August 31, 2004

The New Guy Hits, The Old Guy Talks

With 25 singles, 10 doubles and 13 home runs in 184 at-bats this season, Justin Morneau has a .549 slugging percentage. If he had enough playing time to qualify for the batting title, his slugging percentage would rank 11th in the American League.

The last Twins hitter to slug that high in a season with at least 175 at-bats was Shane Mack, with a .564 slugging percentage in 303 at-bats during the strike-shortened 1994 season. In fact, since the Twins won the World Series in 1991, Mack is the only Minnesota hitter to slug higher than Morneau's current mark.

Here's the Twins' all-time slugging percentage leaderboard ...

                         YEAR      SLG       

Harmon Killebrew 1961 .606
Harmon Killebrew 1969 .584
Rod Carew 1977 .570
Shane Mack 1994 .564
Harmon Killebrew 1967 .558
Tony Oliva 1964 .557
Harmon Killebrew 1963 .555
Bob Allison 1964 .553
Gary Gaetti 1988 .551

Not bad for a 23-year-old rookie, huh?

In a related story, the man Morneau replaced at first base, Doug "The Mouth" Mientkiewicz, had some interesting words for his former team recently.

Here's a quote, courtesy of the Boston Globe:

"I don't think Terry [Ryan] wanted to trade me," Mientkiewicz said. "I know Terry didn't want to trade me. It wasn't Terry. Our owner [Carl Pohlad] just found out I got traded, like a week ago. He's furious. I know that for a fact."

I'm not sure what's funnier here, the fact that Carl Pohlad just found out "like a week ago" that his team's first baseman was traded about a month ago, or the fact that Mientkiewicz thinks Pohlad would be "furious" about something that took him three weeks to learn about.

As he is wont to do, Dougie continued:

"Terry called me three or four times after a game and said, 'I can't do it.' I said, 'Then you better do something about it in there [the clubhouse], because it's not a happy situation.' The man [Gardenhire] did me wrong."

I've had the opportunity to speak with some people who were close to the situation and the general feeling I got was that Mientkiewicz was simply not interested in stepping aside for Morneau. The fact that he was traded this season and had some friction with Ron Gardenhire is perhaps unfortunate, but his eventual departure was as inevitable as Mientkiewicz mouthing off about it once he got to Boston.

Mientkiewicz wasn't hitting, Morneau was. Mientkiewicz is 30 years old and making millions, Morneau is 23 and making the league minimum. It doesn't take a genius to see that something had to give, particularly because Mientkiewicz himself is implying that he would not have handled being Morneau's backup very well.

Also, file this one under "be careful what you wish for." When you're a 30-year-old first baseman struggling to get your slugging percentage to .400 and you've got one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball on your tail, you might not be too happy with what happens when you tell the General Manager of the team that he "better do something about it because it's not a happy situation." Terry Ryan did something about it and it is now a very happy situation.

Mientkiewicz went on:

"The one thing I'll always wonder is, we have a DH for a reason," said Mientkiewicz. "Yep, it [the trade] will come back and get them."

I think the implication here is that Morneau stinks on defense and thus Mientkiewicz should have remained the team's first baseman. The problem with that logic is that the Twins also had to find at-bats for Shannon Stewart, Lew Ford and Jacque Jones, in addition to Morneau. Which of those guys would you bench in favor of Mientkiewicz?

Incidentally, I have been pleasantly surprised with Morneau's defense. He doesn't have Mientkiewicz's range, but neither do about 20 other starting first basemen around baseball. Morneau is far from a butcher out there and I think he's excellent at scooping poor throws out of the dirt, which is perhaps the single most important skill for a first baseman to have. And, unlike Mientkiewicz, he hasn't hit like a middle infielder.

As for the trade coming back to "get them," that isn't even an issue. For one thing, Mientkiewicz, even at his best, is not an elite player. For another thing, he has been far from his best the entire year, even since coming to Boston. He hit .246/.340/.363 for the Twins and is hitting .245/.273/.358 for the Red Sox.

Since the team benched Mientkiewicz back in early July, they are 27-21 (.563), compared to 45-47 (.549) prior to that. Since getting rid of Mientkiewicz completely, they are 15-13 (.536). And all of those numbers without Mientkiewicz have come during what is, without question, the most difficult portion of their schedule.

Here's my favorite Mientkiewicz quote (which is saying something, since the article is like four pages long):

"From my perspective, I was a winner who wasn't very expensive. In the baseball scheme of things right now, I'm a very cheap alternative to what you have to pay other guys at my position. To me, I'd take 25 Bill Muellers over a five-tools guy any day of the week. He's going to win more games for me."

First of all, I'm not sure who the "five-tools guy" is that Mientkiewicz is referring to here, since there's no way anyone has ever accused Justin Morneau of having more then 2-3 tools. In fact, I would say Mientkiewicz has Morneau out-tooled.

Mientkiewicz is right that he is relatively cheap for a starting first baseman, but, as I said, the problem with that logic is that Morneau makes about 10% of Mientkiewicz's salary and that will be the case for at least a couple more years.

Also, the problem with bringing Bill Mueller into this whole conversation is that Mueller is actually playing well. He won the AL batting title last season and is hitting .286/.365/.448 for the Red Sox this year. According to Value Over Replacement Player, Mueller has been worth 20.3 runs over a replacement-level third baseman offensively in just 84 games this season, while Mientkiewicz has been worth 0.4 runs over a replacement-level first baseman in 99 games.

I don't want to come across as someone who dislikes Mientkiewicz, because he was actually a favorite of mine ever since he joined the Twins and I also appreciate a player who is willing to speak his mind. However, this comes across as nothing but sour grapes, a veteran player who is upset because he was pushed aside for a younger, better player.

If Mientkiewicz had played a little better this year, perhaps the Twins would have waited to make the switch until the offseason or even midway into next year. Unfortunately he didn't, and it's very difficult to stick with a first baseman slugging .363 when you've got a guy in the minors hitting .300 with a homer every three games.

I like Mientkiewicz and I wish him well in Boston, but there's no way I will ever be convinced that trading him was a bad decision. Justin Morneau is the real deal and he needed to play first base every day, and I'd say the Twins waited about as long to make the switch as they possibly could have.

It's nice to have a first baseman with some power, and while there have been some plays that Morneau missed that Mientkiewicz probably would have made, the position is still first base and Morneau's homers have made me forget all about Mientkiewicz and his defense (that is until he opened up his mouth).

And really, if Twins fans are going to get all hot and bothered about letting a first baseman leave, I think the first guy on the list might be David Ortiz, who finished fifth in the MVP voting with the Red Sox last season and is hitting .301/.375/.605 with 33 homers, 40 doubles and 114 RBIs for them this year. Ortiz was let go in favor of Doug Mientkiewicz.

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