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Jason’s Blog: I miss Morneau

Posted By: Jason Iacovino

The Minnesota Twins traded Justin Morneau to the Pittsburgh Pirates for outfielder Alex Presley and a player to be named later on Aug. 31, 2013.  Morneau spent 10 seasons with the Twins, becoming their full-time first baseman in 2004 when, in a heart-breaking move for me personally, the Twins traded Doug Meintkiewicz to the Red Sox as the two teams were playing a weekend series at the Metrodome in July.

I’ve since gotten over the Mientkiewicz trade (Dougie Baseball is currently managing the Twins’ Class A affiliate in Ft. Myers, Fla.), and the quick promotion of Morneau turned out to be a huge success as he helped lead the team to four division titles and won an MVP in 2006.

At the time the Twins traded Morneau last August there were rumblings from team management that they could still end up re-signing him in the offseason as he publicly indicated he liked playing in Minnesota.  This ended up not happening as they opted instead to move Joe Mauer from catcher to first base, opening the door for the Colorado Rockies to ink Morneau to a two-year, $12 million deal.

That contract now appears to be an absolute steal for Colorado.

Morneau went 3-for-5 on Tuesday night against the Cardinals, belting his 13th homer and driving in 6 runs (His season RBI total stands at 57) in a 10-5 Rockies win.  He’s now hitting .304 on the season.  Meanwhile, the Twins first baseman is hitting .261 with 2 HR and 22 RBI.

It’s easy to second-guess the Twins’ decision to part ways with Morneau, but the reality is these situations can be complicated.  Morneau didn’t exactly have a stellar contract year in 2013, the last of a 4-year, $60 million deal, when he ended up hitting .259 with 17 HRs, 36 doubles, and 77 RBIs for the Twins and Pirates.

Those aren’t bad numbers (Again, our first baseman is currently on pace to come well shy of these totals in 2014), but they aren’t the kind of numbers that would make a team giddy about continuing to pay $15 million per season for one’s services.  Instead, the Twins took Presley, who they ended up ditching early this year as they still have yet to find a viable centerfield option.

The player to be named later ended up being minor league pitcher Duke Welkon, although the Twins traded him immediately back to the Pirates for another minor league pitcher, starter Kris Johnson, who is having a very nice season on a talented staff in Triple-A Rochester (Johnson is 6-3 with a 2.72 ERA in 13 starts for the Red Wings).

So we can dream and hope that Johnson is part of a 1990s Atlanta Braves-like starting rotation for the Twins in the coming years that would include Kyle Gibson, Yohan Pino, Alex Meyer, and Trevor May…but at this point, that is nothing more than a dream (A common exercise among fans of teams that finish with 95-plus losses for three straight seasons).

Reality for now is Morneau is mashing.  He will face his former teammates in a three-game series in Denver July 11-13, then he will likely hop the same charter the Twins will take back to Minneapolis to participate in the All Star Game at Target Field on July 15.

I would Wednesday Morning Quarterback the Twins’ handling of Morneau, but again, the whole issue is complicated on a couple of levels.  For one, it’s always tough to ask a 33-year old who still feels he has some prime years remaining to take a substantial pay cut when he’s been earning $15 million for four years.  It’s a lot easier for that player to bargain with other teams willing to pay much less, even if that means leaving a place you love.

Plus, the team had to do something about getting Mauer away from catching, and even as he has struggled offensively this season, most Twins fans would agree it was the right thing to do.  Still, to be clear, the Twins announced the Mauer move to first before Colorado signed Morneau, so they essentially took themselves out of the running to re-sign their former MVP and 4-time All Star.

And just as with teammate Michael Cuddyer, the Twins’ loss is the Rockies’ gain regarding Morneau.  Cuddyer’s situation was a bit different–Colorado paid him more than the Twins ever did when he signed as a free agent following the 2011 season.  The Twins simply felt they had suitable, cost-effective replacements in Ryan Doumit and Ben Revere.  I’m sure they never envisioned Cuddyer winning a NL batting title (.333) while crushing 20 HRs a year later.

Cuddyer is in the final year of his 3-year, $31.5 million deal with the Rockies and he’s spending most of it on the disabled list.  Morneau, meanwhile, is having an interesting run–he got to see his childhood hero, Patrick Roy, play Minnesota in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Denver and now it appears he will be in the All-Star game at his former team’s home stadium.

So as the Twins sit 3-games under .500 and 6 games behind first place Detroit on June 25, you can’t help but dream about what this team could do if Mauer and Morneau hadn’t been separated. Morneau would look very good batting third for Minnesota right now, a spot occupied by Mauer for the past month or so.  For what it’s worth, the Rockies are in even worse shape, 10 games behind the Giants.

Normally you want to give general manager Terry Ryan the benefit of the doubt when it comes to exit strategies with star players who have led the team to the playoffs.  They offered Torii Hunter a fair deal after the 2007 season, but Anaheim offered him a bit more and he left town.  I would not have advocated throwing $30 million Cuddyer’s way, either, but the Twins got a bit unlucky on that one.

Morneau could well have been there for the taking, however. I sincerely hope the option was explored and if it was one of those situations where he simply wouldn’t take the pay cut from the team that had been paying him, then there’s nothing we can do about that.  I also hope that Morneau’s exit doesn’t signal the virtual end of Mauer’s big years with the team as well.

It will also be very weird to see Morneau wearing another team’s uniform in July, but he should get a rousing ovation from the fans at Target Field.

Jason Iacovino can be heard Tuesdays and Fridays on KRFO-AM 1390 at 3:50 p.m. Email him at jjiacovino@stthomas.edu. Follow him on Twitter @JasonIacovino.

 

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