Signs of Life – The State of the Minnesota Sports Union

 

Almost a year ago, I wrote up my first State of the Sports Union post and called it “Sports Scars”. Yes, Minnesota is one of the more tortured sports markets in the country due to a prolonged championship drought and a number of huge disappointments over the years. But I contended that things were finally starting to look up for all FOUR of our major sports franchises. Now that we’re almost a year removed from that outlook, how are we faring? Does my over-the-top prediction that Minnesota would have a championship parade before the end of 2018 still sound pie-in-the-sky? Let’s take a quick look around.

I’ll be honest, the wild are fourth on my interest scale for Minnesota sports teams. I’m just not a big hockey fan. However, this past season was a fun one to follow from a distance. The roster was looking very talented and poised to make a push into the postseason and win a series or two. The one area that was giving the team trouble was the goal tender position – it was just too spotty and unsettled. To their credit, the Wild didn’t sit idly by. They recognized that they may be one player away from a contender, so they went out and acquired someone they believed could be that player: Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk sparked a really great run for the squad and they made the postseason and won a series. But then they hit the Blackhawks train and were summarily crushed.

What now? Well, it most think that re-signing Dubnyk should be a priority. Get the band back together and try again, right? The hated Blackhawks won the Cup and may need to re-tool, so the window is not shut for the Wild. But Dubnyk and his agent seem to be playing hardball a little on the money side of things. If they can get it worked out, this squad should be right back in it next season. They are definitely Minnesota’s most likely championship team right now.

Twins

Since last we spoke, the Twins actually showed that they are no longer satisfied with the status quo and didn’t want to wait too long to turn things around. They fired manager Ron Gardenhire and installed Paul Molitor as the new manager. Most still believed that this roster still had to spend a few years building before getting back into the postseason discussion. But, to the surprise of almost everyone, the team has been quite decent so far this season. They had a fantastic month of May, putting together one of the best in the majors that month. Their offense was potent and their pitching was surprisingly not terrible. They are doing so well, they were willing to go ahead and call up Byron Buxton this month and start getting him into big league shape! The nostalgic pick-up of Torii Hunter is actually looking like a great one as he’s contributed mightily on and off the field. The club looks like they’re having fun together again – playing pranks and organizing laser-lighted and smoke machine-enhanced dance parties after home wins.

Things have cooled a bit in June and the Twins aren’t holding down first place the division anymore. Still, if they can start swinging the bats again like they did in May, this team may just put themselves in the Wild Card discussion in August, something that sounded preposterous a year ago.

 

Vikings

After a rough early season last year and a promising late-season surge, my beloved Vikings had a very, very weird offseason. The Adrian Peterson charges, the confusion, the reinstatement, the contract fiasco, the welcoming back, etc. I’m sick of talking about it. But all that seems to (finally) be in the rearview mirror. Adrian is back with the team and starting to say the right things about moving forward. Beyond AP, Teddy Bridgewater showed last year that he can be the real deal. He was poised and, more importantly, he learned from his mistakes without letting them get inside his head. Mike Zimmer has proved to be a great coach on and off the field, setting expectations for his players and also having their backs. GM Rick Spielman grabbed some great players in the draft including a play-making cornerback in the 1st round (Trae Waynes) and essentially traded old and slowed Greg Jennings for the flashy Mike Wallace. The table is set, the pieces are in place (copyright Brett Favre).

Now that the drama of last year is behind the team, they are calmly looking to the bright future. While last season should have just been a lost year considering all the distractions and injuries, there was a lot to like about how the young guns performed. Now, with the roster at full strength and roles more clearly defined, this team is on everyone’s list for a much-improved record and maybe even a Wild Card in the playoffs. The future is bright!

 

Timberwolves

And finally, my Timberwolves. Last season was supposed to be about starting over. We had a raw and talented roster peppered with veterans to help them grow. This squad was supposed to finish close to the 8 spot in the Western Conference based on the talent they had. Well, the injury bug bit and bit hard on this team. Ricky Rubio missed significant time, as did many others. So while rookies Wiggins and Lavine got lots of playing time under their belts, the team sunk deeper and deeper in the standings (maybe by design?). In the middle of the season, coach and GM Flip Saunders borrowed a page from Twins GM Terry Ryan and brought back old fan favorite Kevin Garnett via trade. KG’s first game brought an electric sell-out crowd to the Target Center. It was awesome. They Kevin wore down quickly and didn’t contribute much at all to the team the rest of the way. Wiggins won Rookie of the Year, Zach Lavine won the Slam Dunk Contest, and that’s about it. The Wolves finished the season with the worst record in the league and the best odds to win the draft lottery. But that never happens to the Wolves, right?

WRONG! Through some kind of combination of quantum entanglement, dimensional transference, and magic, the Wolves won the #1 pick in the draft. Last night, they cashed that chip in on the highly touted Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is an immensely talented player with defensive chops and will fit perfectly with Wiggins and Rubio. It’s a dream come true for this team. And Flip wasn’t done! Now, stealing a page from Rick Spielman, he traded two second round picks to Cleveland (we have an in with them after the Love for Wiggins and parts deal) for the rights to their first round pick – which became Minnesota native PG Tyus Jones! The Wolves were coveting Jones and trying to move up to get him, Flip even said as much when announcing the Towns pick. Jones is very young and will be a fantastic backup to Rubio (who gets injured every year it seems) and a change of pace guard who can shoot.

People are calling last night the best night in the history of the Wolves franchise. Industry analysts see the Wolves as a team on the rise, worth watching even! With a very young core like this, the Wolves can build into something very special over the next 5 or even 10 years if they can keep them together. I’m so, so excited about this team right now.

 

Conclusion

Yes, yes I do. I think the Wild are the top prospect since they’re already a playoff team.

Our next best hope has to be the Vikings, with the coaching and talent to contend in the next two years I believe.

Third best hope is the Wolves, who look like they’re built to win closer to 2020 thank ’18. But in the NBA, a young roster can gel and get to the promised land fairly quickly (see the Warriors).

And I still believe the Twins are the farthest off just because baseball is hard to judge and the pitching still seems like it’s a tenuous situation. But who knows? I’ve been very surprised by their season thus far this year!

All in all, it’s a great time to be a Minnesota sports fan! It’s looking more and more like 2015 may be the year that the tide finally turns!