October 31, 2012

Offseason outlook: Justin Morneau

Justin Morneau was a shell of his former self in 2011, hitting .227/.285/.333 while missing 93 games with an assortment of injuries that included continued symptoms related to his mid-2010 concussion, but he was mostly healthy and relatively productive in 2012. Morneau played 134 games after totaling 150 games in the previous two seasons and showed glimpses of being the offensive force whose career was derailed by a knee to the head on July 7, 2010.

After a modest first half that was focused on staying healthy Morneau hit .317/.356/.506 in 42 games from the All-Star break through the end of August, but then he faded in September by hitting .236/.351/.316 in 27 games before being shut down for the final weekend in Toronto. There was no specific injury cited, but Morneau talked often about being unable to lift weights because it bothered his surgically repaired right wrist and he simply seemed worn down.

Coming into the season everyone involved would have gladly signed off on Morneau logging 570 plate appearances and hitting .267/.333/.440, especially since he avoided any major concussion-related setbacks. However, in addition to the concussion threatening his career Morneau has also had surgeries on his wrist, back, knee, and foot within the past two years and at age 31 it's natural to wonder how much of a toll that's taken on him physically.

Compared to his 2008-2010, pre-concussion numbers Morneau's overall production was down 15 percent, including 25 percent less power, 28 percent fewer walks, and 27 percent more strikeouts. Morneau chased pitches outside the strike zone 28 percent more often, swung through more pitches than ever before, and hit just .232/.271/.298 with an ugly 45-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 214 plate appearances versus left-handed pitching.

Among the 30 first basemen and designated hitters with at least 500 plate appearances he ranked 18th in batting average, 15th in on-base percentage, 19th in slugging percentage, and 18th in OPS. Perhaps being another year removed from the concussion and having a full offseason to rest will enable Morneau to build on his 2012 production, but even setting aside his many health issues he's at an age when declines are expected.

Morneau also has just one season remaining on his contract and it's hard to see him fitting into the Twins' plans beyond 2013. When reports surfaced that the Dodgers were showing interest in Morneau at the trade deadline and may have been willing to give up prospects in addition to taking on his entire contract that seemed like a good opportunity for the Twins to shed his $14 million salary for 2013 and acquire some young talent.

Instead the Twins decided to keep Morneau and the Dodgers traded for Adrian Gonzalez, ruling them out as a potential future trade fit as well. Whether other teams were ever willing to assume Morneau's contract and part with prospects is unclear, but even wiping his $14 million salary off the books would have value for the Twins as they try to rebuild the starting rotation and his departure would clear a path for Chris Parmelee to get regular playing time.

In other words, if Morneau is no longer an elite hitter and is unlikely to be on the team beyond 2013 would the Twins be better off getting some value for him now and moving on? To me that beats paying him $14 million for one more season and then letting him walk for nothing as a free agent, although if he puts together a strong, healthy first half in 2013 his trade value could potentially be just as high or higher than it was in July.

Trading one of the best players in team history is never easy, particularly considering what Morneau has gone through, but in the larger picture he's a good but not great first baseman with tons of health-related question marks signed to a one-year, $14 million contract. Letting him play out that deal and hit the open market might be the least-painful option in the short term, but it would also likely be a missed opportunity to better allocate that money.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit

  • http://galtierpoolguy.com Bryan

    Fair analysis. Nothing new here. What would you say about a 3 year $21mil extension? Similar to the Willingham deal. If Morneau came back strong this would be a steal.

  • Spoof Bonser

    I think he can still be plenty useful, but in some sort of DH/1st platoon role. Since Gardy likes the big bullpen and doesn’t really believe in the benefits of LH/RH platooning, I don’t see the ideal fit in MN. He should go fill the veteran role for a team like the Yankees, Boston, or Texas. He kind of reminds me of a poor man’s Jim Thome.

  • BR

    A trade this offseason is certainly an option, but it all depends on what they could get for him. Based on recent performance, he’s a merely average starting 1Bman. As such, he’s clearly overpaid. Hard to see any team taking on his full salary right now and giving up a solid prospect. Maybe a #4 OF type or middle reliever plus a low minors lottery ticket. What’s the point of making that deal? The only reason to do it is if they NEED to save that money in order to pay it to some other top FA. I’m not convinced of that need – I think they’ve got the money to sign a guy like Anibal Sanchez and keep Morneau for a year.

    So, they might as well hold onto him, hope he rakes, and deal him mid-season when a desperate team is willing to pay more. If nothing emerges and he has rebounded to an .850+ OPS kind of guy, tender him at the $13.3M level. Get him for another year if he signs, or deal him then, or let him go and get the supplemental pick.

  • Steve J

    What would you say about a 3 year $21mil extension? Similar to the Willingham deal. If Morneau came back strong this would be a steal.

    At this point I think that would be a very big “if”. And given that he’s blocking Parmelee, It’s not a good fit position-wise.

  • Wojo

    Allocations. Costs. Business language plied to human beings. Can you analyze the benifit of being a good human being and role model on a team? No. I wish every sports writer did not try to be GMs and allocation manager. Here’s an argument that can’t be backed up by numbers but which nonetheless I think may be true: They should keep Morneau because he’s a model Twin and he can still play. Yes cost is a factor but after this next year they can see what he gives them and get him very reasonably for another short contract. If he can still produce at even an average level it’s worth it to have him on the team as he shows the young guys how to have class and play the right way. Keep him in the fold if at all possible.

  • tborg

    Is there a starting pitcher who, like Morneau, has a moderate injury risk, will likely give you average production, and makes about $14 million? An ideal situation would be a trade of Morneau that involves a pitcher like that. James Shields will have an annual salary similar to Morneau, but obviously he’s a lot more valuable. How much would Boston add to the deal if we took John Lackey off their hands? Could he be this year’s A.J. Burnett?

  • Dave T

    If your goal is to win the division, you want Morneau at 1B. If your goal is to finish ahead of Kansas City, you want Parmalee. The Twins have paid the price, by keeping Morneau on the team while he recovered from his injuries. Now I want the Twins to reap the benefits. I fully expect Morneau to return to his former MVP level in 2013.

  • mike wants wins

    So if you keep him, how do they compete next year? They are not adding to last year’s payroll….and they need 3-4 starting pitchers and a couple of bullpen arms, and the offense wasn’t that good last year either….so if you keep him, how do they compete next year?

  • Wyatt

    I would like to see the Twins free themselves of Morneau and his contract, then re-direct that money into the starting pitching market. As far as first base goes, I think the Twins should take a close look at what the A’s did last year. They picked up several Quad-A first base types for league mins (Moss, Carter, K’ahuihue), and mixed and matched until they found a successful platoon (Moss and Carter). I would love to see the Twins find a cheap righty Quad A type to platoon with Parmalee, preferably someone with some positional flexibility. I believe first base/corner outfield type platoon players are currently a market insufficiency.

  • Steve J

    Allocations. Costs. Business language plied to human beings. Can you analyze the benifit of being a good human being and role model on a team? No.

    Yes you can, and it turns out baseball clubs do.

    Why else do you think a guy like Barry Bonds was among the leaders in OPS and next year wasn’t tendered a contract by anyone? It’s simply because everyone saw him (right or wrong) as too much of a liability outside the batters box.

    There is plenty of evidence front offices value personality and character given how much time they talk with free agents and especially potential draft selections.

    “Allocations. Costs. Business language plied to human beings.” – happens all the time in the workplace and normal business. This happens because we value character.

  • ewen21

    I’m glad you’ve brought up the first base situation because it IS alog jam there right now with Parmelee, Morneau and Mauer all being lefty first baseman. You also have Doumit, Morneau, Mauer, Parmelee all (at times) lefty DHs looking for at bats. I frankly cannot understand what the hold up is here with needs all over the roster. It breaks down quite simply for me. The Twins must act NOW and either:
    A) Move Morneau NOW and get rid of some payroll: This idea that trading him before the trade deadline is a fools errand. Who knows what he’ll do? He can get injured just as easily as he can come out of the gate flying. Besides, Morneau is known to break down and if he does what then? If any team is willing to eat half his contract TRADE HIM!
    OR–
    B) Trade Parmelee NOW to bring in a middle infield prospect: The guy has to get his shot, plain and simple. If we just keep him in a holding pattern again this year it is doing the Twins and Parm a disservice. Trade him for an equally promising infield prospect–preferably someone who can hit.

    It’s one or the other, imo. Either move does SOMETHING good for the team. Having Morneau, Mauer and Parmelee all on the 40 man is a waste. The Twins cannot wait around. They need to do this deal before teams start rearranging their rosters and filling needs.