Welcoming Ricky

After a two-year wait, Ricky Rubio is finally a Timberwolf.

He arrived Monday afternoon in Minneapolis, greeted by a crowd of a couple hundred people at the airport. Now that the hype has reached its peak, we can soon find out how well Ricky will adjust to life in the NBA.

Rubio has been criticized by NBA experts in recent months, partly due to the fact that his statistics have been lacking during his recently completed season in Europe. But those who believe Rubio will fare well in the NBA point out the fact he is much more suited to the wide-open, full-court action of the world’s best basketball league.

The upcoming season, which may not happen due to the potential for a labor disagreement and lockout, is perhaps the most important in the history of the Timberwolves franchise. Right now, they have the second pick in Thursday’s draft at a time they are welcoming the most-hyped player since Kevin Garnett. There are plenty of reasons for people to talk NBA in the Twin Cities, and the team is hoping to capitalize on the momentum.

One year from now we’ll know much more about the future of the NBA in Minnesota. If Rubio is truly the phenom we have been promised, Target Center could once again become the place to be on a cold winter night.

Finding a reason to watch the Twins

Two months ago it would have been hard to imagine the Minnesota Twins season would be over, for all intents and purposes.
Until this weekend’s trip to Kansas City, the Twins were 20 games below .500, and showed little signs of life with a seemingly unending list of injuries that seems to grow by the day.
Even though the competitive portion of the season is essentially over, there are still things to watch and keep the casual fan interested.
Most importantly, over the next month Twins fans need to see some key players start to play better in order to increase their trade value.
Specifically, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Matt Capps, Delmon Young and Jim Thome are key players who can fetch at least some mid-level prospects come trading deadline.
Cuddyer may be the most likely player who would be targeted by a contending team come late July. He has a large contract, but is a free agent at the end of the season if the Twins don’t exercise a player option for next year, which they should not and probably will not do. He is a power-hitting outfielder with post-season experience, and has position flexibility. Those are traits contending teams will covet.
Kubel is a left-handed hitter who could fill a solid role on a contender as well. He has hit well this season, but will have to avoid the injury bug that has hit so many other Twins players. His salary is reasonable as well. He probably has the most trade value of the aforementioned players and should be able to net a decent middle-infield prospect.
Thome also could be traded, although it would be a shame because fans have waited for him to hit #600 in a Twins uniform. However, his health is always a concern, and he wouldn’t be likely to fetch much of a prospect in return.
Young is an enigma. After a great season a year ago, he is perhaps having his worst season this year. He’s young, so the Twins could hope teams see his potential and take a flier. However, if he doesn’t start hitting their won’t be much of a return in trade.
Capps will likely be sought after as a set-up man, or as a potential closer for a contending team that loses a key reliever mid-year. He could net a B prospect at best.
There isn’t a lot to look forward to for the rest of the season, unless you focus on the future. The Twins will have about $50 million to spend in free agency this off-season, if they keep the same payroll next year and let go of players such as Cuddyer, Kubel and Capps. It’s time to look for the future and since hope no longer spring eternal, that is all we have to look forward to this summer.

No time to panic … yet

I know Minnesota’s sports fans have been conditioned during the past 12 months to expect the worst, but there is no reason to panic in relation to the Twins.

A 5-10 start isn’t what the doctor ordered, but to steal an often-used phrase Major League Baseball isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. After tonight’s game in Baltimore, the season will only be 10 percent completed.

You can expect the Twins to improve over the next two months. Their offensive lineup won’t perform this poorly all season long. Delmon Young, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Jim Thome and Danny Valencia are too good of hitters to stay as cold as they have been this season. The pitching staff has been OK at best, and as soon as the offense catches up wins will start to pile up.

The best news about the 5-10 start is that the Tigers and White Sox haven’t run away from the pack and put the Twins in a big hole. Sure, the Indians and Royals are playing well, but their pitching staffs will come back to earth and neither team is likely to finish the season with more wins than losses.

The bottom line is it is still early. The Twins are just getting out of the starting blocks, and there is plenty of time to make up ground. The real benchmark is the All-Star break in July. If the Twins are above .500, and within 6 games of first place, they will be just fine during the second half of the season.

Ready for the hardball

As Major League Baseball readies for opening weekend, fans have more options than ever to keep up with their favorite teams and the national pastime.

Starting this week, my options grew by one.

On Tuesday, I picked up my iPad, and the first App I downloaded was the MLB At-Bat 2011 app. With At-bat, along with my subscription to MLB’s online game package, I get every out-of-market baseball game that is broadcast this season. In total, my cost will be $99.99 for the full season of online games, and an additional $14.95 for the app.

What is really cool is that with my Android phone, I can also watch games with that same online subscription, and an additional $14.95 for the phone app. Without the online subscription, the $14.95 app lets you listen to every game’s radio broadcast, and that in itself is a great deal.

If that’s not enough, I also have the MLB app (free) on my Playstation 3, and that allows me to stream games on my big screen at home. So, essentially, for $130 I am able to watch Major League Baseball just about anywhere I want, on any medium, at any time because each game’s archive is also available to watch.

You have to give Major League Baseball a ton of credit for coming up with creative ways to market their products. Hardcore baseball fans like myself can track their favorite teams, fantasy baseball line-ups and quite simply, be immersed in the game for 6 months.

It’s come a long way since I was a kid, when watching a major league game meant waiting for Joe Garagiola and Vin Scully doing the game of the week on Saturday afternoon. You have to love technology!

A new Minnesota Cult Hero?

Maybe it’s all the snow that fell, causing cabin fever to hit overload. Or maybe I’m just ready for baseball season to begin.

Scanning the Internet this week led to an interesting video on Youtube related to the Twins new middle infielder, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. See the link here: Nishioka\’s chant

It’s quite the scene when Nishioka comes to the plate, and near as I can tell it happened every time he batted in Japan. I can’t quite see something like this happening at Target Field this season, but there is already a bit of a buzz among fans to do some sort of version.

One thing is for sure, baseball in Japan has more of a “college football” atmosphere to it than the sport has in the United States. Maybe this could be the start of a trend on this side of the pond?

For a longer version of the video, including an obviously great outcome to his at-bat at the 2:30 mark, see here:

Nishioka chant II

Challenge Accepted!

Two weeks ago, Farmington Independent sports writer Matt Steichen posted a blog which included his projections for the Minnesota Twins lineup in 2011. In passing, he mentioned I should do a similar projection and at the end of the year we could compare our numbers and see who had the best crystal ball.

Well, here goes for the offensive numbers. We’ll check back with pitchers later as the season approaches and the rotation takes shape.

1). Denard Span, CF: I expect a bit of a bounce-back year for Span, after a sub-par 2010. That said, I don’t expect a major turn-around. To me, he is probably the biggest key to the Twins success this season.

* Projection: .287 avg., 4 home runs, 52 RBI, 82 runs scored, 22 stolen bases

2). Tsuyoshi Nishioka, 2B: Probably the most difficult prediction to make, considering he doesn’t have a track record in America to rely upon.

* Projection: .272 avg., 7 home runs, 46 RBI, 62 runs scored, 26 stolen bases

3). Joe Mauer, C: Best hitter in the American League will continue his stellar career.

* Projection: .324 avg., 15 home runs, 89 RBI, 77 runs scored, 42 doubles (Top 5 in MVP voting)

4). Justin Morneau, 1B:I’m expecting his first full season in a few years, and the numbers will reflect. Remember, he might have been league MVP last year without the concussion.

* Projection: .293 avg., 26 home runs, 111 RBI

5). Jason Kubel, DH: I think he topped out last year, but he’s a relatively steady player.

* Projection: .277 avg., 19 home runs, 78 RBI

5A). Jim Thome, DH/PH: I don’t think he sees the field as much as last year, as health is hard to predict.

* Projection: .258 avg., 13 home runs, 58 RBI

6). Michael Cuddyer, RF: Probably his last year as a Twin, unless his contract shrinks next year.

* Projection: .273 avg., 18 home runs, 95 RBI

7). Delmon Young, LF: Not quite as good as last year, but not bad either.

* Projection: .275 avg., 18 home runs, 72 RBI

8). Danny Valencia, 3B: Can’t really expect his rookie season numbers to continue.

* Projection: .272 avg., 12 home runs, 58 RBI

9). Alexi Casilla, SS: He’s never thrived when handed a full-time opportunity.

* Projection: .242 avg., 2 home runs, 38 RBI

I’ll actually predict Casilla is out of the regular lineup by June 1st, and likely Trevor Plouffe will be in his place. As my tie-breaker pick, I’ll take Plouffe’s numbers at: .262 avg., 7 home runs, 38 RBI

What’s great about the Internet is these numbers will be a great topic of conversation throughout the season. We’ll see whether Matt or I have the better crystal ball. To check out Matt’s predictions, follow this link:

http://independentsportstalk.areavoices.com/2011/02/01/twins-projections/

Wolves are improved at midway point

Even though they have only won 11 games so far this season, the Timberwolves have offered a ray of hope so far this season.

At the season’s mid-term, Minnesota has shown a few promising flashes, including the All-Star level of play from Kevin Love and the offensive explosiveness of Michael Beasley.

Beasley has a tendency to disappear for stretches of a game, and even stretches of a week, but overall he is the Wolves’ best offensive player. Considering the team acquired him for nothing more than a 2nd round draft pick, the acquisition of the small forward trapped in a power forward’s body has to be considered a success.

Love has put up the only 30 point, 20 rebound performances in the NBA this season, and even topped 30 points an 30 rebounds in one contest. He is a consistent, solid performer who fills the stat sheet. He should be an All-Star, but politics probably will result in him being left home on All-Star Weekend.

Rookie Wesley Johnson has been inconsistent, but over the past two weeks has started to string together some strong performances. During the past four games, he is averaging more than 16 points per game and is shooting more than 50% from the field. If he becomes more consistent and improves his ball-handling, Johnson will be a solid addition to an 8-man rotation on a successful NBA team.

Perhaps the most disappointing Timberwolf this season has been Jonny Flynn, whose second year has been marred by injury. Flynn has been slow to recover, and really struggled during the first half of the season. In the past week, he has improved some, but still forces things on the offensive end. His quickness is starting to return, however, and the next two months will be a key to whether or not he pans out as a legitimate NBA point guard.

The schedule during the first half of the season has been brutal for the Timberwolves, and they have a stretch of games over the next month that they should be able to win. By April 1st, we should have a pretty good idea if this team is ready to turn the corner or if it will require another off-season overhaul prior to the expected (but not guaranteed) arrival of European superstar Ricky Rubio next season.

My kingdom for a quarterback

How long has it been since the Minnesota Vikings had a franchise quarterback?

Well, it depends upon how you define, “Franchise.”

For all intents and purposes, the Vikings thought they had their franchise quarterback when they drafted Daunte Culpepper during the 1999 NFL Draft. Culpepper’s career was up-and-down, with one spectacular season mixed among a few solid ones and a couple of bad ones before he was injured, and eventually traded, after the 2005 season to the Miami Dolphins.

If you consider Culpepper a “franchise quarterback” 2005 would be the answer to the aforementioned question. If Culpepper doesn’t fit the bill, the answer is that the team hasn’t had a franchise quarterback since Tommy Kramer’s last day as the Vikings quarterback late in the 1980s.

Either way, that is a lot of turnover when it comes to the most important position in professional football. Since Kramer’s last start in 1989, the Vikings starting quarterbacks have included a list of non-descript and over-the-hill players such as Wade Wilson, Rich Gannon, Jim McMahon, Sean Salisbury, Warren Moon, Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Culpepper, Jeff George, Todd Bouman, Spergon Wynn,  Gus Frerotte, Tarvaris Jackson, Kelly Holcomb, Brooks Bollinger, Joe Webb, and last but not least, Brett Favre. Yes, I know Favre technically came before Joe Webb, but it just seems like any list should end with Favre.

That list includes 17 starting quarterbacks in 21 years. Consider that the Green Bay Packers have had three starting quarterbacks since Favre started his streak in 1992.

The point is simple: The #1 goal for new coach Leslie Frazier and the Vikings this off-season should be finding a quarterback that it believes can start for the next decade. With Favre’s recent retirement (yeah, I know, I know) Webb is the only quarterback under contract entering next season. Here is my blueprint for finding that next “Franchise” quarterback.

#1: Make an effort to trade for Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton. Orton is coming off a very good statistical year with the Broncos. He passed for 3,653 yards and 20 touchdowns, with only 9 interceptions in 13 games. Those are above average stats, and Orton isn’t over the hill at age 28. Think this year was a fluke? Last year he threw for 3,802 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.Orton would be a huge upgrade over this year’s quarterbacks that sprayed footballs around the Metrodome. And since the Broncos seem to be hitching their wagon to Tim Tebow, Orton could be available for the right price (third-round draft pick?).

#2: Draft a quarterback in the first or second round if at all possible. Even if the Vikings get Orton, they should take steps to find a quarterback of the future, probably in the second round. The likely pick in that case? Washington QB Jake Locker or TCU’s Andy Dalton. Locker is a little bit of a risk, but at pick #12, the top two quarterbacks will likely be off the board. The Vikings should be able to get Locker (who was graded as the top QB in the draft last year had he not decided to return to college) in the second round, while shoring up another key position (offensive line or DB) in the first round. Dalton also can be had a bit later in the draft, and both him or Locker can learn for a couple years behind Orton. Dalton doesn’t have great physical skills, but has plenty of intangibles, according to most scouts.

#3: Let Joe Webb continue to develop in his role as a back-up quarterback. Webb showed some ability in his late-season starts, but is still way too raw to be considered for playing time next season.

Considering the Packers, Bears and Lions all have their quarterbacks of the future and all three are young, the Vikings are lagging far behind under center. With a little luck and planning, that could all change this off-season and the Vikings might finally find some consistency for the first time since Two-Minute Tommy. And any moves that keep the team from starting 17 more quarterbacks between now and 2024 can be considered a success.

Gophers are a bubble team … again

Minnesota Gophers fans had high hopes coming into the Big Ten men’s basketball season, but those hopes have faded amidst the reality that this team is not any different than the ones that have called Williams Arena home for the past three years.

The reality is Tubby Smith’s team is going to be on the bubble for a trip to the NCAA Tournament again this year. The reason? The Gophers have a bunch of individual parts that don’t create a whole.

Each of the pieces are good at one thing, and pretty much nothing else. Al Nolen is a defender. Trevor Mbakwe is strong. Devoe Joseph can shoot. Rodney Williams can dunk. Colton Iverson takes up space. Blake Hoffarber can shoot. Ralph Sampson is tall.

If you focus on those skills, it looks pretty good. But the problem is those players don’t have the corresponding skills to make them successful on the offensive end of the court.

Nolen is a good defender and he’s quick, but not a particularly good finisher at the basket and he can’t shoot. Mbakwe is a good rebounder and can finish at the rim, but can’t consistently hit a shot outside 2 feet. Joseph can shoot and when he’s hot watch out, but he doesn’t handle the ball well. Williams can dunk, and pretty much nothing else. Iverson is what he is and that is a good garbage man who can clean up in the paint, but often plays out of control. Hoffarber is as good of a shooter as there is in college basketball, but he can easily be taken out of the offense if an opponent focuses on shutting him down. Sampson … well, he’s soft. There is no other way to sugarcoat it. Those who thought he might go to the NBA after this season have absolutely nothing to be worried about.

The Gophers will likely finish a little over .500 in Big Ten play, which would likely put them into the tournament, but there is no guarantee. The Gophers will look good when Hoffarber and Joseph get red-hot from the 3-point line. They’ll play well at Williams Arena. They’ll win some games they shouldn’t, and lose some they shouldn’t.

Where does it leave them? Wondering if their seat has been secured for a March Madness run when the brackets are announced on a Sunday evening in early March. On the bubble … again.

Return to the good ole days

Now appearing for one night, and one night only. The Minnesota Vikings return to their roots.

When the Vikings return to the great outdoors to play the Chicago Bears tonight, it will have been nearly 3 decades since Minnesota’s professional football fans have watched their team play in the elements at home.

I was 10 when the Vikings last played outdoors, so most of my relevant Viking memories revolve around games played under a teflon roof. My parents did take me to several games at Met Stadium back in the day, and those are some of my fondest memories as a youngster. We’d stay overnight at the Thunderbird hotel, and then bundle up under blankets and drink hot chocolate from our seats in the lower deck near the endzone.

Tonight’s game will be a great reminder of days gone by, and it will be a good test of Vikings fans. It will be interesting to see how many decide to stay home due to the poor weather. Some experts expect only about 30,000 fans to show up at TCF Bank Stadium (which is a great venue for outdoor football). For those that stay home, what a shame. This may be the last time to watch the Vikings play an outdoor game at home. Myself, I’d give just about anything to have a ticket to the game.

We pride ourselves on being tough-minded, cold and snow doesn’t bother us Minnesotans. However, if the stadium is half empty tonight, expect ESPN to call us out as a bunch of wannabes. This is our chance to shine, and remember the good ole days. It will be interesting to see if Vikings fans are up to the task.