With the new year comes my annual roundup of the “Big Four” Minnesota pro sports teams.
Most years that I have written this, I’m usually optimistic for all of the teams in the new year or I’m overly pessimistic. This year, for perhaps the first time, my feelings are all over the place.
Let’s get right into it.
Despite Saturday’s disappointing outing, the Vikings weren’t too bad this year.
The Vikes finished the regular season with a very solid record of 10-6. When you consider they started the season 2-2 and fans were calling for Kirk Cousins’ head at the end of September, it is hard to argue things got substantially better as the season went on.
After that 2-2 start, the Vikings went on a tear, winning six of seven. During that time, Cousins put up MVP-caliber numbers, and running back Dalvin Cook looked like one of the league’s premier rushers.
There was definitely some good on defense as well. Defensive end Danielle Hunter - who has looked great for the past few seasons - became the youngest player in NFL history with 50 sacks in a career. Safety Anthony Harris led the league in interceptions (six) and Eric Kendricks established himself as one of the game’s best linebackers.
Another positive note for the Vikings is that in the team’s six losses in the regular season, four of them were by seven points or less. Also, they never lost by more than 13 points - that is until their 17-point playoff loss to the 49ers.
No matter how great a season the Vikings have, I feel like there is always one game where they are thoroughly outclassed and lose by three-plus scores. This season, they were in every game during the regular season.
It’s also worth noting the team’s final regular-season loss - a 21-19 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Bears - came after the Vikings had already clinched a playoff appearance, and most of the starters spent the game on the sidelines.
If there is one tremendous concern I have for this team, it’s the secondary - specifically the cornerbacks. Just two years ago, cornerback Xavier Rhodes was easily one of the best defensive backs in the league. In 2019, frankly, he was absolutely terrible. In fact, there were several games where his performance made him a liability, and coach Mike Zimmer started rotating four or so corners into the mix and putting Rhodes on the field less.
Trae Waynes, starting opposite Rhodes at corner, made some good plays but was inconsistent, and backups Mike Hughes and Mackensie Alexander battled injuries.
This offseason, I would not be shocked to see Rhodes either released or his contract restructured. Waynes is a free agent, and I would say there’s a 50/50 chance he’s back in purple next season.
What I would bet on is the Vikings drafting a cornerback in one of the early rounds this April.
I had fun watching the Vikes this season. There are always things to pick apart with this team, but I would say this season was better than most of the past 20 or so seasons.
This one was a bit of a surprise, but certainly a welcome one.
After a somewhat disappointing 2018, the Twins hired Rocco Baldelli as its new manager, shook up the roster just enough, and went on to win 100 games for the first time since the 1960s.
I haven’t had this much fun following the Twins in a long, long time.
The Twins were basement-dwellers for most of the decade, losing at least 90 games five times. In 2019, they had the second-best regular season record in team history and hit 50 more home runs than any team in history.
The end of the season was no fun at all - getting swept by the Yankees right away in the playoffs - but it was easily one of the most successful years the Twins have had this century.
Fun fact: In the last decade, the Twins had three different managers win the Manager of the Year award. I can’t tell if that’s good or bad - I would rather hang onto a manager longer than that - but it’s noteworthy.
Next year, the Twins bring back all but two of their starting batters, meaning those responsible for 244 for the team’s 307 home runs will report to spring training. Defensive savant Bryon Buxton should be healthy, and a pitching staff that got the job done in 2019 should be ready to go for 2020.
Yes, the team could have used another stud pitcher, but the trio of Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda should keep the Twins in games most nights, barring any setbacks.
Really, I can’t imagine this team will be too bad this year. Maybe they won’t top 100 wins and 300 home runs again, but I fully expect them to be in the hunt come September.
It should be a fun summer.
This is looking more and more like a bad one.
I don’t think anyone had through-the-roof expectations for the Wolves after they finished last in the division the year before, but things have certainly been tougher than I expected.
The Wolves won two games in December - that’s right, two. For the record, they played 14 games during the month. Also, they lost the first 10 games they played in that month. They were playing some good teams in that timeframe and they were battling injuries - particularly for team stud Karl-Anthony Towns, who has missed nearly a month of games - but a win percentage of .143 in a calendar month? There’s no excuse for that.
That said, now that they are a little healthier, the Wolves have won four of seven at the time of publication and seem to be gaining a little momentum. Once Towns is back in the fold on a regular basis, maybe things will turn around.
Also, despite a rough few weeks, they are only two games out of a playoff spot right now. That probably says more about the Western Conference, but I’ll take it.
The Wild easily feel like the most stagnant of the Minnesota teams right now.
For much of the last decade, the Wild were a lock to make the playoffs, though they never made it past the second round. Since last season, however, they have underperformed.
Things weren’t great at the start of the season, with slow starts nagging multiple skaters, but somehow things have been trending even further downward in the past few weeks. The team winning five straight in early December is a distant memory now.
The team has lost five of its last six games, and six of the last nine. They struggle to pick up wins on the road and their goal differential is a not-great minus-15.
Eric Staal leads the team with 33 points in 45 games, but no Minnesota player is anywhere in the league’s top 40 for points this year.
They do have a decent 11-5-4 record at home, but they need to figure out how to win more games away from the Xcel Energy Center.
Right now, the Wild are seven points out of a playoff spot, but their near-future schedule features some top-tier teams like Tampa Bay, Boston, Colorado and Dallas (twice). Qualifying for the playoffs is certainly doable - just look at last year’s Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues for proof of that - but it is going to be a tough hill to climb unless this team starts performing at a higher level.
Looking ahead to next year, the Wild have most of their top guys locked up for the foreseeable future, but they may need to have a tough conversation about free agent and longtime captain Mikko Koivu. He, Zach Parise, Eric Staal and Ryan Suter will all be 35 years old or better next season, so maybe there will be discussions of a youth movement at next year’s Winter Classic (hosted at Target Field) if the Wild are still not producing.
For now, though, let’s hold out hope for a Blues-style surge in the second half of the season.
A new addition to my list - and admittedly not a pro sports team, so I won’t dwell on it - but the football team at the University of Minnesota was arguably the highlight of 2019 for sports fans in the state.
After going 7-6 the year before, the Gophers started this season by rattling off nine straight wins. They finished 10-2 in the regular season.
It was the first time the Gophers won 10 games in a season in well over a century.
To top it off, they went to the Outback Bowl - the biggest bowl game they have played in decades - and faced the Auburn Tigers, a team I was sure would beat the tar out of the Gophers.
I spent the month leading up to New Year's Day thinking the Gophers would be absolutely throttled by the Tigers. Then that day came. The Gophers matched the Tigers score-for-score and scored last for their biggest victory since the 1960s.
Whatever you think of head coach P.J. Fleck, it is hard to argue that he hasn’t changed the culture surrounding that team for the better, and maybe this team will be entertaining for years to come.