August 31, 2013

Twins trade Justin Morneau to Pirates for Alex Presley and Duke Welker

justin morneau trade

Waiting until the last moment just hours before the August 31 deadline for postseason eligibility, the Twins traded Justin Morneau to the Pirates for Alex Presley and a player to be named later believed to be Duke Welker, saying goodbye to one of the best hitters in team history after 11 years. Morneau passed through waivers unclaimed two weeks ago, meaning the Twins were able to trade him to any team, but interest in the 32-year-old impending free agent was minimal.

Picked by the Twins in the third round of the 1999 draft out of a Canadian high school, Morneau emerged as a stud prospect in 2001, made his MLB debut in 2003 at age 22, and replaced Doug Mientkiewicz as the starting first baseman in mid-2004. After some initial growing pains he was one of the elite left-handed bats in baseball, hitting for both average and power with low strikeout rates while racking up huge RBI totals behind on-base machine Joe Mauer.

He was named AL MVP in 2006, finished runner-up for the award in 2008, and hit .298/.372/.528 with an average of 30 homers, 40 doubles, and 120 RBIs per 150 games from 2006-2010. That includes hitting .345/.437/.618 with 18 homers through 81 games in what was shaping up to be a career-year in 2010, until Morneau slid into second base trying to break up a double play against the Blue Jays on July 7 in Toronto and took a knee to the helmet.

Morneau suffered a concussion, missed the final three months of the season, and has never been the same, hitting just .256/.316/.412 in 330 games since returning from the brain injury in 2011. It's a damn shame, because Morneau was an exceptional all-around hitter at the absolute peak of his skills and formed a near-perfect pairing with Mauer in the middle of the lineup. Mauer got on base, Morneau knocked him in, and the Twins boasted two of baseball's top dozen hitters.

Unfortunately it's been three years since Morneau was even an above average first baseman, let alone an impact bat, and watching him hit .230/.282/.467 with a 36-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 games since the All-Star break provided little reason to believe that's going to change. He still has some value, particularly if the Pirates shield him from left-handed pitching, but Morneau simply hasn't produced enough at an offense-driven position to remain in the Twins' plans.

Rather than watching him leave for nothing a month from now as a free agent the Twins picked up potentially useful players in Presley and Welker, saved some money, and sent Morneau to a team with a chance to make a deep playoff run. Just in case you weren't already rooting for a team that hasn't had a winning record since 1992, the Pirates have Morneau as their starting first baseman and Francisco Liriano as the No. 1 starter.

alex presley trade

Presley and Welker are a modest return for a big name, but accurately represent the type of diminished value Morneau has at this point thanks to his remaining salary, mediocre production, and impending free agency. Presley turned 28 years old in July and was drafted in the eighth round out of the University of Mississippi in 2006, so he's a non-prospect whose most likely fit is a fourth outfielder with plus speed and experience in all three spots defensively.

Presley had a nice 52-game stretch for the Pirates as a 25-year-old rookie in 2011, but struggled in an expanded role last season and has spent most of this year at Triple-A. Overall he's played 285 games at Triple-A in parts of four seasons there, hitting .309/.377/.460 while averaging 13 homers and 28 steals per 150 games. He draws a decent number of walks, doesn't strike out much, and shows a fairly typical platoon split for a left-handed hitter.

In his various stints with the Pirates totaling 204 games Presley hit .261/.299/.419 with an ugly 138-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 699 plate appearances. He'll need to control the strike zone much better to have any kind of sustained success in the majors, but he showed decent power and while the on-base percentage isn't pretty a .718 OPS isn't that far below the .750 average for MLB outfielders. Given the current state of the Twins, he could be a regular for a little while.

Welker is a 6-foot-7 reliever with a mid-90s fastball and was the Pirates' second-round pick in 2007 out of the University of Arkansas, but he's already 27 years old and has all of one career appearance in the majors. During the past two years Welker struck out 94 batters in 93 innings at Triple-A, which is good but not great for a hard-throwing reliever, and his control is terrible with 4.6 walks per nine innings.

He also has a 2.91 ERA and .219 opponents' batting average with just three homers allowed in 385 plate appearances at Triple-A, so it's easy to see why the Twins would take a flier on the big, hard-throwing right-hander, but for now Welker is merely a bullpen lottery ticket. He could fill a middle relief role next year, although the Twins were already pretty deep in right-handed bullpen options and will soon need to find room for Michael Tonkin too.

Because of how things ended with Morneau in Minnesota and because the concussion (and other injuries) robbed him of a typical decline phase it's somewhat difficult to evaluate his place in team history. It's natural to wonder what could have been if Morneau hadn't suffered a brain injury, but what actually was ... well, it was pretty damn good for a long time. Here are the Twins' all-time leaders in adjusted OPS+ among hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances:

                     PA     OPS+
Harmon Killebrew   8018     148
Rod Carew          6980     137
Joe Mauer          5060     135
Tony Oliva         6880     131
Bob Allison        4643     131
Kent Hrbek         7137     128
Kirby Puckett      7831     124
JUSTIN MORNEAU     5350     121
Corey Koskie       3257     116
Chuck Knoblauch    4573     114

Even with the concussion cutting his peak very short and hastening his decline Morneau's adjusted OPS+ ranks eighth in Twins history at 121. His adjusted OPS+ was 128 before the concussion and 99 after it. His other all-time Twins ranks include second in slugging percentage, third in homers, fifth in doubles, extra-base hits, and RBIs, sixth in total bases, seventh in games and hits, eighth in walks, and ninth in runs.

I'll always imagine what could have been had Morneau stayed healthy, but I'll also remember his incredible raw power, his ability to do damage spraying line drives from foul pole to foul pole, the little inhale he took in the moment just before bat met ball, and the corkscrew follow-through that ended with the bat raised above his head. Morneau was a helluva player for the Twins, but it was time for both sides to move on. Here's hoping he gets some big hits for the Pirates.


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November 19, 2011

Twins sign catcher/outfielder Ryan Doumit to one-year, $3 million deal

For the second time in a week the Twins moved quickly to fill a hole with a low-cost free agent, signing Ryan Doumit to a one-year, $3 million contract after previously signing Jamey Carroll to a two-year, $6.75 million deal. Doumit, like Carroll, was a player I recommended targeting in my position-by-position breakdown of inexpensive, realistic free agent options and $3 million is an absolute bargain for the flawed but very useful 30-year-old.

Doumit has been a catcher for most of his career, making 403 starts and logging 3,513 innings behind the plate during seven seasons with the Pirates, but his defense has always been a weakness. His arm is decent enough, as Doumit threw out 24 percent of steal attempts this year and 25 percent for his career, but his passed ball and wild pitch totals aren't pretty and a study by Mike Fast of Baseball Prospectus showed Doumit as MLB's worst at framing pitches.

Ideally he'd see minimal action behind the plate, but if Joe Mauer spends time on the disabled list again and his backup is forced into an extended role Doumit will allow the Twins to sacrifice defense for offense with a better alternative than Drew Butera. And if Mauer can stay mostly healthy the Twins can keep Butera in a limited backup role and plug Doumit into the lineup as a corner outfielder, first baseman, and designated hitter.

Doumit isn't going to be a standout defender away from catcher, but he's logged 489 innings in right field and 251 innings at first base and should be passable at worst in either spot. And his bat is strong enough to be an asset anywhere, as Doumit is a switch-hitter with a career .271/.334/.442 line and batted .303/.353/.477 this year. For comparison, Michael Cuddyer is a career .272/.343/.451 hitter and batted .284/.346/.459 this year.

Doumit's overall numbers and Cuddyer's overall numbers are almost identical, but within that are very different hitters. Cuddyer destroys left-handers and is mediocre versus right-handers, while Doumit is very good against righties and mediocre off lefties. That means Doumit doesn't fit quite as well in a Twins lineup heavy on lefty bats, but even in a different form production is still production and a poor man's Cuddyer who can also play catcher is a great fit for $3 million.

Along with shaky catching his injury history is another reason Doumit was available so cheaply after the Pirates declined his $7.25 million option. He broke his ankle this year, broke his wrist in 2009, and has had concussions. However, the fractured ankle came when a runner plowed into him at the plate and the concussions stemmed from foul tips to the mask, so transitioning away from catching regularly should significantly increase Doumit's odds of staying healthy.

And if Doumit can stay healthy he's capable of posting some very nice numbers. He's been an above-average hitter in four of the past five seasons, batting .280/.337/.454 during that time while averaging 20 homers and 37 doubles per 500 at-bats. He's a free-swinger, drawing just 43 walks per 600 plate appearances over that four-year span, but Doumit also leans into quite a few pitches to boost his on-base percentage and doesn't strike out much.

Doumit is far from a perfect player, but he hits well enough to replace Cuddyer or Jason Kubel if they go elsewhere as free agents, can also fill in at first base if Justin Morneau's concussion symptoms persist, has enough catching experience to be far better than Butera if needed to replace Mauer behind the plate, and brings some much-needed versatility to a roster filled with health questions. For a modest one-year commitment that's some good shopping on a budget.

July 29, 2011

Twins Notes: “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in”

• I'm going to be on 1500-ESPN with Darren Wolfson before Saturday night's Twins-A's game, talking about potential trades and various other stuff from around 6:30 to 7:45. I'm sure we'll take plenty of questions and comments from listeners too, so tune in and/or give us a call.

• Rumors about the Nationals pursuing Denard Span continue to swirl, with Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reporting that they may make closer Drew Storen available after declaring him off limits in talks with the Twins initially. Of course, a short time later Bill Ladson, who covers the Nationals at MLB.com, reported that they're "not willing to trade Storen for Span." In which case the Nationals might save the Twins from themselves.

Whatever the case, it seems clear that the Twins are open to at least discussing Span trades and even that surprises me. Unless they're convinced his concussion is a long-term issue I'm not sure what's accomplished by dealing a 27-year-old center fielder with good on-base skills, solid defense, and a reasonable contract that runs through 2015. Storen is good, young, and cheap, but if they're going to trade Span the centerpiece shouldn't be a 70-inning pitcher.

Jayson Stark of ESPN.com reports that the Pirates have targeted Jason Kubel in their quest for a "professional hitter." Kubel is an impending free agent and shopping him makes sense, but the Twins will be in a position to either get a compensatory draft pick when he leaves or re-sign him to a one-year deal if he accepts arbitration. That same either/or scenario is riskier with Michael Cuddyer because of his $10.5 million salary, but Kubel is making $5.25 million.

LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Rockies are among teams interested in Kevin Slowey and speculates that the Twins might look to swap him for reliever Rafael Betancourt or infielder Ty Wigginton. Neither of them do much for me because they're old, mediocre, and relatively expensive for 2012, but in theory targeting a middle reliever or a right-handed hitter for Slowey isn't a bad plan under the circumstances.

Alexi Casilla injured his hamstring legging out a double Wednesday and has been placed on the disabled list with a Grade 1 strain, which the Twins expect will keep him out for 2-3 weeks. Given their history with return timetables this season, I'd expect to see him again in mid-2013. Casilla has hit just .248/.314/.390 in 37 games since moving from shortstop to second base in mid-June, but he's played better of late and as usual the Twins' middle infield depth is shaky.

My initial assumption was that Trevor Plouffe would be given the opportunity to play regularly at second base with Casilla sidelined and that may still prove true, but last night at least Matt Tolbert got the start. Tolbert was demoted to Triple-A last week after hitting .181 in 55 games for the Twins and went 7-for-36 (.194) during his brief stay at Rochester, but Ron Gardenhire got him right back into the lineup as soon as he rejoined the roster and that worries me.

There's zero upside to be had with Tolbert, who's a 29-year-old career .229/.289/.326 hitter in the majors, whereas Plouffe might actually end up being a decent hitter if given a shot. Plouffe lacks experience at second base, but he played 34 games there in the minors and has another 680 games at shortstop. And lack of experience at a position didn't keep the Twins from calling Plouffe up to man right field and first base, neither of which he'd played prior to last month.

• Not that Casilla is much of a table-setter himself with a .322 on-base percentage this season and a .310 career mark, but without him batting second the top of the Twins' lineup last night had the .249/.294/.283-hitting Ben Revere leading off and the .209/.264/.236-hitting Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the No. 2 spot. And the 7-9 spots were filled by OBPs of .288, .288, and .245. On a completely unrelated note, Scott Baker took a loss despite seven innings of two-run ball.

• Now that Casilla is injured Cuddyer, Tolbert, Danny Valencia, and Drew Butera are the only position players from the Opening Day roster to avoid the disabled list. Span, Kubel, Nishioka, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Delmon Young, Jim Thome, Jason Repko, and now Casilla have each spent time on the DL, along with half of the 12-man Opening Day pitching staff. And there are still more than two months left to play.

• In adding Tolbert and Luke Hughes as infield reinforcements the Twins went from 13 to 12 pitchers, which is good. Chuck James being the odd man out isn't as good, but he was among those knocked around in Monday's blowout loss and they never seemed particularly keen on calling him up in the first place. James has thrived at Triple-A and has a far better track record than Phil Dumatrait, who sticks around with a 14-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 innings.

Alex Wimmers thankfully seems to be back on track after sitting out three months following a disastrous season debut in which the 2010 first-round pick walked all six batters he faced at high Single-A. Pulled from the rotation and sent to extended spring training, Wimmers saw his first game action in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League last week and is now back at Fort Myers in the bullpen. Baby steps, but he's allowed three runs in nine innings with a 12/6 K/BB ratio.

• Cuddyer stayed hot last night with a pair of hits and is now 34-for-96 (.354) with five homers and 15 walks in 26 games this month. His overall OPS is up to .853, which leads the team by a wide margin and ranks 37th among all MLB hitters with enough playing time to qualify for the batting title. As usual Cuddyer is crushing left-handers, but he has a .407 slugging percentage against right-handers this season and a .435 slugging percentage off righties for his career.

• Mauer passed Tony Oliva for eighth place on the Twins' all-time walk list with 449 and did so in 3,119 fewer plate appearances than Oliva. To put that in context, consider that David Ortiz and A.J. Pierzynski combined for 3,233 plate appearances as Twins.

• After splitting four road games versus the first-place Rangers the Twins are now 27-39 (.409) against teams outside the AL Central, which is a 66-96 pace for a 162-game season. They're also now 22-42 (.344) against .500-or-better teams, which is a 56-106 pace.

Headline from The Onion: "Twins Shocked To Learn You Can Score Two Runs In Same Play."

• Last but not least, my video analysis of the Twins' season.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.