness of the project.

“I didn’t even get to watch Gary Anderson miss that kick,” Cossairt said — or at least he was in diapers if he did.

Indeed, Cossairt is far too young to have experienced the joy and pain of 1998 or even 2000. His pain is built around 2009 and 2015 — which is to say there is plenty of it, still.

To build his documentary, Cossairt first had to get lucky. He found a Vikings fan via the online site Reddit who had footage from more than 70 games — including many of the most important ones — over the past 20 years.

Cossairt, who started making documentaries in high school and worked on this one for about four months, also pieced in fan commentary from a trio of Vikings backers who have gone through the ups and downs.

Now he’s hoping for a little bit of leeway from the NFL. You see, when he uploads the full video Thursday there is a chance it will be taken down because of copyright restrictions on the game footage he used.

But Cossairt said tried a test upload and based on that and similar videos on YouTube, he believes the NFL will allow it as long as they put their own advertising on it.

Only one person has seen the full documentary: Cossairt’s father. But plenty of people have watched the trailer.

“The way reacted was, ‘this is going to be terrible but great at the same time’ — and that’s really the case for the last 20 years of the Vikings,” Cossairt said. “That’s what makes for a great story — all the ups and downs, twists and turns.”

In the end, he said he tries to leave the viewer optimistic. Cossairt, after all, is a Vikings fan — something he notes is “much harder than being a Patriots fan.”

But something keeps the purple faithful coming back. And let’s face it: even with all that didn’t go right in the last 20 years, there were nine playoff appearances, three NFC title games, Randy Moss, Adrian Peterson, Brett Favre and a ton of other memorable individual moments.

Come for the catharsis. Stay for the hope.

“If you’re here watching it now you’re still a Vikings fan and still have this new hope every year that this could be the year,” Cossairt said. “We never give up and we never lose that hope.”

Gophers hockey, basketball and football: the state of the programs

luciaWith four of the Gophers’ highest-profile teams having just finished their seasons while a fifth embarks on an interesting transition under a new head coach, this is a good time to take a look at the big-picture for all five programs.

1) Gophers men’s hockey

State of the program: In the grand scheme of things, Minnesota has made the NCAA tournament five of the past six seasons, including this year. In two of those years, the Gophers reached the Frozen Four. But their last three years — two one-and-dones in the tourney, including this year’s loss as a regional No. 1 seed to Notre Dame, and missing the NCAA field completely a year ago — are below this program’s high standards.

The big question: The Gophers are 14 years removed from their last NCAA championship. Head coach Don Lucia guided them to titles in 2002 and 2003, but fan unrest has mounted in recent years. Is he getting enough out of the team, and would it make sense to consider a coaching change?

2) Gophers men’s basketball

State of the program: Minnesota is on the upswing and feeling 1,000 percent better about its position relative to a year ago. The Gophers tripled their win total from eight to 24 and made the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed before being upended by Middle Tennessee. With almost the entire team coming back next season and talented newcomers joining the mix, the future is bright.

The big question: It can be hard to duplicate success and handle expectations. How will head coach Richard Pitino and his team fare next season under the weight of those things? The answer could mean the difference between an OK season and a special one.

3) Gophers women’s hockey

State of the program: Minnesota went to the Frozen Four for the sixth consecutive season. Though the Gophers came up short of a title this year, they’ve won four NCAA Championships since 2012. That’s a dynasty.

The big question: Can head coach Brad Frost, with a loaded incoming recruiting class, lead Minnesota to another NCAA title next season when the Frozen Four returns to Ridder Arena?

4) Gophers women’s basketball

State of the program: The Gophers went 11-7 in the Big Ten in Marlene Stollings’ first two seasons — making the NCAA field once and the NIT the other year — but slid to a 5-11 conference mark and a 15-16 overall record this year, missing the postseason. Minnesota allowed 74.5 points per game this past season, ranking No. 332 out of 345 Division I programs.

The big question: Was this season a one-year dip or the start of a downward trend for the Gophers under Stollings?

5) Football

State of the program: It’s unmistakably a new era, with the up-tempo (to put it mildly) P.J. Fleck taking over as head coach for Tracy Claeys, who was let go after a scandal-filled 9-4 season. Fleck is the first to say that he’s not for everyone — and some early transfers from the program might speak to that notion.

The big question: Will Fleck be able to keep the Gophers on an upward trajectory next season as he builds for the future, or will there be a step back before we can judge evidence of a step forward?

Sam Ponder talks about covering husband Christian in new ESPN role

pondercampESPN made official one of the worst-kept secrets in sport media last week: the Sunday Countdown show is getting a major makeover, with Sam Ponder being named as the host of the studio show to replace Chris Berman.

Ponder previously had numerous college football responsibilities with ESPN; the new gig, however, creates an interesting question: how will she be able to objectively facilitate discussions about a league in which her husband — ex-Vikings QB Christian Ponder — plays? (Star Tribune file photo of the Ponders together is from Vikings training camp in 2013, long before Sam Ponder switched to an NFL role).

Christian Ponder is still a free agent and hasn’t thrown a regular-season NFL pass since 2014, his final year with the Vikings. But he was on the 49ers last season and there’s a decent chance he’ll find his way onto an NFL roster in 2017. Even if he doesn’t sign somewhere, Christian Ponder has numerous ties to the league — and Sam Ponder acknowledges she has friendships with NFL players.

It’s an interesting conflict-of-interest question — one posed in a recent interview with Sam Ponder by SI’s Richard Deitsch. Ponder gave a thoughtful answer, that reads, in part:

“I am not an analyst, so my role isn’t to critique my husband, his teammates or anyone for that matter. However, I do think that when fully disclosed and appropriate, relationships with athletes and coaches can greatly benefit sports fans. It helps me know the right questions to ask, to challenge guys when something doesn’t add up and generally gives me a foundation of understanding about what these men’s lives are really like. I’m not ashamed to know guys in the league on a personal level and I’m certainly not going to try to hide who my husband is because I am immensely proud of the man I married. I’m well aware of the criticism that evokes among some fans, but I trust that over time, the way I do this job will put much of that to rest.”

Ponder is right in that her role makes it less of a sticky situation. She’s not being asked to give an opinion but rather be more of a moderator for discussions.

That said, in that role she has the power to shape discussions in certain ways. I don’t doubt her ability to be professional, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who was uncomfortable watching Ponder talk about a team for which Christian plays.

Twins haven’t won on Opening Day since 2008? (Plus other facts with 10 days until the opener)

twins2008As you stare outside at this gray, drizzly, chilly day in the Twin Cities, it might be hard to believe that Opening Day for the Twins — which is at Target Field this year, a rarity — is only 10 days away.

Whether you view that as a threat or a reason to be excited, it will be here before you know it. As such, here are five facts you should know as we count down to the start of the 2017 Twins season:

1) The Twins open the season on Monday, April 3, with a 3:10 p.m. game against the Royals. They will open the season at home for just the second time since they moved into Target Field in 2010. The extended forecast — a tricky thing this far out — calls for a sunny day in Minneapolis on April 3 with a high of 47. That would be a few degrees cooler than the average high in Minneapolis on April 3, but I think the Twins and fans could live with the upper 40s and sunny that day.

2) Even more rare than opening at home for the Twins? Winning the season opener. Owing perhaps to a combination of often starting on the road, where it is generally tougher to win, and having some poor teams of late, the Twins have not won their opener since 2008. In three of those seasons (2011, 2012, 2016) the Twins were never above .500 the entire year. In the 2008 victory, Livan Hernandez was the opening day starter and got the victory, tossing seven innings and allowing two runs to outduel the Angels’ Jered Weaver at the Metrodome. Yes, that seems like forever ago.

3) Twins opening day starters since their last opening day win: Francisco Liriano (2009), Scott Baker (2010), Carl Pavano (2011 and 2012), Vance Worley (2013), Ricky Nolasco (2014), Phil Hughes (2015) and Ervin Santana (2016. That’s an eclectic mix, to be sure, but it wasn’t all the fault of the pitchers. In losing eight consecutive openers, the Twins have been outscored 45-16 — scoring an average of two runs per game and never scoring more than three in any of the eight.

4) Hey, the Twins have been pretty good this spring. They have a 14-10 record in these tune-up games, tied for third-best among American League teams. ByungHo Park leads the team with four spring home runs and has a 1.140 OPS. Of course, we can’t read too much into spring training results. Last year’s Twins, after all, went 19-11 in the spring and felt good about themselves heading into the season. They then proceeded to lose 103 games, the most they’d ever lost since moving to Minnesota.

5) All that said, let’s leave here with a little optimism. Baseball Prospectus projects the Twins will win 78 games in 2017. While that wouldn’t put Minnesota in playoff contention, it would be a 19-game improvement over last year and restore some hope that the team could contend in the future. Getting off to a good start would help that become a reality. With 19 consecutive games at the start of the season against AL Central foes, we will know where the Twins stand pretty quickly.

Wild’s slide is reminiscent of Vikings’ plummet, with one key difference

dubnykAfter the Wild beat the Sharks 3-2 earlier this week with a tight, efficient defensive effort, head coach Bruce Boudreau had a little bit of a “yeah, but” reaction. Basically, he wanted to see Minnesota produce that kind of effort and result more than once before he was going to declare the Wild’s slump was over.

And, well, the veteran coach was correct to proceed with caution. The Wild fell back into its losing ways Thursday with a bad 3-1 loss to the Flyers. Minnesota sports fans who are only a few months removed from watching a promising Vikings season go off the rails are wondering if the same thing is happening to the Wild.

The answer is yes — but with a major difference.

In terms of basics of the slumps for both teams, there are definite similarities. In jumping out to great starts and establishing themselves as early favorites to win championships, both the Vikings and Wild had a feeling of doing no wrong. Both had been playoff teams the year before, but both were suddenly on another level. In both cases, there was a nagging feeling that the teams were overachieving, but few predicted that either would fall back to earth so dramatically.

But both did — for now, at least.

The Vikings certainly did. Their season is long gone, with that 5-0 start yielding to an 8-8 finish after eight losses in their final 11 games. As they sputtered to that finish, there was still hope along the way that the Vikings could stabilize enough to at least make the playoffs. But it just never happened. It only got worse.

That’s where the story is different with the Wild, and that’s an important thing to remember. Minnesota, in spite of a Vikings-esque stretch of nine losses in 12 games, is going to make the playoffs. The Wild missed a chance to clinch a playoff berth with that loss to the Flyers on Thursday, but with nine games left it’s an inevitability that Minnesota will still make it.

Although the slump will almost certainly cost the Wild a chance to win the Central Division since Chicago now has an eight-point lead, Minnesota is still in second place in the division with a strong nine-point lead over the Blues and Predators.

So in all likelihood, the Wild is going to have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and will face either the Blues or Predators, depending on which one finishes third. Chicago will face whichever of the two wild card teams has the fewest points — which could very well be the Blues or Predators as well.

If Minnesota is able to find its game and get past the first round to (likely) face Chicago, the Blackhawks would have home ice. So the penalty for this Wild slide essentially might be the loss of one home playoff game.

Long story short: before we get too deep with the Wild vs. Vikings comparisons, remember that the Wild still very much has a chance to save its season. Minnesota won’t go far playing the way it is right now, but if that changes by the time the playoffs roll around the slump at the end of the regular season largely will be an afterthought.

Best-case and worst-case scenarios for Minnesota pro teams

nino2This feels like a vulnerable time for Minnesota pro sports teams, with a wide range of possible outcomes that could dictate each team’s future.

As such, let’s take a spin through the best-case and worst-case scenarios for our local pro teams over the next few months:

Wild: Best-case scenario — The first 60 games of the season were indicative of the team’s overall strength. Minnesota gets back to having a potent offense driven by balanced scoring and Devan Dubnyk once again plays like one of the NHL’s best goalies, leading the Wild on a deep playoff run that includes a series win over the rival Blackhawks.

Worst-case scenario — A recent slide that saw Minnesota lose eight of 10 games and struggle in several areas carries over to the playoffs, where a great three-fourths of the season is undone by a first-round exit — made even more painful if it’s at the hands of the Blues and former Wild coach Mike Yeo.

Wolves: Best-case scenario — The progress witnessed for much of the second half of the season and most notably right after the all-star break is fortified by a strong closing stretch to this season. The Wolves then use a high draft pick on a rim-protecting big man and sign a lockdown perimeter defender who can make threes in free agency, giving them real potential going into next year.

Worst-case: The improved play was a mirage and young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are burned out from the heavy minutes and demanding style of coach Tom Thibodeau. Free agents don’t want to come here, Towns and Wiggins start planting rumors about wanting to be traded and the franchise hits reset again.

Vikings: Best-case scenario — The Vikings draft two competent young offensive linemen next month, giving them some real depth to go with their two new free agent tackles. They uncover one more red zone playmaker at wide receiver — whether it’s Laquon Treadwell or someone else — and suddenly their offense is functional. The defense, which no longer feels like it has to carry the team every game, starts dominating again.

Worst-case scenario — The offensive line upgrades don’t end up being enough, and as a result points are hard to come by and/or Sam Bradford gets hurt. The defense continues to feel like it needs to win every game 2-0. Mike Zimmer starts working 29 hours each day, but the team plummets to 6-10.

Twins: Best-case scenario — Two of every three (or more) players with a high ceiling but low floor comes through this season.

Worst-case scenario — One of every three (or fewer) of those players comes through this season. The description of “high ceiling, low floor,” by the way, pertains to about 20 of the 25 players projected to make the opening day roster.

Lynx: Best-case scenario — Maya Moore and the veterans around her continue to prove they are one of the best teams in the West, silencing any doubters (again) who think the Lynx are getting too old.

Worst-case scenario — Age catches up with Seimone Augustus (33 next month), Lindsay Whalen (35 in two months) and Rebekkah Brunson (35) and the Lynx start to fade.

United: Best-case scenario — The recent draw at Colorado (never an easy place to play) proves more indicative of the team’s potential than two lopsided losses to start the season. The expansion side has typical growing pains but offers plenty of reasons for optimism along the way.

Worst-case scenario — Those first two losses by a combined 11-2 margin prove to be more the rule than the exception, going beyond typical growing pains and making it hard for die-hard soccer fans to take the team seriously. As a result, the Loons have a hard time carving out their desired space in a crowded sports market.

Ex-Viking Kalil says he’s off Twitter because of harassment from Minnesota fans

kalilWhen Matt Kalil signed as a free agent with Carolina a couple weeks ago, joining forces with his brother, Ryan, there was some Twitter hilarity that ensued.

Ryan posted a couple of funny images, including a GIF from the movie “Stepbrothers.”

The brothers were on recently with Rich Eisen, who complimented Ryan on the amusing tweets. But when the conversation about Twitter turned to Matt, the message was a little different.

“You’re not even on Twitter, are you Matt?” Eisen asked the younger of the two brothers.

“After playing in Minnesota, I just got rid of my Twitter,” Matt replied, drawing some laughs that were real yet uncomfortable. “I was harassed left and right.”

Matt Kalil used to be on Twitter under the @mattkalil handle — at least according to this list the Vikings put out at one time — but it’s safe to say things got ugly as his play with the Vikings regressed (and the confrontations weren’t limited to social media).

Ryan teased his brother that “some guys can handle it and some guys can’t,” but he later said that during some season he deletes the Twitter app to avoid dealing with fans.

“Players read that stuff,” Ryan said.

Matt declared that he’s “off the grid,” though he did say he has a private Instagram account. It doesn’t sound like he plans to rejoin Twitter anytime soon, though.

Here’s the full segment: