June 10, 2003

The Justin Morneau Era

The Minnesota Twins have not had a real, bona fide, scare-the-s@$%-out-of-the-other-team slugger in the middle of their lineup since...well, since I've been on this earth.

Even with the offensive explosion of the 1990s and the benefit of playing in the "Homer Dome" throughout the 1980s (it is no longer a great place to hit homers), the most home runs a Twin has hit since I was born in 1983 is 34. Over that same time-span, there have been 273 instances when a non-Minnesota player has hit 34 or more home runs.

The Twins haven't had a guy hit 40+ homers since Harmon Killebrew smacked 41 in 1970. Since then, there have been 135 seasons with 40+ homers by a non-Twin.

In the entire history of the Minnesota Twins/Washington Senators - a history that spans over 100 years - there have been exactly 13 times when someone hit 35+ home runs in a season. Over that same period (1901-2002), there were 470 times when a non-Twin/Senator hit 35+ long balls.

Since I can remember (which is around 1990) and really, aside from Killebrew, in the entire history of the franchise, they've just never had a Jim Thome or a Cecil Fielder, or even a Greg Vaughn. No, the Twins get guys that play good defense, run pretty well and hit doubles into the gaps, not homers over the fences. And that's perfectly fine with me. I mean, in my short lifetime the Twins have won 2 World Series Championships and appear to be well on their way to winning back-to-back division titles.

But you know what? Sometimes I think it might be kind of fun to have that hulking presence in the middle of the lineup. Instead of being surprised when Dustan Mohr or Corey Koskie gets a hold of a pitch and hits a homer, I think I might like to experience the feeling of sort of expecting someone to hit a homer.

Heck, I know when Jim Thome was in the American League and he came to the Metrodome with the Indians, I expected a home run every single time he came to the plate and I expected them to go 500 feet when Rick Reed was on the mound. There is something very intimidating about that. The other team knows that this guy at the plate right now has hit 44 homers this year and, if they're not careful, he's going to hit the snot out of this pitch and make it number 45. For once, I want to be on the good side of that feeling.

Well Twins fans, our long-awaited long ball savior may finally be here. Backup infielder Chris Gomez went on the disabled list with a serious knee injury over the weekend and, in his place, the Twins decided not to recall Todd Sears or Michael Cuddyer. Instead, they brought up 22 year old first base prospect Justin Morneau, one of the best - if not the best - hitting prospects in all of baseball.

I was extremely shocked by this move. It has not been the Twins' style recently to give a young, unestablished player precedence over more established and mature players.

But Justin Morneau appears to be a little different than the average Twins prospect. He is potentially a step above Corey Koskie and Jacque Jones and Doug Mientkiewicz and Bobby Kielty and even Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer. Justin Morneau is potentially an elite offensive player, a major force in the middle of the lineup, a bona fide scare-the-s@$%-out-of-your-opponent slugger - possibly the first such Twins player since Harmon Killebrew, which would make him just the second such player in the team's entire history.

Justin Morneau's 2003 minor league stats:

LVL      G      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     2B     BB     SO

AA 20 79 .329 .384 .620 6 3 7 14
AAA 37 138 .297 .377 .623 13 6 15 29
TOT 57 217 .309 .380 .622 19 9 22 43

Now, before I get way ahead of myself here, I want to stop and recognize that Justin Morneau, as much potential as he may have, is just 22 years old right now and has a total of 138 at bats above Double-A in his entire career.

I think Michael Cuddyer is one of the better hitting prospects in all of baseball, but he has struggled big time in his two brief stints with the Twins thus far. Hank Blalock is leading the AL is batting average right now and will make his first of what is likely a dozen or so all-star teams this year, but he was so poor during his first taste of the big leagues with the Rangers last year that they sent him back down to Triple-A. The list of awesome hitting prospects that weren't so awesome upon first-arrival in the major leagues is a very long one. And many of those players that struggle initially go on to have outstanding careers, just as I think Cuddyer will.

But wouldn't it be nice to have a hotshot prospect come up from the minors with only 138 ABs above Double-A and just light up the league?

Like Adam Dunn in 2001 (19 homers and 18 doubles in 244 at bats) or Frank Thomas in 1990 (.330/.454/.529 in 191 ABs) or Manny Ramirez in 1994 (17 homers and 22 doubles in 290 ABs).

In a perfect world, Justin Morneau would come up from Triple-A for his first taste of the big leagues. He would get consistent playing time regardless of how he performs initially and he would have a maginificient first major league season, officially beginning his dominance over the American League. That's what I am hoping for.

Of course, there are other, less appealing, ways that his debut season could unfold. He could struggle tremendously right out of the gate. He might his .175 with a strikeout in every other at bat. He might only get a week and a half's worth of consistent playing time, find himself on the bench and then back in Triple-A. And, to be honest, with the way the Twins have handled Cuddyer's limited struggles thus far, I am worried that is exaxtly what they'll do if/when Morneau doesn't hit like Dunn, Thomas and Ramirez did immediately.

There are, however, some positive signs coming from the front office that alleviate some of those concerns:

"It's going to be a balancing act in terms of getting [Morneau] regular at-bats," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "It's going to be difficult, but I think this is an ideal situation for the young man. We're a first-place club. He doesn't have to be a savior by any stretch of the imagination."

Ryan was asked whether Morneau's promotion is considered a trial run.

"I would hope this is a permanent deal," Ryan said.

While I remain cautiously optimistic (mostly because it's the only kind of optimistic I know how to be), that does sound like music to my ears.

Let's hope Justin Morneau takes the American League by storm immediately and the issue of what to do with him when he struggles never even is an issue at all.

Justin Morneau made his MLB debut last night against Jason Jennings and the Colorado Rockies...

(From ESPN.com's play-by-play)

2nd Inning: - J Morneau singled to center.

4th Inning: - J Morneau struck out swinging.

6th Inning: - J Morneau singled to right.

8th Inning: - J Morneau grounded out to pitcher.

Not a bad way to start.

I was very impressed with Morneau's plate discipline in his first 3 at bats. He held off on a couple of borderline strikes that were called balls, including one on a 2-strike count. Of course, just as I was thinking how much discipline he was showing, he came up with 2 men on base and 2 outs in the 8th inning and swung at the first pitch he saw from sidearming lefty reliever Brian Fuentes, tapping one back to the pitcher.

Morneau ended up with 2 of the 3 hits the Twins had all game and both singles were hit hard, particularly the second one. He looked absolutely overmatched on the strikeout, swinging over a breaking ball that almost hit him in the foot.

Morneau reminds me a lot of Fred McGriff at the plate. He's got a very compact batting stance for a big guy and his swing follow-through is the same one-handed-twirl-the-bat-above-the-head one that McGriff has been featuring for the last 20 years or so. It's only one game (and two singles), but I definitely liked what I saw.

Aside from the excitement of Twins fans getting their first look at the potential future franchise player, Justin Morneau's arrival in the major leagues magnifies an already existing problem (albeit a very nice problem) that the Twins have in regard to playing time.

You see, they now have the following players bidding for playing time in left field, right field, DH and first base, at the major league level:

Jacque Jones (.314/.331/.493)

Doug Mientkiewicz (.301/.363/.520)

Bobby Kielty (.275/.398/.483)

Dustan Mohr (.298/.331/.497)

Matthew LeCroy (.281/.317/.465)

Lew Ford (.318/.370/.486 at Triple-A)

Justin Morneau (.309/.380/.622 in the minors)

As if that weren't enough of an organizational logjam, they also have the following LF/RF/1B/DH players marinating in Triple-A:

Michael Cuddyer (.397/.500/.534)

Michael Restovich (.262/.326/.442)

Todd Sears (.278/.365/.426 in the majors this year)

That is 10 major league-caliber players, all fighting with each other for just 4 starting positions. A lot of teams have more quality players are certain positions than they have spots to put them, but having 10 guys for 4 spots is more than a tad redundant.

Meanwhile, the Twins have been trotting out the following middle-infield duo for years now:

Cristian Guzman (.260/.289/.368 in 2003, .263/.298/.384 career)

Luis Rivas (.250/.287/.333 in 2003, .263/.311/.370 career)

You've got 10 legitimate players and only 4 spots to put them and you've got one of the worst middle-infields in baseball for several years running. I've been calling for the Twins to trade some of their surplus of hitters for a decent second baseman for a while now, but I think the idea may finally be infecting the team's front office as well.

As I talked about the other day, Luis Rivas was benched in favor of Chris Gomez the two games prior to Gomez injuring his knee. Plus, there was an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune over the weekend talking about how the Twins were not happy with the way Rivas has been playing defense this year.

And now, I read the following in the Star-Tribune yesterday:

Twins: Rivas' struggles at plate carry over to field

While laying on the floor of the visitor's clubhouse at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego on Saturday, Twins second baseman Luis Rivas admitted he's lost focus on his defense while trying to improve his offense.


Twins coaches clearly expected more defensively from Rivas, who debuted in 2000 as a slick fielder with some flair and a shortstop's arm at second base. This year, coaches say they believe Rivas is not getting the most out of his talent. His positioning, and range on ground balls is sometimes lacking.

What a strange, surprising and wonderful development this is. I have been going on and on about how bad Luis Rivas' defense is for what seems like forever now and the Twins have always given the company-line that he is an outstanding defender. And now, all of sudden, they have some major concerns with his defense.

I don't know if Ron Gardenhire has suddenly become a fan of Zone Ratings and Range Factors, if Terry Ryan is reading this blog or if somewhere along the line Rivas convinced the team that he is even worse this year on defense than he has been in the past - whatever it is, I will take it!

I'm sure you can see where I am heading with this. The Twins have a freakishly massive surplus of major league-ready talent at the "hitting spots." They have employed Luis Rivas as one of the worst second basemen in baseball for several years now. And finally, as if it is some sort of special reward to me from The Baseball Gods, the team is now openly talking about their disappointment with Rivas' play.

I obviously don't have any inside information and this is no more than me putting 2 and 2 together, but I really think there is a chance that the Twins may finally do what I have been begging and pleading with them to do: trade some of their excess 1B/DH/LF/RF types for an actual major league-caliber second baseman.

I'm not expecting Bret Boone or Alfonso Soriano to be a Twins uniform next week, but I do think there is a chance there will be a new starting second baseman sometime between now and the trading deadline. And really, it doesn't even have to be anyone all that great in order to be a huge upgrade over Rivas.

Over the past 3 years, Rivas has been the team's starting second baseman and has also been one of the worst offensive second basemen in baseball and one of the worst defensive second basemen in baseball. That is a horrible, horrible combination and one that costs a team so many runs that simply finding an adequate replacement means a huge upgrade.

Who are some of the guys I'd like to see the Twins try to get as their new second baseman?

First and foremost, Jose Vidro of the Montreal Expos. As I have said here before, I think Vidro is pretty much the perfect player for the Twins.

He is still just 28 years old, he has established himself as one of the best second basemen in baseball, he has played on turf his entire career and, perhaps most importantly, he plays for the Expos, who, aside from being in playoff contention this year, strike me as a team that is always a memo from the Commissioner's Office away from having to trade their most expensive players.

Vidro is not a Gold Glove defender at 2B, but he would be a big upgrade on defense over Rivas. Plus, boy can he hit!

Year      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      EqA

1999 531 .304 .346 .476 .269
2000 663 .330 .379 .540 .301
2001 531 .319 .371 .486 .290
2002 681 .315 .378 .490 .295
2003 254 .335 .425 .507 .320

Jose Vidro is really a Minnesota type of player offensively. He is a consistently great hitter for batting average, smacks a ton of doubles (45 in 1999, 51 in 2000, 43 last year) and doesn't hit a whole lot of home runs (career-high 24 in 2000). Plus, he switch-hits and is a pretty good baserunner too.

In other words, Jose Vidro is the first guy the Twins should incquire about. And maybe he is not available, I really have no idea. But if the Twins are looking for a new second baseman and they are serious about making a big upgrade at the position, it wouldn't get much bigger or better than getting Jose Vidro.

If Vidro is unavailable or out of their price-range, there are some other guys they could go after...

Mark Bellhorn is rotting away on the Cubs' bench right now and could probably be had for pretty much a bucket of baseballs. Bellhorn got off to a horrendously awful start this year, lost his job as Chicago's starting third baseman almost immediately is now sitting on the bench with a .215/.346/.323 season batting line. That's pretty bad hitting, but it works out to a .251 EqA, which is much better than Luis Rivas' .217 EqA.

Plus, unlike Rivas, Mark Bellhorn has actually been a valuable hitter at the major league level in his career - last season to be exact. Bellhorn hit .258/.374/.512 last year, with 27 homers and 24 doubles in just 445 at bats. He also has a long history of very good minor league performances. And he's a pretty good defensive second baseman too. He started 63 games at second base for the Cubs last year and also started 10 games at shortstop and 29 at third base. Diamond-Mind gave him an "average" rating at both second base and third base, and a "fair" rating at shortstop (Rivas got a "poor" at second base).

Bellhorn is not only very likely cheap to acquire, he is also cheap on the payroll, which is a big consideration for the Twins. I bet they could get him for a low-level prospect and I am sure they could get him for Luis Rivas and the Cubs would probably toss someone else in too.

Some other potential second basemen on the trade market...

Luis Castillo (Florida Marlins) - If I knew for a fact that the Twins were definitely going to be trading for a new second baseman, I think Luis Castillo would be my first guess. As a member of the Marlins, he's imminently available. He plays pretty good defense and has good speed, two things the Twins look for. He's also pretty cheap salary-wise and, perhaps most importantly, he fits perfectly into the leadoff hitter-mold.

Luis Castillo has almost zero power. He has 11 career homers in 764 games and his career-high is the 3 homers he has hit already this year. And, for a guy that hits a ton of singles and has great speed, Castillo doesn't even hit many doubles. In his 4 full-seasons, Castillo has hit 23, 17, 16 and 18 doubles. Basically, all Castillo does well offensively is slap singles, take walks and steal bases. Fortunately, he does those 3 things well enough to make himself a pretty valuable player.

According to Baseball Prospectus, Castillo had the following "Wins Above Replacement Position" totals for his 4 full-seasons in the majors:





That stat takes into account both offense and defense. For some comparison, Rivas was 1.4 WARP last year in 93 games and he was -0.2 WARP (yes, negative 0.2) in 2001.

Castillo is not great and he's probably a bit overrated because the few things he does do well include batting average and stealing bases (both generally overrated stats), but he is still a nice second baseman and would be a definite upgrade over Rivas.

Mark Loretta (San Diego Padres) - To be honest, I am probably only including Loretta in this discussion because of how well he played against the Twins during their 3 game series in San Diego last week.

Loretta would be a great short-term solution at second base. He's 31 already, but he's pretty cheap ($1.2 mill this year), the Padres would almost certainly be willing to deal him and he's been a good player for quite a while now. He's a career .292 hitter, he gets on base, smacks a few doubles and plays good defense at second, shortstop or third base. He hit .304/.381/.410 last year and is hitting .290/.371/.419 so far this season.

Roberto Alomar (New York Mets) - Alomar is far and away the most talked about "trade possibility" by Twins fans. In truth, I think anyone who thinks Alomar is still worth acquiring (considering his salary) is stuck in the past, remembering the days when Alomar was one of the best players in the American League.

In reality, since leaving the Indians after the 2001 season, Alomar has been a complete mess...

Year      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     2B      EqA

2002 655 .266 .331 .376 11 24 .260
2003 228 .255 .341 .372 2 15 .264

Those numbers aren't horrible really, just not very Alomar-like. In fact, they look a little bit like a scaled-down version of Castillo's numbers - which is far from a compliment. Unlike Castillo, Alomar is really old (35) and really expensive ($8 mill this year). Plus, he's in the middle of a very serious decline, having hit .336/.415/.541 in his last year (2001) with Cleveland.

I would still take Alomar over Rivas in a heartbeat, because he is still getting on base at a decent clip and he'd be a big improvement on defense, but I would only do so if the Mets paid almost all of his salary and it didn't cost the Twins anything significant to acquire him. I don't think those two things are going to happen though.

Bobby Hill (Chicago Cubs) / Joe Thurston (Los Angeles Dodgers) - Both of these guys are the minors right now and I have seen both involved in trade rumors throughout the season. While I would take either Hill or Thurston over Rivas, that says more about what I think of Rivas than what I think of either of them. I don't think either guy will become anything close to a great major league second baseman, but they are both better than Rivas defensively and I have a hard time believing they could be worse offensively. Plus, I will take an unknown over established worthlessness any day of the week and twice on Neifi Perez's birthday.

Hill is sort of like Luis Castillo without the blazing speed. He'll hit for a decent average, slap some singles and the occasional double, get on base and play some pretty good D at 2B. He hit .280/.382/.429 at Triple-A last year and then .253/.327/.374 in 59 games with the Cubs. So far this year he's hitting just .258/.335/.367 at Triple-A.

Thurston had a very good year in Triple-A last season, hitting .334/.372/.506 with 12 homers, 39 doubles, 13 triples and 22 steals in 136 games. His numbers weren't quite as impressive as they looked though. For one thing, he walked just 25 times in over 600 plate appearances and his numbers were inflated across the board because he played in a very good park for hitting (Las Vegas). In fact, the Major League Equivalency (MLE) for Thurston's .334/.372/.506 performance at Triple-A comes out to .282/.305/.413 at Dodger Stadium. Those aren't bad numbers, especially since they are adjusted to Dodger Stadium (a pitcher's park), but they are certainly far from impressive (although better than Rivas' numbers last year).

So far this year Thurston is hitting just .263/.321/.377 at Triple-A, numbers that are very poor considering he's back hitting in Las Vegas.

So, my second base wishlist looks something like this:

1) Jose Vidro

2) Mark Bellhorn

3) Luis Castillo

4) Mark Loretta

5) Bobby Hill

6) Joe Thurston

7) Roberto Alomar

But I'm not too picky. Luis Rivas is currently hitting .248/.293/.331, his defense has gotten so bad that the Twins coaching staff has finally taken notice, and I was perfectly willing to hand the second base job over the Chris Gomez before he got injured, so all of those guys (and about 50 other second basemen all over baseball) would look pretty damn good in a Twins uniform as far as I'm concerned.

Today's picks:

Florida (Willis) -125 over Milwaukee (Franklin)

St. Louis (Tomko) +175 over Boston (Martinez)

San Diego (Eaton) +140 over Cleveland (Sabathia)

Detroit (Bernero) +230 over Los Angeles (Brown)

Total to date: + $1,255

W/L record: 124-121 (2-3 yesterday for -60.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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