Hartman: Stars' injuries hurt Vikings and Twins

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 9, 2011 - 6:08 AM

Sure, every team deals with them, but the local squads lost their best players for significant periods.

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Catcher Joe Mauer missed 80 games for the Twins, nearly half the season.

Photo: Paul Battaglia, Associated Press

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For the first time in more than 20 years, both the Twins and Vikings will finish last in their respective divisions.

The Twins were 74-88 and finished seventh in the old American League West in 1990. That same year, the Vikings went 6-10 in the then-NFC Central and tied with the Bucs, Packers and Lions behind the 11-5 Bears.

Over the years both teams have been pretty competitive, but 2011 will go down as a year that was the exception.

At 2-10, the Vikings are suffering through one of the worst seasons in team history. The Twins recently finished off a 99-loss season, the second- worst record in their more than 50 years in Minnesota. And while it's not a total excuse for the overall lack of execution by both teams, injuries to both teams' highest-paid and important players played a role.

Catcher Joe Mauer missed 80 games for the Twins, nearly half the season. It was the fewest games for Mauer since his 2004 rookie season when he played only 35 games after suffering a knee injury. But what made Mauer's missed time more jarring was that it came on the heels of signing an eight-year, $184 million contract, which at $23 million in 2011 made him the highest-paid player on the Twins roster by $8 million. Mauer's .287 batting average and three home runs were all career lows.

The second-highest paid player at $15 million in 2011, Justin Morneau, didn't fare any better as he battled concussion-related symptoms and missed 93 games, the most of his career. His .227 batting average was the lowest of his career since he hit .226 over 40 games in 2003 as a late-season call-up to the squad. His four home runs matched his career low, which also came in 2003.

Joe Nathan, who recently signed a two-year, $14.5 million contract with the Texas Rangers, was the Twins' third-highest paid player in 2011 at $11.25 million. He missed 29 games between May and June when he was placed on the disabled list because of tenderness in his right elbow following Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss all of the 2010 season. Nathan returned from the DL to pitch in 31 games from June 25 on but posted a 4.48 ERA for the season, the highest of his Twins career by more than two runs.

It's hard to say how good the Twins would have been in 2011 with a healthy Mauer, Morneau and Nathan, but because they all missed large amounts of time while accounting for over 48 percent of the Twins' 2011 payroll, contributed greatly to the team's poor season.

Vikings suffer, too

The Vikings are having similar problems so far this season, with two of their highest-paid stars missing time because of injuries.

The team's highest-paid player, Adrian Peterson at $10.7 million, has missed consecutive games for the first time since his rookie season and is questionable for Sunday's game in Detroit. He missed only one game in three seasons between 2008 and 2010.

While the Vikings have struggled as a team, Peterson was still posting one of his best seasons rushing the ball before he suffered a high ankle sprain against Oakland in Week 11, and his absence certainly hurt the Vikings' chances in their last two close losses at Atlanta and against Denver at home. If Peterson can't play this weekend, he will have missed the most games in a season during his Vikings career.

Cornerback Antoine Winfield, the Vikings' third-highest-paid player at $7.55 million behind Peterson and defensive end Jared Allen (nearly $9 million), missed four consecutive games between Weeks 5 and 8 because of a neck injury before returning in Week 10 to face the Packers. Following that game, Winfield was placed on injured reserve because of a broken clavicle, meaning he will miss the rest of the season and 11 games overall.

The Vikings secondary has been one of the team's weak spots for the entire season and Winfield's injury -- coupled with cornerback Chris Cook being out because of off-the-field issues -- has drastically hurt the defense.

There was also the situation with defensive tackle Kevin Williams, another highly paid player at $6 million, who missed two games early in the season -- games the Vikings narrowly lost -- because of an NFL suspension over his use of a banned substance.

All players and coaches stand by the mantra that every team deals with injuries over the course of the season, but the Vikings and Twins have dealt with more than their fair share of injuries to major players this year, and it shows in their records.

And one wonders, with both teams facing rebuilding jobs, how much improvement they will show next year.

Jottings

• The toughest recruiting challenge facing Tubby Smith is going to be the Gophers basketball coach's effort to get Apple Valley sophomore Tyus Jones to commit to Minnesota. Jones has a great relationship with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who was present the other night when Jones scored 37 points in a loss to Eden Prairie. Duke, North Carolina and Ohio State also have had coaches watch Jones. ... Julian Welch, the Gophers' junior college transfer from Yuba (Calif.) Community College, has now made 25 consecutive free throws.

• Ryan Grant, son of Eden Prairie football coach Mike Grant, will be back with the Gophers next fall even though he is going to graduate before next season with a degree in biology. Grant, who fought through a knee injury the last month of the season but played linebacker and on special teams, will stay in school and work on a masters degree.

• The St. Louis Rams have released former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber. After averaging over 54 tackles a season in his five years with the Vikings, Leber was held to only 15 tackles this season with the Rams, appearing in only seven of the team's 12 games.

• Twins shortstop Alexi Casilla is off to a great start in the Dominican Winter League with Gigantes del Cibao. Casilla is hitting .350 through 22 games with six RBI and 18 runs scored. Casilla went 3-for-5 with two runs scored, a double and a triple in the team's 6-3 victory Wednesday.

• The NBA Developmental League has started games this season and former Gopher Damian Johnson is playing with the Bakersfield Jam. Through four games Johnson is averaging 1.5 points, 1.8 assists and 1.8 rebounds in 15.6 minutes per game.

• The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that former Orono and Wisconsin star Jon Leuer will be coming back to the United States for training camp with the Milwaukee Bucks. Leuer, the team's second-round pick in the 2011 draft, played 10 games for Fraport Skyliners in Germany and averaged 14.8 points and 7.8 rebounds.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com

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