Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Brand New Year

Happy New Year!

I haven't been able to bring myself to create any entries based on the general lack of news the last week or so, but now enough little things have piled up that I can comment briefly on a few of them:

Same Old Vikings

No, the team that took the field last Sunday was not an improvement over the one we saw all season long. All the weaknesses that had hampered them throughout the year were on display:

Poor punt coverage
Sporadic offense
Insensible game management
Great defense - except for that one big play

I have never been as hard on Tavaris Jackson as most people. He didn't play well on Sunday, but neither did Adrian Peterson, Visanthe Shiancoe, Matt Birk, or Chris Kluwe, to name a few others. What is clear is that, at this point, Jackson isn't good enough to lead the team back from behind against one of the league's better defenses. The Vikes will probably never go deep into the playoffs until they get a guy like that - whether Jackson can still develop into such a QB I don't know.

The team achieved the minimum I had established for a successful season: go 10-6 and make the playoffs. They didn't need to do a lot more to have a better record, and had a pretty tough schedule outside of the division. Next year, the bar will be higher yet - with 4 games against the NFC West instead of the mighty NFC South, there's an opportunity to pick up a couple of wins. If they only do a better job of containing big plays next year, that should get them to 12-4 by itself.

I want to applaud the defense for their heroic effort this weekend. Not only did they keep Philadelphia out of the end zone (except for that one big play), they often did it with a short field behind them. They bailed their coaches out for their asinine decision to throw in the final minute of the 1st half, giving the Eagles one more possession before halftime. And they did it while playing most of the game without 4 of their starters (Pat Williams, Ray Edwards, EJ Henderson and Darrin Sharper). That group is still the core to build around next year.

However, they're starting to get a little long in the tooth. Williams, Sharper and Antoine Winfield are all on the unhappy side of 30. As key as they are to the success of the defense, it might be a good idea to start investing some premium draft picks in the guys who will be taking over for them in a couple of years. As great as it is having Chester Taylor as a backup, I think the Vikes could do just fine with a Mo Williams caliber RB in that role. I'd much rather see someone as good as Taylor at the TE and possession receiver position. If they could trade Taylor (a good RB) and Shiancoe (a decent TE) for a good TE and decent RB, that would probably be more valuable to the offense.

Carl Pohlad Passes

Twins owner Carl Pohlad passed away yesterday after a very long and fruitful life. When he bought the team 25 years ago, the Twins were adrift as an organization, averaging 79 wins over the 10 seasons following their playoff appearance in 1970, but never finishing higher than 3rd place. They fell off a competitive cliff in the early '80s, playing .395 ball from 1981-1983. The Pohlad owned Twins finished 1st or 2nd in 11 of 25 seasons, including 6 playoff appearances and 2 World Series championships. Though he was perennially criticized for his tight-fisted spending, he did enable the Twins to retain All-Stars Kent Hrbek, Brad Radke and Kirby Puckett for their entire careers, and allowed Bill Smith to make reasonable offers to Torii Hunter and Johan Santana last year.

For all the good he did for the franchise, he tried to kill it after the 2001 season. Thank goodness a judge was able to block contraction, or we would have missed out on 7 wonderful years of Twins baseball, plus the bright future in a new ballpark. Since the threat of contraction, the value of the Twins franchise has increased at a double-digit annual rate, thanks to a consistently competitive team and some superstars developed from within the system. Not only was contraction a short-sighted business decision, it was also utterly heartless. I understand that most baseball owners come from the business world, and I don't expect them to throw away their acumen once they enter the owners box. However, a baseball team isn't a bank - it is enmeshed with the self-image of the people who share its home. Don't buy a baseball team because you want to make money. Buy a baseball team because you're rich, you take pride in your home town and you want your team to represent that pride to the rest of the country.

The present business model that the Twins have in place looks to be sustainable, and the team plays in a weak enough division that they should be able to remain competitive despite a relatively constrained payroll. The type of baseball that the Twins have chosen to endorse - pitchers who throw strikes, strong defense and fundamentals - is a recipe for low-cost success. That's a credit to the ownership.

Ultimately, there's more to be grateful for from the Carl Pohlad era than to complain about. Whether his family assumes the reins or sells, the new owners have a terrific asset to enjoy for the foreseeable future. As a blogger, I have to mention that the silver lining of this loss is that I will no longer have to read comments from people bitching about how Pohlad never spends any money. Guess they'll have to find a new boogeyman.

The Tepid Stove

Setting aside the Yankees' 3-player, $400+ million spending spree, this year's free agents aren't getting nearly as much as they expected. Rafael Furcal signaled this with his 3-year, $30 million contract, which was somewhere around half the total value he was looking for. K-Rod smashed the season saves record and was rewarded with fewer years and dollars than Joe Nathan got last spring; the Angels replaced him with Brian Fuentes for 2 years, $17.5 million. Now, the Rays just signed Pat Burrell for 2 years, $16 million to be their DH.

Clearly, there are ample bargains out there, and the Twins are one of the few teams with some cap space to work with. So it's a bit disappointing that they haven't made more of this opportunity than re-signing Nick Punto. However, there are still several weeks left before spring training, and plenty of guys (particularly relief pitchers) who might be worth taking a very cheap chance on for next season.

The lack of activity suggests that Bill Smith has confidence that he can win with the same guys he had last year. I think last year's team is a contender, but it probably needs a little something extra to become a champion. The players who can make that little difference may never be so cheap again.

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