Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Twins bring back Cuddy, LaTroy, Torii. Party like it's 2002!

The boys are back in town.

Monday, the Minnesota Twins announced they're bringing back three very familiar and fan-friendly faces to the organization. Michael Cuddyer, LaTroy Hawkins and Torii Hunter, all former players with the club, will hold new job titles: Special assistant.

The trio only overlapped for three seasons with the Twins, 2001-03, but it was a very exciting time in Twins Territory. The team was just on the upswing of a great decade filled with division titles (and yes, playoff series losses to the Yankees). All three are going back to their original baseball roots, since it was the Twins that chose them in the draft.

They'll be key guys in the front office helping out with the trade deadline, draft, act as instructors in spring training and visit minor league affiliates throughout the season.

They all started in Minnie
Hawkins was picked in the 1991 draft and spent nine seasons with the Twins from 1995-2003. He pitched out of the bullpen and acted as the Twins closer for a time. He then spent 12 more years in baseball for a 21-year career.

Cuddyer spent most of his career in Minnesota, from 2001-11. He wrapped up his career with three seasons in Colorado before a year with the Mets. He was on the 2015 roster for the New York Mets when they lost the World Series to Kansas City.

Hunter is perhaps one of the most popular players in Twins history, rivaling the likes of Kirby Puckett after he followed in his center-field footsteps. He wrapped up a 19-year MLB career, including 12 years with the Twins, bookending his career in Minnesota in 2015 after a few years with the Angels and Tigers. He's a five-time All-Star who won nine consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 2001-09. He brought some energy into the clubhouse in 2015 with the #TwinsDanceParty. He was inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame this past season.

With more than 1,000 career games, Hawkins no doubt has some pitching advice to offer. That's good, for a current rotation that could probably use the pep talks and advice. Hunter dazzled with his outstanding catches in center field that had everyone thinking back to the days of Puckett. Cuddy became one of the good guys, too, and developed quite a cannon in the outfield.

Remember when...
The nostalgia meter is running pretty high with the announcement yesterday. I think a lot of fans thought back to 2002, when the Twins won their first of six American League Central Division titles throughout the early 2000s. It was a fun time in the Twin Cities for baseball. They won a playoff series over the Athletics before losing to the eventual World Champion Angels in the ALCS.

That year, they finished 94-67 in the regular season. They had the core of Doug Mientkiewicz, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie, Cristian Guzman and, um, David Ortiz on the roster. It was the start of some great baseball in the Twin Cities, regardless of the playoff results that came along with it.

For me, it was pretty special because this was just a couple years after I became a serious sports fan. I started watching the last couple years of Tom Kelly's tenure, just when the team was on the upswing after the abysmal 90s years. I learned about baseball and learned about these players. So, I guess I'm part of that nostalgic group that really has a special place in my heart to recognize this team.

Twins way?
Some criticize the so-called "Twins way" of doing things, bringing back people who've been in the organization or hiring within. There might be some validity to that in certain cases, but I don't think it's all that uncommon for teams across the league to bring back former players for roles like special assistants.

These aren't huge positions of power, after all, like a manager or general manager. These guys can offer support and draw on their experiences as a player for the Twins to help the current players so they can win more games next year. I'm sure they'll help with the ol' cliche "team chemistry," too.

So, welcome back, fellas!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Back to life, back to reality

A few weeks ago, I wrote about all the goals the Wild kept scoring. Four goals a game, five goals. It was a simpler time. Predictably, the goal-scoring high has come crashing down. I knew it even as I penned that piece.
Now, it's pretty hard to sustain these goal outbursts for a long period of time. Once again though, this team proves it only rides at the very top and very bottom of the roller coaster. Not much in between.

The Wild were near the top of the NHL is goal scoring. Then the schedule fairy gave the boys big gaps between games (not making excuses here) and the scoring scaled way back. They sat in 19th in the goals-for category when I checked Monday night.

Take a look at the game scores
They started November with a 2-1 loss to the buddies of Buffalo, then a 1-0 loss in Colorado. Then there was a 4-2 victory over the Penguins. Huge win there. Right back down with a 3-2 loss in Philly. A 2-1 overtime win over the Senators was a breath of fresh air, since the Wild have struggled in the 3-on-3 format.

Then another 1-0 loss, this time to Calgary at home. They went nearly two games without a goal before a 1-0 victory when Boston came to town.

Really, the 1-0 victory over the Bruins last Thursday didn't feel like much of a celebration either. The Wild scored the goal with less than a minute left in the game, and it didn't even go in from a Wild player's stick. It went in off the opposing players. Part of me thought it was refreshing, since those types of goals usually get scored against the Wild. Not the other way around.

Anyway, that game felt like an overtime loss waiting to happen. So they squeaked away with the two points. Similarly, the 3-2 overtime loss in Dallas didn’t feel like much to write home about either. Two comebacks and getting the “moral victory” point. Big deal.

Of course, things were bad (and perhaps worse) with the 3-2 loss to the Avs Saturday. At home. Against a divisional foe. Ugh. The final score wasn't really the worst part. It was the fact that the Wild were up 2-0 before apparently deciding the dreaded two-goal lead was enough to coast through most of the third period.

Who’s carrying the team?
What I really want to touch on is the shift in scoring. Coach Bruce Boudreau bluntly addressed this in his presser of frustration after Saturday's loss. "When was the last time any of us had a multi-point game?”

He's got a point. Teams won't get too far in this league without some depth and guys that can have those multi-point games. Mikko Koivu has two goals so far this season – the same tally as Zach Parise (who’s been out a few games with an injury) and tough guy Chris Stewart. Jason Pominville has three goals. Charlie Coyle and Eric Staal lead the team with five goals apiece.

I'm trying to figure out what the problem is here. And I know if we could snap our fingers and fix it, we wouldn’t be here. Is it the lackluster power play? All those shots that go wide of the net? The shots they don't take? Just being the ever-popular "snake-bit"? I don't know. Maybe it’s the same old idea that this team just doesn’t have the finishers. It seems like we talk in circles with this.

I've grown so accustomed to watching this team that I'm not sure if this is a problem that is with the Wild or is something that all teams struggle through at some point in a season.

I see a lot of the same habits. Shots going wide, guys just not being able to pull the trigger in front of the net, waiting just another split second before shooting from the point, which allows the defender to predict it and usually block or deflect it.

These things are part of the game and will happen. It's just that everything obviously gets magnified when a team has trouble scoring goals.

So it goes with the Wild’s lack of scoring. We’ll just continue to be frustrated until they figure it out for a little while.

This was originally posted at WildXtra.com

Follow WildXtra on Twitter @wildxtra

Friday, November 11, 2016

Lots of down time lately

Somebody asked me yesterday: How’s hockey season going? I had to pause. Hockey season… Oh! That’s right, the Wild are in month No. 2 of this 2016-17 season. It can get lost in the shuffle when a team has oodles of days off.

Earlier this season, I wrote about back-to-backs in the schedule. Now, I guess it’s logical that I write a bit of a grumbling post about this extended break the Wild have in early November. The Wild have three games in 12 days. So far it’s been two losses before their game tonight. Their last win was Oct. 29 with a 4-0 victory over Dallas at home.

Hey, at least the weather around here has been nice. So I hope everyone has gotten out to enjoy it.

I realize again that this isn’t much of a productive piece, exactly. Schedules are what they are and teams and fans can’t change them. As much as sports fans like to complain about the quirks in the calendar, I’m pretty sure no one really envies the schedule makers either.

The benefits of a long break:
Guys can get a chance to heal from any nagging injuries. For some of the minor ones, it could mean less games missed. Not playing a bunch of games right together gives the body a little break, too.

Breaking in Bruce. There’s a learning curve that comes along with a new coach. Bruce Boudreau has made his presence felt already, but it’s a long season and there’s more work to be done so he can get to know his players and find the best formula.

The disadvantages of a long break:
Just don’t even look at the standings. Seriously, it has to be frustrating to sit idle while the rest of the teams in the league continue on with their games. Especially in the Wild’s case right now, since they lost their lost two games in regulation.

I seem to remember this issue of being behind in the games-played column happened last year, too, thanks to another early break. I’d check the standings and it seemed the Wild were always two, three, four games behind the rest in their division. Yes, I know all teams play 82 games and each game is worth two points. Things even out. It’s more mental than anything. Still, it’s hard not to think about.

It’d be logical to assume that these days off are so much worse when the momentum is the losing kind. So much time to dwell on the loss. On the other hand, it might be tough to have a win and then be disappointed that the positive momentum comes to a halt with a bunch of off days.

Anyway, hockey will be played again, so fear not. The Wild face off against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins tonight on the East coast. Plus, there’s always other hockey games on TV to watch on Wild off nights.

I guess I’m wondering if other people have thoughts about this schedule thing. Am I just making a big deal about nothing? Or is it a big bummer to have so much time in between seeing Bruce and the boys on the bench? What do you think are the pros and cons of these schedule quirks? I welcome your thoughts.

If nothing else, it seems to me this is a talking point. When there’s no game to talk about.

This was originally posted at WildXtra.com

Follow Wild Xtra on Twitter @wildxtra

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Falvey, Levine usher in 'new era' for Twins

The Minnesota Twins lost 103 games in 2016, easily marking the worst record in baseball and setting a new Twins record. There were pitching woes, hitting struggles and blown leads. That's probably enough dwelling on that.

Monday, the Twins introduced a couple of fresh faces to the organization: Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. Falvey, fresh off the near-victory in the World Series as a member of the Cleveland Indians front office (he started there as an intern), is the executive vice president and chief baseball officer. Levine, coming to Minnesota after a long stint with the Texas Rangers (hope he likes snow), is the senior vice president and general manager.

From left: Jim Pohlad, Derek Falvey, Thad Levine, Dave St. Peter

Job titles aside, I think these two will pretty much work together to make all kinds of great baseball decisions for the team. Falvey is technically the one in the higher position, but him being the boss is not the impression they gave at the news conference.

A whole new chapter
It's a fresh start for the Twins, after a very tough season that also saw the resignation of long-time general manager Terry Ryan around the All-Star Break. Fresh starts are good, and that's how the vibes felt Monday. Good.

Dave St. Peter, president of the Twins, offered up some of his excitement, too.

"I think it represents the dawn of a new era for our franchise," St. Peter said. "We couldn't be more pleased with where things landed. We believe Derek and Thad will form a very special partnership. They both have made significant contributions to successful franchises."

Besides Falvey's success this season, Levine and the Rangers won the pennant in 2010 and 2011. Funny thing is, which they acknowledged with a laugh at the presser, the Twins actually played some of their best baseball against Cleveland and Texas this season.

'We (will be) the champions, my friends'?
Anyway, a recurring theme throughout the news conference was championship-caliber baseball. What a ring to it, right? Falvey said he looks forward to bringing championship baseball back here. I don't remember 1987 or 1991 (I was around!), so this is the hope.

"This is one of the most proud, resilient franchises in baseball," Falvey said.

He added that the goal is "straight forward and measurable... to build a sustainable, championship-caliber team." Now, many people like to talk about the "Twins Way." No, not referring to the address. Actually, some people have turned it into a mocking tool. But when Falvey brought up the Way, he said it will be to thrive together, because the people in the Twins organization care about it on a very deep level. They'll focus on growth, he said.

Both men were very well spoken without talking just to talk. Levine made his mark early as a witty fellow, mentioning the favorable weather recently and adding Mother Nature to his list of thank-yous. He drew laughs from the full-house media core more than once, including when he answered the legendary Sid Hartman's question.

Levine, 44, said he'd like this to be the last stop in his career. Again, I hope he and his family don't mind the snow. He called this job a "dream come true."

"I'm quite confident the best chapter is yet to come, and it starts today," Levine said.

They've got their pulse on analytics in the game, for one thing. So, using that to build teams could shake things up a bit. It's a meaningful piece of the puzzle, Levine said. Falvey also said that there are building blocks here with some good players but that he also doesn't like to put time tables on teams. Patience will probably be key.

No time wasted
They didn't waste any time getting to work. Remember, they had to wait until Falvey's season was finished with Cleveland before he could start with the Twins. Thanks to a seven-game World Series, it was about as long as possible. Falvey and Levine flew out to Arizona for the general manager meetings that night. By Tuesday evening (in the middle of the election night drama), the team announced coaching changes. Hitting coach Tom Brunansky and first-base coach Butch Davis will not return.

I'm excited to see the moves this young duo makes. One key thing that I think people are excited about: They're from outside the organization. Whether that's a huge benefit remains to be seen, but it's not something that's typical of an organization that has had just a few managers over the years and hires many coaches from within.

Nothing will happen overnight. With so many losses last season, one would think there's nowhere to go but up for this team though. I'll be interesting to see how Falvey and Levine leave their mark to being that championship-caliber baseball back to Minnesota.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Games are 60 minutes

Let’s review: NHL games, in regulation, are 60 minutes. That’s three periods that are 20 minutes each. There’s a five-minute overtime period if the score is tied after those 60 minutes. Just so we’re all clear on that.

Just having a little fun, because I think fans and bloggers realize the length of a hockey game. I mean, I’ll take words over numbers any day, but this is math that even I can do. The real question is: Do the Minnesota Wild players understand this concept?

This comes up again and again with this team. The fact that they don’t seem to give their full effort throughout the entire game. How many times can everyone hear the same questions and the same answers in the intermission interviews? “We just need to come out with more energy. We didn’t get off to the start we wanted to…” It really gets old.

The pattern of poor starts appeared again in Tuesday’s game. The Wild managed just six shots on goal and got down 1-0 early. They recovered to play a bit better and tied the game. But eventually, the Wild lost 2-1.

It’s enough to play the what-if? game surrounding the first 20 minutes.

While making this argument, I also realize the season is 82 games. There will be off nights. There will be sluggish starts. It happens because everybody, no matter what they do, has an off night some time. I get that. Teams don’t go 82-0, after all.

But make no mistake, this is a pattern for the Wild. Maybe it’s a poor start. Maybe it’s a slacking second period after an energetic start. It happens more often than Wild fans would like to see, that’s for sure. I don’t know what the deal is, really. Do the guys have trouble getting pumped up for a home game? Is the particular opponent that night just astonishingly better? Jet lag? A lack of talent? I really have no idea. Or maybe it’s completely normal and every other team goes through this, too. Please weigh in if you think this is the case.

Here’s the good news: Bruce Boudreau.

After a bad loss earlier this season, Boudreau already put his new team through a hard-working practice. I’d like to think it’s something like that scene in “D2” when oily-haired, living-the-life Coach Bombay makes his young players skate the length of the ice over and over after Iceland creamed them in the Junior Goodwill Games. Then Charlie (Perhaps it would be Ryan Suter in this case for the Wild?) says: “This isn’t very much fun, coach.”

Anyway, it sounds like Boudreau put the boys through another tiring practice after the Buffalo loss this week. In Michael Russo’s blog, he referred to it as “a battling practice… designed to get the sweat pouring.” Man, that’s great. He also changed up the lines during practice, looking at a Jason Zucker-Eric Staal-Charlie Coyle line.

The other thing Boudreau isn’t afraid to do, it seems, is to speak publicly when players aren’t doing well. This is a change for this team, and it’s one I’d view as a good and motivating one.

I don’t know if these are true cures for the Wild’s lackluster efforts that get put forth sometimes. I just think these moves by Boudreau are encouraging. After a loss like the one to Buffalo, a tough practice is totally warranted. It shows that he’s not willing to accept some lazy skating on game nights. I’m OK with that. The hope is it will be a wake-up call to improve play, come out buzzing from the start and give 100 percent.

Because after all, they should be at the top of their game for those 60 minutes each time out.

This was originally posted at wildxtra.com

Follow Wild Xtra on Twitter @wildxtra