However, all four teams (and fans of all four teams) should have a measure of confidence, or at least excitement, that things could be better in the not-too-distant future. All four teams are loaded with young players who potentially have big futures in their leagues. And that’s not just homer-speak. Experts in those sports believe that the young talent has a chance to develop into stardom. Some of them are already there. Others are getting closer. Let’s take a look around the Twin Cities sports scene and see just much young talent there is. Below, I will focus on players who are 24 years old and younger.
Twins fans are sick of hearing about all the young talent that we keep touting, but a lot of it is already here. While many of these names no longer appear on prospect lists, a better way to review an organization’s young talent is to look at a Top Players Under 24 List. I’d put the Twins group up against anyone. My guess is that most would put the Cubs #1, but the Twins would certainly follow very quickly on that list.
Miguel Sano - 23
Max Kepler - 23
Jorge Polanco - 23
Jose Berrios - 22
Byron Buxton - 22
These are all prospects that we heard and read a lot about from the time they were signed. Kepler and Polanco signed on July 2nd of 2009. Sano signed a few months later. Buxton and Berrios were the Twins 1st round picks in the 2012 draft. We’ve heard their names and we’ve read of their prospect status for a long time, so it is a good reminder of how young these guys are.
Sano struggled some in 2016, but in 196 MLB games, he has 43 homers and 118 RBI. He’ll be fixture in the middle of the lineup. Byron Buxton struggled with the bat, but few have played better center field in the Twins organization, and that says a lot when you consider all the Gold Gloves. His September is a glimpse at what could be. Polanco finally got a chance, and he’s shown that he should be an everyday player in the big leagues, at some position. Kepler was the Twins rookie of the year in 2016 with a solid showing. In fact, he showed more power than he typically has in his career. Jose Berrios took his lumps in his first MLB season, but again, we saw glimpses of the stuff that should make him a quality starting pitcher for years to come. This is a strong group, a strong core, that the Twins and their fans hope will lead the way to a lot of wins in the coming years.
Of course, the Twins still have several prospects that can either supplement the five guys above or become part of that core. Pitchers like Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves and Tyler Jay certainly have a chance. Relievers like Jake Reed and Nick Burdi could be up soon. Nick Gordon could be the shortstop of the future. Meanwhile there are more high-ceiling prospects like Alex Kirilloff, Wander Javier and Lewin Diaz who are further down the line.
The Vikings have not played in a Super Bowl for 40 years, not since 1976. The team’s track record of tough playoff losses is well known. In fact, when some say that the Vikings are a Super Bowl contender, there is a large contingent of fans that roll their eyes at the notion. This year’s team is a contender because of their defense. Obviously they have some issues on the offensive line that will have to figure themselves out if they want a better chance, but the defense is legit. While there are several strong veterans around the defense, there are some under-25s that are a huge part of what they do now, or will be a big part of it within the next year.
CB MacKenzie Alexander - 22
LB Anthony Barr - 24
OT TJ Clemmings - 24
WR Stefon Diggs - 22
DE Danielle Hunter - 21
S Jayron Kearse - 22
LB Eric Kendricks - 24
RB Jerick McKinnon - 24
WR Laquon Treadwell - 21
CB Trae Waynes - 24
There are several other players under 25 on the roster as well, playing on special teams. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are both 24 and they’re both Pro Bowl caliber linebackers. Danielle Hunter is still just 21 years old and he is still learning how to be a force. Trae Waynes played little a year ago, but he’s been solid in his opportunities so far this year and will be more important as we go forward. MacKenzie Alexander is in the same situation Waynes was last year. With Andrew Sendejo’s injury, Jayron Kearse may have to learn under fire.
Stefon Diggs has become a go-to wide receiver this year after bursting onto the scene the middle of his rookie year a year ago. Jerick McKinnon has been solid, when healthy and when given playing time. TJ Clemmings was placed right into the fire a year ago when Phil Loadholt was lost of the year. He struggled, as expected, but held his own. He’s struggled again at times this year, but I would not give up on him by any means. Finally, Laquon Treadwell is this year’s Trae Waynes. The team’s 2016 first-round pick is patiently waiting an opportunity. What he’s doing behind-the-scenes is more important right now because at some point, he will get a chance and hopefully be a big part of the team’s offense.
The Wild have made it to the playoffs four straight years. Last year they lost in the first round to the Dallas Stars. The three previous seasons they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild have a really good mix of veterans and young players. They have veterans like Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Eric Staal.Their goaltender turned 30 about six months ago. However, some of those under-25s have a couple of years of NHL service time. They have decisions to make on some of them after the season. The time table is tough.
F Charlie Coyle - 24
F Mikael Granlund - 24
F Nino Niederreiter - 24
F Teemu Pulkkinen - 24
F Jason Zucker - 24
D Jonas Brodin - 23
D Matt Dumba - 22
F Joel Eriksson Ek - 19
Each of those forwards - with the probable exception of the recently claimed Pulkkinen - have had several huge moments in his Wolves career, and even in the playoffs. These are guys who were playing two years ago. Coyle appears to have taken a step forward. Others continue to have their moments yet fight to find a consistency, for whatever reason. Same thing with the defensemen. Dumba’s got the big shot that we all love, but on defense, he has some rough stretches. In fact, he was supposed to be a healthy scratch in a game over the weekend because of poor play. Illness put him back in the lineup and he played a strong game. Erikkson Ek is, of course, a different story. The team’s top pick just 16-months ago just made his NHL debut for the Wild last week. He scored a goal in his first game, and he had three assists in Tuesday’s game in Boston on Tuesday.
Obviously the hope is that a new voice, Bruce Boudreau, will be able to get the most out of these young talents. Chuck Fletcher has some tough choices to make. Hopefully he chooses well and keeps some of these guys long-term and they help the team toward its first Stanley Cup.
After making it to the playoffs eight straight seasons (including that fun 2004 run to the Western Conference finals), the Wolves have not made the playoffs for 12 years. In fact, they have not finished in 12th place in the 15-team conference ten of those 12 seasons. However, this year’s team is full of hope due to their extreme, but incredibly talented, youth.
Shabazz Muhammad - 23
Kris Dunn - 22
Zach LaVine - 21
Andrew Wiggins - 21
Karl Anthony Towns - 20
Tyus Jones - 20
It’s interesting to think that Kris Dunn left Providence a year early, and yet he is older than four other former first rounders on his own team. The Wolves acquired Wiggins, the 2014 first-overall pick from Cleveland in the Kevin Love trade. LaVine, who has won the last two Slam Dunk contests, really came into his own in the second half of last season. They earned the #1 overall pick in 2015, and they were wise enough to take Karl Anthony Towns with the pick. They also acquired Tyus Jones from the Cavs in that draft after his stellar career at Duke (...after his stellar career at Apple Valley).
photo by Mark J Rebilas, USA Today
Towns was the unanimous choice for NBA Rookie of the Year last year, and with improvement this year, he’ll find himself in NBA Best Player conversations soon. Wiggins can score, but he’ll need to show he can do some of the other things in the game. LaVine took off in the second half last year, showing he is much more than just an athletic dunker. He will get to play more at the 2-guard rather than point guard this year, but I believe that time was very valuable to his overall development. Dunn will allow LaVine to not play point guard. He’ll push Ricky Rubio (who, by the way, is just 25 still). He’ll be an integral part of the lineup in the near future. Muhammad has shown his ability in his three previous NBA seasons that he can provide offense off the bench. Jones probably needed a couple more years of college to get bigger, but he has always shown an ability to lead as a point guard. His time will be limited, however, unless there is an injury to Dunn or Rubio.
That’s a quick overview of the 24-and-under players for the four major league teams in the Twin Cities. I encourage all kinds of discussion in the comments below. For instance, which team’s “build” was best? Rank which teams will be a championship contender soonest. Which players are most marketable in the Twin Cities, or nationally?
But here’s what I would like everyone to think about. I would like you to rank the top five players in the Twins Cities (under 25) by value. It can be value today, or what you think their value will be over the course of the next few years. Yes, that almost undefinable term that MVP voters love to throw around. It’s not necessarily just who is the best player relative to others in their sport, but it is also about intangibles that you may have in your mind? Which are all stars in their sport? Who has a chance to be an MVP candidate? Which ones are just nice, solid, every single day contributors.
Just to start it out, here is my list:
10) Mikael Granlund - Wild
9) Zach LaVine - Wolves
8) Charlie Coyle - Wild
7) Stefon Diggs - Vikings
6) Eric Kendricks - Vikings
5) Byron Buxton - Twins
4) Andrew Wiggins - Wolves
3) Anthony Barr - Vikings
2) Miguel Sano - Twins
1) Karl Anthony Towns - Wolves
What do you think? How would your ranking look? I left out some big names, like Max Kepler and Jose Berrios, like Kris Dunn, like Danielle Hunter, and like El Nino, Jason Zucker or Jonas Brodin. Maybe it’s easier to make a Top 15 or 20 list.
Note - this article will appear on Twins Daily, Vikings Journal and Wild Xtra. Check the Comments between sites. I’m curious if the rankings will look any differently based on your fandom. Let the discussion begin.