Previewing the upcoming baseball season

Aside from the lone Sunday night game, the Major League Baseball season will be getting under way in less than two hours. Should be a fun afternoon, evening and night planted in front of the TV. If you can’t be lazy on a day like this, when can you be?

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post about the Minnesota Twins season, which starts at 3 p.m. against Detroit. This post will focus on Major League Baseball as a whole.

Before I get started, make sure to pick up Monday’s Forum for comprehensive coverage previewing the Twins and the MLB season. This is one of those cases where the print product provides much more than the online product due to graphics, illustrations, breakouts and the like. Here’s the story with Twins GM Terry Ryan discussing the team’s need for pitching and his offseason spent in pursuit of it.

My predictions for the division races (with playoff teams bolded):

  • AL East: Rays, Blue Jays, Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles.
  • AL Central: Tigers, White Sox, Indians, Royals, Twins.
  • AL West: Angels, Rangers, Athletics, Mariners, Astros.
  • NL East: Braves, Nationals, Phillies, Mets, Marlins.
  • NL Central: Cardinals, Reds, Brewers, Pirates, Cubs.
  • NL West: Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies.

In the World Series, I’ll take the Rays over the Braves. Love the pitching for both teams (and improved lineups too), and the Giants have shown that the World Series lately has been all about pitching.

Finally, a few more thoughts on the season:

  • In the AL East, any one of those teams can win, and any one of them can finish dead last. I’d have to go back to my elementary school days to find a time when the Yankees and Red Sox were in this mediocre state, while the other teams in the division realize it and have tried to make the most of their best chance to win the division.
  • The AL Central seems like the Tigers and everyone else. But we all thought that last season too, didn’t we? I’ve been surprised how many national experts have elevated the Royals to second place, and a great many of them have dismissed the White Sox. I know KC added James Shields and Wade Davis, but I just don’t think the Royals are better than the ChiSox and Indians. Cleveland had a great offseason too, adding Micheal Bourn and Nick Swisher. With all of this happening around the Twins, it’s hard for me to not imagine them getting buried in the standings.
  • I’m in three fantasy baseball leagues this year, which definitely puts me at capacity. It’s too late for sleeper talk. But among those three leagues, there are a few players I own on multiple teams. Atlanta Braves pitching prospect Julio Teheran is on all three of those teams, and the following are on two: Shin-Soo Choo, Ben Zobrist, Mike Moustakas, Justin Morneau, Yu Darvish and Matt Harvey. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m very high on Morneau this season. At worst, he’ll be a great start against righties. At best, well, you’ve seen how good he can be. As for Teheran, he was the fourth-best prospect in baseball entering 2012, after Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Matt Moore. Good company. Teheran had a disastrous 2012 season. But he has dominated in the spring, so I’ve been willing to reach for him.

Finding the positives in an otherwise down year for Twins

Anyone out there find a national pundit who hasn’t picked the Minnesota Twins to finish in last place in the AL Central? I haven’t.

There’s no reason to think the Twins will be anything but terrible. I know it’s hard to believe, but I contend a lot of things went RIGHT for the Twins last season despite losing 96 games. They had career years from Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit and Trevor Plouffe and relatively healthy years from Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. And don’t forget about Scott Diamond‘s big season on the mound too. I have a hard time believing Diamond can repeat that, and starting the year on the DL only decreases the likelihood of 2012 Part Deux for him.

The Twins have actually taken away from their offense this season by trading Denard Span and Ben Revere, although Aaron Hicks has promise (I’ll get to that in a second). They’ve added a few starting pitchers, but is there any reason to think Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey and Vance Worley will be much better than Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, etc.? I don’t think so. And my gut feeling is the bullpen’s ERA will be worse than it was a year ago. I’m thinking a 64-98 season is ahead. Tough to stomach for many of you.

There’s enough to be sour about with this group, and the shortcomings have been widely reported. Here are a few things for fans to be optimistic about heading into this season:

  • I have a hunch that Justin Morneau is going to return to his pre-concussion numbers. Maybe not the blistering start he was off to in 2010, but I think he’s going to have a very good season. Let’s go with a .290 average, 25 homers, 90-95 RBIs and an .870 OPS.
  • Aaron Hicks has looked real good this spring. The stats he posted were impressive in Florida. But beyond the numbers, I saw a player who has a great eye at the plate, something he demonstrated in the minors. He looks similar to Denard Span in that regard. I’ve liked Hicks for awhile because of his on-base percentage skills and his defensive ability. Very interested to see how he does skipping Triple-A.
  • While the major league rotation will be dreadful and is banged-up already, the minor league system has the potential to produce some big-time arms. Twins GM Terry Ryan told me earlier this spring that he sees plenty of promise in the likes of Jose Berrios, Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Kyle Gibson and B.J. Hermsen. The last four names mentioned aren’t too far away from the majors with the proper amount of development, and Berrios probably has the highest ceiling of them all.

Enjoy the season. The summer is near.

What to watch for with Twins as spring training gets under way

Something about a foot of snow and 40 mph wind guts gets me thinking about baseball this time of year.

Actually, regardless of the weather, it’s safe to say I’m in baseball mode by mid-Februrary. Temps are typically getting warmer, football is done, fantasy baseball registration is open and pitchers and catchers report. For the Twins, the latter happens on Tuesday.

Minnesota has had some turnover from a year ago, when the team posted its second straight season of 90-plus losses. I don’t believe the turnover will be overly impactful, but it’s turnover nonetheless.

So while I’m stuck in the house watching some Gophers basketball, I figured it would be a good time to review the Twins roster heading into this week’s first workouts of the season.

Let’s start with the position players for today.

The Twins had some encouraging signs regarding their offense in 2012.

Joe Mauer bounced back from an injury-plagued 2011 to hit .319 in 147 games, splitting time among catcher, designated hitter and first base.

First baseman Justin Morneau – another former AL MVP – also returned from concussion issues that had held him back the previous two seasons. He hit .267 with 19 homers and 77 RBIs in 134 games. His numbers against right-handers were very impressive (.291 BA/.531 SLG/.902 OPS).

And OF Josh Willingham (35 homers) and 3B Trevor Plouffe (24 homers) enjoyed career seasons at the plate.

However, despite all that went right, the Twins still were only 10th in the AL in runs scored. There will be concerns in 2013 as to whether or not the four players mentioned above can repeat their 2012 seasons, plus the Twins traded center fielders Denard Span and Ben Revere away in the offseason.

So the offense has some big holes to fill, notably in center field and in the middle infield. Darin Mastroianni would appear to the favorite to replace Span and Revere, with prospects Aaron Hicks and Joe Benson also under consideration.

Mastroianni actually put up a pretty similar season to Revere. Both players’ OBPs were around .330, with Mastroianni utilizing more walks in getting to his number. Both are crazy fast and neither slugs all that much.

In the middle infield, Pedro Florimon is expected to get a good look at shortstop. He hit just .219 in 43 games last season, and there’s no reason to think he’ll hit much better than that. But he brings a reliable glove, one that will be needed with the pitch-to-contact staff.

Brian Dozier and Jamey Carroll are also battling for playing time at shortstop and second base.

With the starting lineup in flux, it’s hard to gauge the bench. But if you’re looking for an under-the-radar player to keep an eye on, Brandon Boggs might be your guy. The 30-year-old outfielder and non-roster invitee has big league experience and a career .381 OBP at Triple-A.

My projected starting lineup
OF Darin Mastroianni
2B Brian Dozier
C Joe Mauer
LF Josh Willingham
1B Justin Morneau
DH Ryan Doumit
3B Trevor Plouffe
RF Chris Parmelee
SS Pedro Florimon

C Drew Butera
IF Jamey Carroll
IF Eduardo Escobar
OF Brandon Boggs

Baseball HOF voters will come up short if no player is elected this year

There are no shortage of sports topics for which I like to obsess about: the Minnesota Twins, fantasy football, the push for NHL teams in the South to return to the North, etc.

Sometimes those rants can get a little long, which is pretty much what happened with me on Twitter yesterday. Twitter was not built for such rants as my Baseball Hall of Fame one. It merits a blog post instead.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inductees will be announced tomorrow, assuming that there are any to announce at all. According to Baseball Think Factory, which keeps a running tally of voters’ ballots when they are posted online, has 125 ballots so far tabulated. And the results? No player has the 75 percent needed to be inducted. Still a lot of votes missing – roughly 80 percent – but it’s still telling.

There are “big” Hall of Fame guys – people who want lots of players in – and “small” Hall of Fame guys. I’ve always thought of myself as a small Hall guy, keeping Cooperstown induction limited to only the best.

Yet I would be stunned to see no player inducted when the ballot appears to have no shortage of players worth voting for, even if you’re like me and don’t think known performance-enhancing drug users should be in.

And that’s where things get messy. That’s why some voters have opted not to submit a ballot, or submit an empty one (the latter counts against the vote totals of other players).

Some writers are uncomfortable with having to vote for PED users and suspected PED users. Everyone has their own opinion of who should be included in the process, and that’s fine by me. But to me, there are quite a few worthy players on the ballot with no known reason to suspect them of PEDs, so to submit a blank ballot is pretty unfair to the clean players.

Example: Craig Biggio has 3,000 career hits. No player eligible has been left out of the HOF with 3,000 hits. He’ll get in one day. So why the wait?

And if you’re worried about voting in someone who we might find out later on did test positive for PEDs during baseball’s anonymous testing (like David Ortiz did during 2003 testing), I understand the concern.

But sometimes cheaters get away with it. Gaylord Perry threw a spitball, and is in the Hall of Fame. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were once involved in a scandal to throw a game (both were cleared, but there was solid evidence implicating them). Use of amphetamines in the 1960s and 1970s was widespread.

Some guys get away with it, and some guys don’t. That’s life. And my take is I’d rather let a couple of steroid users into the Hall than keep a couple of innocent, deserving players out of it due to suspicions.

So, as I did last year, here are the players that would get my vote if I had a ballot:

  • Jeff Bagwell. What I wrote last year about Bagwell pretty much sums up my thoughts this year. “If after his Hall induction we find out that he took steroids – and yes, I wouldn’t vote for anyone that took steroids – so be it. Sometimes people get away with it. That’s life. Not every criminal is apprehended. There are cheaters in the Hall of Fame right now. But I believe in innocent until proven guilty.” Had 449 career homers and a .948 OPS.
  • Craig Biggio. The great Joe Posnanski thinks that Biggio will be the recipient of collateral damage due to this ballot if he doesn’t get in. That’s very true. More than 3,000 hits. Bill James said in 2001 that Biggio is the fifth-best second baseman of all-time. Also played extensively at catcher and center field (who does that?). Five seasons of 20+homers. Four Gold Gloves. He’s in, and he shouldn’t have to wait.
  • Edgar Martinez. What I wrote last year still rings true: “The stats are just too good to ignore for me, even if he was often injured throughout his career and rarely played in the field. Hit .312 with a .418 OBP over 18 major league seasons in Seattle. His 147 OPS+ (basically his OPS in comparison to the era he played and ballpark he called home) is 40th all-time, tied with Jim Thome, Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell. That should give you an idea of the company he keeps on that list. He’s ahead of modern players like Alex Rodriguez and Prince Fielder.”
  • Fred McGriff. I think McGriff is someone who is only going to look better on the ballot as the years go by during our current pitchers’ era. McGriff hit 493 homers in 19 seasons. He slugged better than .500 for his career and made five All-Star Games, and probably lost out on other selections due to juiced-up contemporaries. Enjoyed a seven-year peak from 1988-94 in which he hits 242 homers (35 per season) and slugged .545 with a .390 OBP. Yet remarkably in that peak, only two of his All-Star selections occurred.
  • Jack Morris. Didn’t have him on my fake ballot last year. Morris collected 67 percent of the vote last year, a number that every player who has reached it has eventually gotten in. MLB Network made an interesting comparison between Morris and Mickey Lolich that was eye-opening. Morris’ 3.90 ERA would be the worst among Hall of Famers if elected. But he won 254 games, was a five-time All-Star, was top-five in Cy Young voting five times. Won World Series with three different franchises, twice serving as the undisputed ace on those teams. Had a 2.96 ERA in seven World Series starts. Another interesting stat: No AL pitcher in the DH era has more eight-plus inning starts than Morris (248). Hard to imagine that getting matched again. He was the ultimate workhorse.
  • Mike Piazza. Piazza might be the most fascinating case on the ballot. It seems that most baseball fans probably think that Piazza did steroids. And the story fits. After all, Piazza was a former 62nd-round draft pick (a favor to Tommy Lasorda) who became the greatest offensive catcher of all time. Piazza is the best example of my stance that there just isn’t enough evidence to keep him out.
  • Tim Raines. I love this guy’s case. Only got 48 percent of the votes last year. But I could go on and on about Raines’ numbers. He ranks fifth in stolen bases, and among players with more than 300 steals, he is the most efficient base stealer who ever lived. He hit .294 in a 23-year career, and he had a peak from 1981-87 with Montreal where he hit .310 and stole 504 bases (72 per season) and 63 triples. This one seems to easy to me.
  • Curt Schilling. Best strikeout-to-walk ratio in major league history of anyone with at least 1,000 innings pitched. Only 216 career wins in 20 seasons, but an ERA+ of 127 and a career WHIP of 1.137. And the postseason counts for me too just as it did for Morris. Led the Phillies to a World Series appearance and the Red Sox and Diamondbacks to titles. Postseason stats are sick: 11-2, 2.23 ERA, 19 starts. World Series ERA: 2.06. Wow!
  • Alan Trammell. Another guy I added from last year. I’ve been swayed. Enjoyed a 20-year career entirely with the Detroit Tigers. Six-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner. If you believe in WAR (wins above replacement), Posnanski points out that Trammell ranks tied for sixth among shortstops behind only Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith, Arky Vaughan and Luke Appling. I’m not sure Trammell has the classic peak some voters desire. But 20 years at shortstop hitting .285 really doesn’t happen that often.
  • Larry Walker. What I wrote last year: “The Coors Field homer-happy reputation has no doubt hurt his candidacy. He hit .313 for his career and slugged .565. Those are facts. From 1994 (when he was not calling Colorado home) to 2002, he hit .339 with a .631 slugging percentage and averaged 28 homers and 15 steals per season. And while I can’t find advanced defensive metrics for the prime of his career, he did win seven Gold Gloves. I know the Denver air helped him, but I just can’t ignore his numbers and Gold Gloves. He was unquestionably a better hitter at home during his career. But maybe he just felt more comfortable at home too. In 1999, he hit .461 at Coors Field. Thin air or not, there was more going on there than just altitude.”

There is no Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, nor should there be. Baseball may not have been governing itself against PED use, but it was still an illegal activity that gave them distinct advantages over their peers. And there’s just too much evidence that they used for me to ignore.

I would keep them out.

Finally, I’ll leave you with Raines’ most memorable moment. This was Raines’ first game in 1987 after collusion kept him from being on a team in the season’s first month. He had quite a debut in this May game against the Mets on national TV.

Revisiting some football predictions

Can you believe Week 17 of the NFL season is upon us? I can’t.

The weather outside sure feels like Week 17 weather, but it doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was among a few staff members making preseason NFL predictions both in The Forum and on this blog.

And heading into the final week of the regular season, I find my favorite childhood team the Chicago Bears fighting the Minnesota Vikings and others for the final wild-card spot in the NFC. I gotta admit: I didn’t see that coming.

Peyton Manning has lifted the Denver Broncos to surprising heights this season. Associated Press photo

Let’s first revisit some of my NFL picks:

  • I’m in pretty good shape to get half of the NFL’s division winners correct, which isn’t bad when you consider the way parity rules the NFL. New England, Houston and Green Bay have all clinched their divisions, and I had San Francisco winning the NFC West, which it leads by a half-game.
  • What went wrong in my division picks? Well, I underestimated Peyton Manning and the Broncos. And I underestimated the impact that all of the suspensions would have on the New Orleans Saints, who I picked to win the NFC South over Atlanta. Also had the NY Giants and Pittsburgh winning divisions. In my defense, I did have actual division winners Denver, Baltimore and Atlanta all as wild-card picks. So in all likeihood, the only division champ in the NFL that I didn’t have in the playoffs in the preseason is Washington, and even that division is up in the air.
  • Myself, Andrew Gottenborg (Twitter: and Michael Smith (Twitter: also picked MVP winners in The Forum before the season. Our picks, respectively, were Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Quarterback is the smart way to go considering how QBs have dominated the award in recent years. But I’d be surprised if any of us are correct with those picks.
  • Our Super Bowl picks were Patriots over Packers (me), Packers over Texans (Andrew) and Packers over Patriots (Michael). We are all in good shape there.

And finally, I’ve made a point to annually write some sort of fantasy football prediction blog post.

I fared pretty well this year with my two teams. In my league (the league I live and die with), my team managed only a 5-8 record despite ranking third in scoring among 16 teams. What can you do? I can control my team, but not my opponent’s.

Fortunately, I have C.J. Spiller and Alfred Morris as potential keepers for next season at very team-friendly costs, with Colin Kaepernick, Knowshon Moreno and Reggie Wayne also worth considering in the two-keeper league format. Combine that with the No. 4 overall pick due to my team’s performance, and there’s hope for 2013.

I won the other league I played in, a 10-team league that saw my first three draft picks (Calvin Johnson, Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Marshall) pay huge dividends. Who would have thought a team with Reggie Bush as its No. 1 running back and waiver-wire specials as the No. 2 RB would go 11-1 and win a title?

Here’s what turned out pretty well from my preseason fantasy column:

  • Josh Freeman. I was expecting a big bounce-back year from the Tampa Bay Bucs QB, who got a big boost in the offseason with his team’s additions of RB Doug Martin, WR Vincent Jackson and OL Carl Nicks. Freeman is the 13th-best QB in fantasy. Drafted him in both leagues I was in, snagging him in my 16-team league in Round 12. From that standpoint, he provided tremendous value at a time when many owners are taking kickers.
  • Russell Wilson. Drafted him in one of two leagues. He ranks 12th in my league in fantasy scoring at QB, which again is pretty impressive when you consider that he was completely undrafted in my 16-team league. But that league drafted before he was named the starter over Matt Flynn.

And now, for the not-so-great picks:

  • Where to begin? Well, I expected a lot more from Ben Tate, who nearly ran for 1,000 yards last season as a backup to Arian Foster. Injuries did nothing to help him at the very least replicate his 2011 season. I still see plenty of talent in Tate, but the opportunity never materialized. Foster stayed healthy all season long.
  • I had another misstep at running back in Ryan Williams, who at one point did take over as the Arizona Cardinals primary ballcarrier before suffering another season-ending injury in his short career. I was betting against Beanie Wells when I should have been betting against the Arizona Cardinals in general.

Pretty much a mixed bag of predictions. I’d argue that Steve Smith and Justin Blackmon were solid enough players even if they didn’t meet my expectations.

And I’m still convinced Aaron Hernandez was going to do big things if he hadn’t gotten hurt in Week 2. Hernandez has managed to rank 16th among tight ends in scoring despite playing in barely more than half of his team’s games. I won’t shy away from taking Hernandez next season.

Is Span deal just the beginning?

The Atlanta Braves found their center fielder in B.J. Upton on Wednesday. On Thursday, the Minnesota Twins wasted no more time in trading their center fielder to one of the remaining teams in the baseball marketplace looking for help at that position.

The Twins shipped Denard Span to the Washington Nationals in exchange for top pitching prospect Alex Meyer.

The surprise for me isn’t so much in the trading of Span (which has been rumored for weeks months years) as it is in what the Twins received in return.

That’s not meant to be a slight on Meyer, who has plenty of promise. However, I always thought the Twins would be seeking a major league-ready arm in exchange for Span.

Newly acquired Minnesota Twins prospect Alex Meyer pitched in the MLB Futures Game last season. Associated Press photo

That leaves me wondering if the acquisition of Meyer isn’t a sign that the Twins are thinking about, to some degree, blowing up the major league roster. After all, almost all of the team’s top prospects – Meyer included – were in A-ball last season and years away from being able to help out. The Twins’ loss total in each of the last two seasons has approached 100, and there isn’t a lot of hope that the farm system will provide any help in the next couple of seasons.

With Joe Mauer‘s massive contract still on the books, the Twins probably aren’t looking to do a Florida/Miami Marlins type of dismantling of the roster.

But could we see Josh Willingham – coming off of a career season in 2012 – get dealt at next week’s winter meetings? Is there a market for Justin Morneau? Will the Twins keep dealing for help in A-ball and Double-A with hopes of that wave of players – led by Miguel Sano, Oswaldo Arcia, Meyer and Co. – will be the ones to revive the franchise? Only time will tell.

Twins fans know all about Span and what he brought to the table. He is a reliable leadoff hitter known for taking a lot of pitches. Among major leaguers that qualify for the league lead, Span was second to Marco Scutaro in swinging strike percentage.

He is under a very reasonable contract that called for $21 million over the next three seasons (the last of those three is a $9 million club option, which in all likelihood would be picked up by the Nats when the time comes).

However, Span’s durability has suffered lately, and now he has a concussion history that clubs need to think about.

As for Meyer, he was drafted 23rd overall in the 2011 draft. The 6-foot-9 right-hander from the University of Kentucky brings a mid- to upper-90s fastball along with a slider according to reports. One post-draft assessment said that he needed work on his change-up.

In 129 innings at two levels of A-ball in the Nationals’ system, Meyer struck out 139 with an ERA of 2.86. As a 22-year-old, he would be expected to play well at that level of the minors, but FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron writes that there’s still considerable upside and plenty of risk – in this deal for the Twins. 

 For more on Meyer, you can go back to the FanGraphs’ well and check out this re-published story about him.

Without stars, Wolves’ efforts have been admirable

The Minnesota Timberwolves might be off to the most impressive 5-4 start in pro sports history.

OK, that might be a bit of a stretch, especially after back-to-back home losses to Charlotte and Golden State, both of which saw Minnesota embark on fourth-quarter comeback attempts that fell short.

But the Wolves are definitely treading water, despite the following players being injured: Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger, J.J. Barea.

That’s four-fifths of the projected starting lineup, plus two valuable backups who the Wolves are playing without.

Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Alexey Shved (1) has played better with every game of experience. Associated Press photo

So who is left getting the job done?

Leading the pack for the Wolves right now is Andrei Kirilenko. His stat line from the exhibition game at the Fargodome last month didn’t jump off the page at you, but I was thoroughly impressed by his court vision and ability to make the extra pass when needed.

Kirilenko is shooting 60 percent from the floor so far, averaging 14 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

Last year’s first-round pick Derrick Williams also seemingly responded in his last game to criticism for not stepping up when called upon. He scored 23 points in the Wolves’ loss to the Warriors on Friday.

Alexey Shved has also looked really good with every game of experience. The rookie looked lost in his first couple of games, but his 22 points and seven assists on Friday night are cause for optimism. He made some great plays in that game.

The Wolves hope to have Pekovic back to soon, while Love and Rubio should return in about a month. Until then, the leftovers will have to try to hang in there. So far, so good.

Final thoughts from the Indiana-Bison game

My trip as part of The Forum’s reporting team in Bloomington, Ind., ended late Monday night. Assembly Hall was as impressive as advertised, as was the top-ranked Indiana basketball team, which beat North Dakota State 87-61.

Figured I would throw a few more thoughts I have from the game:

  • The question I’ve most been asked since we returned to Fargo is this: Did Indiana look like the best team in the country? My response is that it’s simply tough to answer that. NDSU is a good team with reasonably high expectations in the Summit League. But the Bison aren’t a Big Ten team. The Hoosiers definitely showed off some depth Monday night with backups Remy Abell and Jeremy Hollowell. They sparked a key 8-0 run in the second half.
  • Cody Zelleris an impressive athlete. You just don’t see 7-footers that can run the court like he can. And he’s no stick figure either. He’s a tough kid that handles himself well in traffic. has Zeller as the projected No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NBA draft. I’m not surprised.

    Indiana center Cody Zeller prior to the start of Monday’s game.

  • On the other hand, I thought Marshall Bjorklund handled himself well in the post. Sure, Zeller had 22 points and nine rebounds. But many of Zeller’s eight field goals were on fast-break dunks. That’s not to excuse Bjorklund, but I think we all knew that was going to happen a few times. When the two were in the halfcourt, I think Bjorklund fared well on offense and defense against Zeller. Despite some foul trouble, Bjorklund had 16 points and six rebounds.
  • I had higher expectations for Indiana freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, who scored only four points in 22 minutes. He looked great in scoring 10 points against Bryant (R.I.) on Friday. But inconsistent play can happen to a young point guard like Ferrell. He just never seemed in the flow of the game offensively. But I’ll say this: Ferrell was working his tail off after the Monday afternoon shootaround. While his teammates ate a late lunch, Ferrell remained in the gym with an assistant coach for more than an hour. He spent most of that time shooting and doing ballhandling drills.
  • I did the Indiana postgame media session rather than the NDSU one, which was covered by a couple of colleagues. So I didn’t speak to any Bison players or coaches after the game. But my guess is that at least a few of them would admit to some early jitters. The Bison committed 16 turnovers in the game to Indiana’s 10. And my estimate is that NDSU was called for five or six traveling calls in the game, most coming in the first 25 minutes. One in particular was on a pump fake when a Bison player accidentally jumped off the floor. Pretty uncharacteristic stuff.
  • Bjorklund mentioned postgame that the Bison had some “seven or eight” early missed opportunities that could have made the game closer. No doubt about that. The Bison had some looks on offense get away from them. But that’s what often happens when a mid-major is on the road taking on a highly ranked opponent. Even if Zeller isn’t there to disrupt a shot, it’s hard for his presence or Christian Watford‘s presence to not enter the back of your mind. That’s what a player like Zeller can do.
  • I’ve been asked a couple of times about the crowd. It certainly got loud in there at times. But my guess is that the 17,145 in attendance are far more vocal when the Hoosiers face conference opponents. The Bison never challenged that much. The loudest it got was probably when NDSU forward TrayVonn Wright got tangled up with Zeller on a rebound, which led to Zeller falling to the floor. The crowd did not like to see that happen to their star center.
  • As for Assembly Hall itself, I love the setup. When attending basketball games, nobody wants to see it on an end behind one of the baskets. They want to sit on the sides. And that’s what this arena brings. Almost all of the seats run the length of the court, which is why the building is so tall and the seating is so steep. I’m a big fan. I’m sure the seating is a little cramped by modern standards, but it’s a great venue for college basketball.

No. 1 Indiana brings experience, and one talented freshman

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The North Dakota State men’s basketball team faces the biggest test in program history on Monday night.

No. 1-ranked Indiana will host the Bison at 6 p.m. CST Monday (no TV – go to for a live blog before and during the game). The Hoosiers have The Sporting News’ Preseason Player of the Year in Cody Zeller, a 7-foot center with a post game and the ability to run the court. It’s a terrifying blend for a Bison team that – like most teams – just doesn’t have that kind of talent and size in the middle. I covered Zeller and how the Bison are preparing for him in Monday’s Forum.

The Hoosiers return their top five scorers from a 27-win team last season. Yet when I watched Friday night’s Indiana 97-54 victory against Bryant (R.I.) on my DVR, the one player that stood out most to me was a true freshman playing in his first college game.

Point guard Kevin Ferrell – better known as Yogi Ferrell – was a McDonald’s All-American a year ago in high school at Park Tudor in Indianapolis, where he led the school to back-to-back Indiana high school championships. In his senior season, he averaged 18.5 points and 6.6 assists per game.

Ferrell’s court vision stood out in Friday’s win against Bryant, which is a weak Division I opponent, but nevertheless this was Ferrell’s first game with the Hoosiers.

He had 10 points and seven assists in 24 minutes. Solid statistics to be sure, but not the kind that jump off the computer screen at you. He made some impressive passes and showed great awareness. How poised will he be when the Hoosiers face a true test? That remains to be seen. But the talent is there. No doubt about that.

The Bison have some length. And it will be important that they disrupt Ferrell’s passing lanes. The Hoosiers have a talented center and plenty of shooters, so the key to slowing them down might be to contain the catalyst in Ferrell.

A few other notes:

  • While Zeller gets the attention, 6-foot-9 forward Christian Watford is no slouch for Indiana. He had 15 points, but more importantly for Indiana, grabbed 15 rebounds against Bryant.
  • The top five scorers for Indiana from last season – all back with the team – are: Zeller (15.6 ppg), Watford (12.5), Jordan Hulls (11.6), Victor Oladipo (10.8) and Will Sheehey (8.6). Sheehey moved to the bench against Bryant to make room for Ferrell.
  • In addition to the five top scorers returning, also back is forward Derek Elston. He started four games last season. However, Elston is out with injury and will not play Monday night.
  • Two Indiana freshmen – forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea and center Peter Jurkin – are suspended for the team’s first nine games. Read more about it here.

More Bison coverage

Offseason work starts to get under way for Twins

The Minnesota Twins should have one goal in mind this offseason: acquire pitching. As much pitching as they can find.

That’s not to say the Twins don’t have other warts. But after back-to-back seasons with win totals in the 60s, Minnesota isn’t going to turn its franchise around overnight. There needs to be a priority.

What do we know? Scott Diamond is coming back to provide what the Twins hope will be a steady option in the rotation. But beyond that, the starting staff gets pretty sketchy.

They probably won’t spend the big bucks it would take to get right-hander Zack Greinke in free agency, even though it’s been reported in the past that he would prefer to avoid large markets.

So their attention will likely turn to the trade market. And in order to get something, you have to give something up.

Denard Span is often discussed as a trade chip for the Minnesota Twins. Associated Press

The most talked about trade chip for the Twins is outfielder Denard Span, who seems somewhat expendable with the emergence of Ben Revere. Span has been a reliable on-base threat at the top of the batting order and provides a great glove in the outfield. His contract is reasonable, and all of those factors make him coveted (this FanGraphs piece goes into further detail).

Tampa Bay’s James Shields is one of the bigger names being thrown around in rumors in early November. It would take quite a bit more than just Span to get Shields. And do the Twins dare deal with the Rays after what happened in the Matt Garza-for-Delmon Young swap? It’s a dangerous game swapping with the best front office in baseball.

David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote on Twitter that he thinks it would make sense for the Braves to deal one of their young arms to the Twins for Span. The Braves could lose Michael Bourn in free agency.

“Anybody that’s got numbers [of starting pitchers] or anybody that’s got a possibility maybe of having a lot of depth, then more than likely we have talked to them,” Twins GM Terry Ryan told O’Brien, without naming specific teams. “They aren’t just going to distribute pitching to other clubs unless they can get something back that fills a need. Some way or another we kind of know who we match up with.”

The Braves have Tommy Hanson and prospects Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran competing for the fifth spot in their rotation next season.

While Span could get the Twins one solid starting option, there’s still massive holes in the rotation. And that’s what makes Ryan’s job a difficult one.

And that’s also why I’m quick to defend pitching coach Rick Anderson, who was spared while other coaches were let go this offseason. Who have the Twins given Anderson to work with in recent years? Besides Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, how many starting options has Anderson had in the last 10 years who had good stuff? Not many. A lot of pitch-to-contact guys in an era dominated by power pitching.

Ryan has turned the Twins around once before at the beginning of this century. I’m starting to wonder if this turnaround won’t be more difficult to orchestrate.