La Velle's 3-2 Pitch: Three observations and two predictions on Sundays.
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The 2019 season wasn't that long ago, but the Twins have changed immensely since the Bomba Squad.
That was the season in which they belted a Major League Baseball-record 307 home runs. It led to bobbleheads, T-shirts and juiced ball conspiracies.
That 101-victory season was the first for Rocco Baldelli as Twins manager. His fifth season is now coming into view after TwinsFest weekend, and Baldelli is gushing about his roster again, just in different ways.
In addition to retaining Carlos Correa, the Twins have lengthened the starting rotation, solidified the catcher position and have arms and range across the outfield. If the Twins can avoid the rash of injuries they suffered last season, they will be a playoff threat.
If they achieve success this season, it will be for reasons much different than a long run of long balls: improved defense and pitching.
The defense will be strong up the middle with the return of Correa and the additions of catcher Christian Vasquez and outfielders Joey Gallo and Michael A. Taylor. I'm not a fan of Gallo's strikeouts, but he's a good outfielder, and a trio of Gallo, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler will run down everything.
"With the guys we have out there right now, it's hard not to look at this and say that we think we have one of the better outfield defenses in baseball," Baldelli said. "No matter who's on the mound, they are going to be pretty confident that, if the ball is put in play in the outfield, that we are going to catch the vast majority of those balls. That leads to wins."
The remodeling of the pitching staff began at the trade deadline last season with the deal for Jorge Lopez. A healthy Jorge Alcala will help this summer as well. Those of you still having nightmares about blown leads keep in mind that Joe Smith, Jharel Cotton, Danny Coulombe, Tyler Duffey and Jhon Romero were all part of the Opening Day bullpen. This year's group should be improved. Yes, Emilio Pagan is back. But so is Griffin Jax. And Jhoan Duran was an elite closer last season.
There is no top-end ace-type starter, but the rotation is deeper following the addition of Pablo Lopez. Now Josh Winder and Bailey Ober can develop either at Class AAA St. Paul or as relievers.
What does the addition of Pablo Lopez — 15-15 in 52 starts the past two seasons with Miami — do for this rotation?
"It does a lot," Baldelli said.
The Twins were in first place for 108 days last season. Their trips to the injured list and first-half bullpen meltdowns were hard to watch but it was not a disastrous season.
Their roster heading to spring training is better than a year ago, and it reveals a team that will rely on pitching and defense, not Bombas, as ways to win.
A lane to Lance?
Should Vikings fans root for Brock Purdy on Sunday?
Purdy has come out of nowhere to keep the 49ers on track to reach the Super Bowl. And if he does enough to lead San Francisco over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game, his legend will only grow. And Purdy will be a step closer to becoming The Guy in San Francisco.
That could make Trey Lance, the 49ers starting quarterback at the beginning of the season before suffering a fractured fibula on Sept. 18, expendable. The Vikings are going to need a Kirk Cousins succession plan, and Lance would be a good fit as their quarterback of the future. San Francisco traded three first-round picks and a third-rounder to Miami in order to move up in the draft and grab Lance. So they won't just give him away. But Purdy's surprising play could make the 49ers consider moving on from Lance.
Weak moments for Wild
You would think that getting the death stare from Dean Evason would be enough to stay on his good side. But as the Wild fight through their recent slump, he's had to make healthy scratches. It's going to happen over the course of a season, but it's still surprising when Matt Dumba and Ryan Hartman are the ones getting scratched.
Dumba, who has formed a solid defensive pairing with Jonas Brodin, was scratched for two games before returning on Tuesday against Tampa Bay. With 12 points through 45 games, Dumba is having one of his worst offensive seasons. That gets highlighted the times he turns over the puck. And a rash of ill-timed penalties led Hartman to be scratched on Thursday. He has five goals in 25 games after scoring 34 last season. The Wild need more from both of them if they want to surge in the Western Conference.
... AND TWO PREDICTIONS ...
Super Bowl Sunday upset
The Gophers men's basketball team will win its next game on Feb. 12, when they play host to Iowa. Before that, things will be rough as they face three of the top five teams in the conference.
And Super Bowl picks
Cincinnati has allowed more than 18 points just once in its past six games. Defense will carry the Bengals over the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. They will face Philadelphia in the Super Bowl after the Eagles knock off San Francisco for the NFC Championship.