Vikings at the mercy of Percy

The Minnesota Vikings have taken a break from keeping a clean clubhouse by drafting dynamic wide receiver Percy Harvin from the University of Florida in the first round of Saturday’s NFL draft.

The good:

  • Harvin ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
  • Having played for the Gators, he should know how to handle the pressure of the NFL’s big stage.
  • Wide receiver is a position of need for the Vikings.

 The bad:

  • This guy had some problems during his college days, including testing positive for marijuana at the NFL Combine. He will now start his pro career already enrolled in the league’s substance abuse program.
  • Offensive line was also a position of need.

The Vikings did manage to get 6-foot-8, 338-pound Phil Loadholt (a last name like that HAS to belong to an offensive lineman). I was pretty surprised to see the Vikes take Harvin when Michael Oher from Mississippi was still on the board.

However, Harvin is an explosive player. One of the ESPN pundits on draft day compared him to Reggie Bush. I’m sure Vikings fans wouldn’t mind that.

As far as Harvin’s off-the-field problems, I think head coach Brad Childress has put his "clean up the clubhouse" mission on hold in favor of saving his job. NFL teams don’t keep coaches around for more than three seasons unless that coach has had a big breakthrough season. Childress, now entering his fourth season, must be hearing footsteps after going 24-24 as a head coach.

What does everyone think of the draft pick? Many of you keep closer tabs on the Vikings than I do.

Twins pitching takes steps in right direction

I’m not terribly excited by a line like this: 6 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 7 K.

But when Scott Baker manages to not give up a homer after giving up seven combined in his previous two starts, the Minnesota Twins obviously see progress.

The Twins lately have looked more like … well, the Twins. The starts have been better as of late, outside of that horrendous doubleheader against the Red Sox last week. Quality starts and inconsistent offense – that’s Twins baseball, isn’t it? 

Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins – the three guys considered back-end starters – have unquestionably outperformed the two co-aces – Baker and Francisco Liriano – so far this season.

Liriano is 0-4 on the season, pitching for the fifth time tonight against Tampa Bay. It’s a battle of two elements going in the wrong direction, as the defending AL champion Rays sit in last place in the AL East.

Liriano has had a puzzling season. For someone who has had Tommy John surgery, it’s easy to question his health while posting a 7.06 ERA so far this year. But he has struck out 17 in 21 2/3 innings, and when watching his starts, he looks like he has his stuff. And he’s actually been pretty good in his two home starts. Here’s the splits:

Home: 2 starts, 13 IP, 11 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 8 K, 3.46 ERA, .229 BAA
Road: 2 starts, 8 2/3 IP, 10 H, 12 ER, 8 BB, 9 K, 12.46 ERA, .294 BAA

So maybe it is just a case of a guy lacking confidence – or focus – on the road this season. The walk numbers in those splits definitely jump out at you, along with the batting average against.

Whatever it may be, Liriano will be at home tonight and the Twins will need to see him take a few steps in the right direction.

Cito Gaston pulls off another Toronto turnaround

Lost in the offensive explosion unleashed by the Toronto Blue Jays is the man who is once again in the background of Jays’ success.

Cito Gaston has done all of this before, which makes it hard to dismiss this year’s fast start.

Gaston’s first major league managerial job came during the 1989 season after the Blue Jays fired then-manager Jimy Williams following a 12-24 start. Gaston took over for Williams, and Toronto went 77-49 the rest of the way and won the AL East title. Two World Series championships would come in the next four years, making Gaston the first African-American manager to win baseball’s biggest prize.

But Gaston has never seemed to garner much respect. I doubt he would land in the top 5 in any poll asking who the best manager in the game today is. He never won the AL’s Manager of the Year award, despite the ’89 turnaround and the two titles.

Gaston was fired late in the 1997 season after some lean years in Toronto, and for the next 11 years he would be unable to land a managerial job. He came close in some job pursuits, finishing behind Ozzie Guillen for the Chicago White Sox job a few years back. Gaston always stood by his record, reaching the point where he said he wouldn’t manage again unless he didn’t have to interview.

Fast forward to 2008. Another manager fired. Another opportunity for Gaston.

He got his first shot to manage again last year for, who else, the Blue Jays. Toronto was off to a 35-39 start before John Gibbons was let go, and Gaston guided the Jays to a 51-37 mark since taking over that year.

And now Toronto finds itself with a major league-best 13-5 mark heading into Saturday’s play. Young players like Adam Lind and Travis Snider – who got little chance to play under Gibbons – have thrived under Gaston’s calmer approach (especially when compared with the occassionally fiery Gibbons).

And a rotation that has seen four solid starters – Dustin McGowan, Shawn Marcum, Jesse Litsch and Ricky Romero - injured since this time last year is doing OK. Roy Halladay and Co. are holding down the fort so far.

It will be tough for the Jays to maintain this success, but the Rays proved last year that this division isn’t just about the Red Sox and Yankees.

And hey, Gaston’s been here before.

Tyner traded for … nothing?

Another former colleague of mine, Casey Moen, tipped me off to a story today involving former Minnesota Twins outfielder Jason Tyner.

Tyner, who actually started playoff games for the Twins in 2006 at designated hitter, was traded from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Detroit Tigers for what sounds like nothing.

Here’s a line from the Detroit Free Press:

Dan Lunetta, the Tigers’ director of minor league operations, said the Brewers assigned Tyner’s contract to the Detroit organization. It didn’t appear that any cash or other players were involved in the transaction.

MLB Network said Tyner was traded for future considerations, but for the most part, this was a giveaway.

Trades involving future considerations happen from time to time. The fact that it’s Tyner is made more interesting when you go back less than a year ago. The Medina County Gazette had a story on Tyner, who at the time was a member of the Cleveland Indians. Tyner was reportedly upset with the Twins for not retaining him after the 2007 season.

"I thought I had earned my stripes (in Minnesota)," Tyner told the Medina County Gazette. "I had a tough role. You’d go a week without playing, but I thought I did my job. I guess they didn’t think about that when they made the decision.

"I’d like to get a shot at them. I know that."

What is on my mind, you ask? Oh, you didn’t ask. Well, I’m going to tell you anyway.

Here’s an assortment of random thoughts on Major League Baseball so far this season:

  • It’s tough to lose both ends of a doubleheader with your co-aces on the mound, but that’s just what the Twins did on Wednesday. Granted, the Boston Red Sox are a very good team. But Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano are as close as the Twins have to veteran presences in their rotation. The Twins are really banking on Glen Perkins to continue his hot start.
  • How about Maicer Izturis hitting third in the Los Angeles Angels’ order a couple times during that Twins-Angels series last weekend? I realize Vlad is hurt, but I gotta think Mike Scioscia - who is a great manager – has a better option than his utility infielder with a career .377 slugging percentage for the No. 3 spot in the order.
  • And while the Angels offense has been sluggish so far, former Twins outfielder Torii Hunter is off to a scorching start for them. Entering Wednesday night’s game, Hunter was hitting .310 with five homers so far this year.
  • The big name through the first week of the season was a tongue-twister: Emilio Bonifacio. The Florida Marlins third baseman had 14 hits through his team’s first five games and stole four bases, including three on Opening Day. But he’s cooled off as of late, going 4-for-33 in his last eight games. The speedy infielder, who came over to Florida from the Washington Nationals in a trade last offseason, is looking a little more like the guy with the career .703 OPS in the minor leagues.
  • Last week I blogged about a few of the unlikely teams atop divisions in MLB. Well, not much has changed. Toronto, Florida, Seattle and Kansas City all find themselves with at least a share of the division lead as I write this. The Jays can hit, but I still worry about their starting pitching. And closer B.J. Ryan blew another save Wednesday night. The Marlins were 11-1, but have now lost three in a row. The Royals and Mariners still have a lot of question marks. I’m sticking with Florida and K.C. as my two teams that are most likely – if any – to make the playoffs from this group. I can tell you this: If the Royals get a lead after six innings, watch out. I like the Ron Mahay-Juan Cruz-Joakim Soria bullpen group they got right now.

Forbes issues baseball stadium rankings

Former colleague Todd Deutsch sent me a link yesterday sending me to the Forbes’ baseball stadium rankings, which were published last week. According to its Web site, Forbes ranked the ballparks based on affordability, accessibility, fan participation and concession quality.

Here’s the top five stadiums, according to Forbes:

  1. AT&T Park in San Francisco
  2. Fenway Park in Boston
  3. PNC Park in Pittsburgh
  4. Wrigley Field in Chicago
  5. Oriole Park in Baltimore

And the bottom five (to no surprise, you might be pretty familiar with one of these):

  30. Dolphin Stadium in Miami
  29. Alameda County Stadium in Oakland
  28. Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay
  27. Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis (Breakdown with grades for each: (Intangibles – C; Fan participation – C+; Accessiblity – B+; Affordability – B+; Food – C)
  25 (tie): The Ballpark in Arlington; Chase Field in Phoenix

Here are a few of my thoughts on the rankings:

  • I’m going to Wrigley Field this summer and can’t wait. There was a different feel walking into Fenway Park that you just don’t get at any other stadium, except for possibly Wrigley.
  • PNC, in my opinion, is the most picturesque ballpark in baseball. Very underrated because, well, it’s in Pittsburgh.
  • Oriole Park, along with Progressive Field in Cleveland, set the tone for the ballpark craze of the last 15 years, and it’s still going strong.
  • I think the bottom five (six with the tie) really gives you a feel for the state of baseball stadiums. Arguing whether or not stadiums should be publicly funded is a discussion for another day. However, if Texas and Arizona host the fifth-worst ballparks in baseball, that’s a pretty good situation for Major League Baseball. The bottom four really stand out from the rest. And to no surprise, all four teams playing in those stadiums are either getting new ones or working feverishly to get new ones.

Are the Celtics in trouble?

Note: This blog has been updated to protect me from further embarrassment.

I’ll admit I haven’t watched much NBA this year, but that was a great game Saturday between the No. 7-seeded Chicago Bulls and the No. 2-seeded Boston Celtics to open up their first-round playoff series.

At the end of regulation, with the fouls and what-not, it seemed neither team wanted to win. But all I ask for is a tight ball game, and that’s just what the two teams produced.

But I pose this question: After losing Game 1, are the Boston Celtics in trouble of losing to the No. 7 seed?

Kevin Garnett is not expected to play during this playoff series or any other series the Celtics advance to. And Ray Allen aside, the Celtics really aren’t that much different than those Celtics teams that often failed to make the playoffs. Allen is a great player, but isn’t part of what makes Allen great dependent on Garnett’s ability to draw double teams?

Allen struggled from the floor Saturday, so maybe it was just a tough game for him.

What does everyone else think? I’m sure many of you have watched more NBA than I have this year. Do you think the defending NBA champ Celtics are in trouble, or was the Bulls’ victory simply a wake-up call?

Was this the end of the McHale era?

The Minnesota professional sports circuit might be losing another coach.

Just days after Jacques Lemaire announced he was leaving his position as Minnesota Wild head coach, there is already speculation that Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Kevin McHale may be done after the team lost its regular-season finale Wednesday to the Sacramento Kings.

And McHale didn’t do a whole lot to quiet those rumors.

"If I don’t come back, I’ll miss the guys," McHale told the Associated Press after the game. "They really are a great group of guys. They fight hard and they’re resilient."

But it might not even be up to McHale whether or not he returns next season to the organization he’s worked for in some capacity since 1994.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Sid Hartman writes that it will be up to McHale’s yet-to-be-hired boss whether or not McHale will even be allowed to return next season.

"… If I’m going to have a person in charge of basketball operations, I want that person to be comfortable with who is going to coach here," Wolves owner Glen Taylor said.

Taylor mentioned general manager Jim Stack and assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg would be among the candidates for the open executive position.

MLB: Who’s for real?

Most of the teams in Major League Baseball are eight games into the season. And while judging whether or not teams are a success this early in the season seems pointless, many news pundits were doing so with President Barack Obama two months into a four-year term. So I figure, if it’s good enough for CNN, it’s good enough for me, right?

In fact, Yahoo has a story yesterday that says only one team in baseball history has started 1-6 or worse and made the playoffs (it was the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies). So the first week does give you some indication of what’s coming, even if the 1-7 Cleveland Indians prefer to disagree.

It’s a pretty interesting group of teams atop their divisions in baseball, which makes you wonder what teams, if any, are equipped to parlay the early season success into late-September bliss.

Here’s a look at the playoff picture through Tuesday’s games:

  • AL East: Baltimore Orioles (6-2)
  • AL Central: Kansas City Royals (5-3)
  • AL West: Seattle Mariners (6-2)
  • AL wild card: Toronto Blue Jays (6-3)
  • NL East: Florida Marlins (6-1)
  • NL Central: Chicago Cubs (5-2)
  • NL West: San Diego Padres (6-2)
  • NL wild card: St. Louis Cardinals (6-3)

I have a feeling the execs at Fox and TBS would cringe at that lineup if those teams advance to October playoff baseball. No Red Sox. No Yankees. No Dodgers. No Angels. Those execs throughout the playoffs would likely be echoing the chant of fans at Wrigley Field following Cubs victories: "Go Cubs go. Go Cubs go."

I’m not sure if some of those playoff-bound teams are capable of keeping it up. If I had to put money on any of them, I think Kansas City and Florida have the best chances of sustained success in 2009.

The NL East is pretty competitive, but taking the injured Cole Hamels out of the Phillies rotation really hurts them. There’s a good chance the wild card will come from the East, so there’s an opening for the Marlins. They have a good young rotation (ESPN’s Peter Gammons often said this offseason it’s the best in the division). And the Fightin’ Fish have a lot of young stars in their lineup, led by Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and the emerging Jeremy Hermida and Emilio Bonifacio.

As for the Royals, I think the AL Central is WIDE OPEN. One thing that’s stood out early in the season are the flaws of every team in this division are evident. Cleveland – which was the division winner prediction by many - is off to a really poor start. And the other favorite – the Minnesota Twins – are 4-5 but could very easily be 2-7 without two walk-off victories.

So Kansas City’s got a shot, but the Royals do need to get the injured Jose Guillen back in their lineup. He’s the one veteran presence on a team of mostly young and raw players.

The Wild were in need of a change

The Minnesota Wild have been in existence for eight seasons now. But despite bringing legitimacy back to Minnesota’s claim as the "State of Hockey," the Wild have done little else.

Jacques Lemaire announced after Saturday’s regular-season finale that he was done coaching the Wild. My first thought after the announcement was how disappointing the Lemaire Era had been and how it was time for a change. And maybe he knew that.

Now, I’m not pinning all of the blame on Lemaire. While coaches typically take the fall when things go awry, more often than not the organization itself is to blame.

But in eight years and with sellout crowds to boost its revenue, the Wild have managed just three postseason berths playing in a league that allows more than half of its teams to make the playoffs every year. Of the three playoff berths, there are two first-round exits and that one shocking run to the conference finals in 2002-03.

I felt before the season ended last weekend that there were going to be big changes to the Wild this offseason. Does GM Doug Risebrough take the fall? We’ll find out soon enough.

But for a team with lots of interest and resources that plays in a league having such financial trouble, the Wild at the very least should be a playoff team more often than not.