Justin Morneau Stares Down the Future

As we discussed a few weeks ago, when you ask Justin Morneau an honest question you’ll get an honest answer, and after surviving the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Twins’ RBI leader copped Sunday to being frustrated. One gets the sense that he’s not so much angry as had his feelings hurt.

A week before the deadline, his people reached out to GM Terry Ryan in an effort to kickstart talk about extending his contract, which expires at the end of the season. Rebuffed, he remains on edge while there is a possibility he gets thrown through trade waivers and dealt before teams have to set their playoff rosters on Sept. 1.

“It’s something that I’ve never gone through before. A lot of guys go through it every year,” he said before hitting his 10th home run of the season in a 3-2 victory over the Astros at Target Field. “This was the first year I really heard Terry say he’s open to the possibility of trading me. Obviously that’s never been an option in the past, or I’ve been hurt at the deadline.”

Indeed, for a good two and a half years of Morneau’s six-year, $80 million extension – signed after he won the American League MVP Award in 2006 – he has been sidelined by injuries, most notably two season-ending concusions and a wrist injury that require surgery, but knee and ankle problems, as well. Morneau hasn’t lost the plot here. He gets it. But he also doesn’t accept the fact that he’s done helping baseball teams win, and his team-leading 57 RBIs and generally stellar defense are proof that he can.

That’s what he’s selling now, at no doubt a lower rate, and the fact that the Twins are circumspect stung.

“It’s been frustrating because you put out the interest in staying, and they put out the interest in seeing if they can get something back, and then it’s a wait until the end of the year to see if something’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s a not the best situation to be in, but at the same time, I’m here and I get to play.”

Teams have 48 hours to shop a player on trade waivers and it’s unclear when Morneau’s time will come, or whether it already has. Because there is a worst-to-first order for waiver claims, choosing when to shoot a player through is one of those games-within-the-game that can fascinate a fan. Because waivers are ostensibly confidential, most of it is unseen. With his salary and expiring contract, Morneau likely would slip past most teams, but a team trying to win a division or wild card spot could claim him just to block their from picking him up – maybe a team the Twins nearly had a deal with before July 31.

With Mark Teixeira out for the season, the Yankees have always seemed like a good bet to me, even if Morneau’s power numbers are at career-low*. And the fact that they’re about to lose A-Rod could make them more aggressive. And consider Morneau’s bat in a lineup more potent than the Twins’. But as you can see, a lot of dominoes have to fall the right way for Morneau to get a chance to play for a pennant. That’s a tempting prospect for any player, especially one who missed his last postseason because of a back injury and then played on two 90-loss teams.

(*for a full, healthy season since he first came up in 2003)

 But who are the potential trade partners?

 “If you’re in first or second place, you probably have pretty good corner guys who are driving in runs, which is what you’re supposed to do,” Morneau said. “There might be a situation, probably with an American League team, where you could get some at-bats as a DH, get some pinch-hits off a righty during the game, maybe go in for defense, whatever it is.

 “The American League seems like it makes a lot more sense because the options are there. If you’re going to pick up a guy who’s making as much money as I’m making, you’re probably going to want to use him as much as you can.”

 As Morneau contemplates the possibility of a pennant chase elsewhere, consider the fact that he tried to get the Twins to extend his contract, something he apparently hasn’t given up on. The conversation wasn’t detailed, he said; it was a gesture.

 “We just called and said, ‘Is there an interest in working out an extension?’ and they said, ‘Not before the deadline,’ ” Morneau said. “The closer we get to free agency, or the end of September, the harder it’s going to be to do something when you get back, when you get that close.”

At 32 and fit, he seems to have good years ahead of him at first base. With Chris Parmelee apparently hitting a wall, and Miguel Sano a good ways off, it’s not as if the Twins have a ton of options at first, either – certainly none better than Morneau. Not even close. Cheaper, maybe. But not close.

So what is Morneau’s future?

 “At this point? The most important thing is winning,” he said.

 And here’s the pitch.

 “A lot of teams just get a guy and say, ‘We’re going to stick him at first.’ They underestimate the importance, or underrate it, of defense at first base,” Morneau said. “I think a good first baseman you don’t notice as much, but there is somebody bad over there, it really stands out.

 “It’s usually a last resort (position) – ‘This guy can’t run anymore; we’ll stick him at first.’ If he isn’t good in the outfield, or doesn’t have as much range at short or third anymore, it’s one of those positions where a team just thinks they can stick somebody over there and figure it out and it’s not going to cost them.

“Heading into free agency, I think sometimes your options can be limited because of that. For me, I want to be in a situation where I’m comfortable and have an opportunity to win. Whatever works out, works out, but …”

There is Minnesota, which made him a first-round draft choice in 1999. Can the Twins give him the opportunity to win? To most of us, it just plain doesn’t appear to be the case. He disagrees.

“I don’t think we’re too far off,” he said. “I think we have to invest a little bit in this team, to make some additions, to become a team that’s capable of making the playoffs. But we have a lot of talent coming, and you add that to some veteran talent – we have a lot of good pieces here. I don’t think we’re too far off. That’s what we’ve always done, had a few young players surrounded by veterans.”

The reality, certainly in this era, is that the majority of player-team relationships end badly, to one extent or another. At some point, fences are mended and the guy comes back to do radio and coach at spring training. Morneau is about to find out if this is what baseball has in store for him.

“Either the player moves on or the team moves on. It usually seem like somebody’s bitter in the end,” he said. “And sometimes the fans get mad because when a guy leaves, it seems like he leaves for more money, but sometimes the option (to stay) isn’t even presented, so it’s one of those things. It isn’t always the situation that the player’s chasing more money; sometimes it’s opportunity, or feeling like somebody wants them on their team, or whatever it is. It’s not always about money.

“You’re hopeful it doesn’t come to that, but you see guys that don’t come back to an organization for 15, 20 years. That’s tough for the player and the team when you had such a great relationship. I’m not saying that’s going to be me, but from what I remember something similar happened with Harmon (Killebrew) and (Dave) St. Peter ended up bring him back into the organization again. That’s the worst-case scenario, especially with someone like that – not that I would ever put myself in (Killebrew’s) category.

“You’re always hopeful that however it ends, it ends well, and I’m hopeful it doesn’t end this season.”

Make sure to salute Justin Morneau on his way out

M&MBoys

The M&M Boys, Justin Morneau on right, sign autographs prior to a 2012 spring training game at the Orioles’ complex in Sarasota.

 

One of the many great lines in Robert Towne’s “Chinatown” is Eli Cross’s observation that “politicians, old buildings and whores get respectable if they last long enough,” the point being that surviving, no matter how ugly, is an accomplishment. Justin Morneau has been surviving for three years now, and it’s starting to get a little ugly.

One day before we know it, Morneau will be back at Target Field soaking in a standing ovation while being inducted into the team’s hall of fame. For Twins fans right now, he’s more a memory than a player: a shadow of the 2006 American League MVP; a reminder of what could have been; the disappointing half of the M&M duo around which the Twins are built.

Nearly four years after the first of three season-ending injuries, a microfracture in his vertebrae that cost him the 2009 postseason, Morneau is playing out the tail end of a six-year, $80 million contract extension and, not coincidentally, his career as the Twins’ first baseman. And he knows it.

A terrific interview by the Pioneer Press’s Mike Berardino on Sunday revealed that Morneau is waiting to be dealt. If a deal that makes sense presents itself to GM Terry Ryan and the Twins, he told Berardino, “I think they’ll make it.”

Morneau has always been candid, meaning, simply, that he doesn’t lie – a lost art in the world of professional sports. This hasn’t always served him well with fans, some of whom didn’t like what he had to say about separate concussions that ended his 2010 and 2011 seasons. Yet Twins fans still love Justin Morneau, who has grown up to be a valuable member of the community and, at his best, one of the baseball’s best players at a position traditionally loaded with very good players.

And now it’s (almost) over. The fact is, Morneau has finished one season since 2009 – a 96-loss campaign in 2012 – and just isn’t hitting. He’s still pretty sharp in the field, always his most underrated skill, but looks a step behind at the plate. On pace for about 14 homers – he hit 34 and drove in 130 runs, and batted .321, when he won his MVP Award – he appears to be guessing in nearly every at-bat. It makes me wonder if his wrist, a problem for two seasons that finally was corrected by surgery in Fall 2011, hasn’t really been corrected. Morneau once told me that when the wrist was bothering him, he had to guess in order to keep up with major league pitching; when it was healthy, he felt in control.

He doesn’t appear in control now. That he still leads the Twins in RBIs with 52 says much about player and team.

Morneau told Berardino that his financial team approached the Twins about a contract extension last week. When told no, it was clear to Morneau that his days in Minnesota are numbered. One can hardly blame Ryan for this; at between $14-15 million the past four seasons, he has been more bane than boon on the field, and the fact that he missed the playoffs in 2009 (back) and 2010 (concussion) certainly has not helped a team whose critical flaw has been an 0-6 record in playoff series since they won the ALDS in 2002.

For an extension – or any 2014 contract anywhere – Morneau will have to take a significant pay cut in his prime earning years. Only 32, he should be on the cusp of his last big contract; instead, he seems headed for a series of one- or two-year deals. As for a trade at the July 31 non-waiver deadline, you’d guess that if Morneau were still hitting for power he’d be a perfect fit for the Yankees, who last week put Mark Teixeira on the 60-day DL. But he’s not hitting for power, and he’s never been comfortable coming off the bench or being a designated hitter.

Morneau still is a productive player; his .273 batting average would be quite nice if the homers were still there, and his 23 doubles are in his career-high range (47 in 2008). But what he brings isn’t what the Twins need, and his stay appears at and end.

I can’t help but think back to 2010 after a good Twins team was swept in Milwaukee. Morneau was openly critical of the team’s play, openly accepting the burden that Mauer wouldn’t. Two weeks later he took that knee to the head from John McDonald while breaking up a double play in Toronto. Just as Morneau was becoming the acknowledged leader in a clubhouse desperately in need of leadership, he wobbled off the field at Rogers Centre and has never been the same since.

One has to wonder if Morneau has taken too much of a beating to regain that form. He works hard; eats (beyond) right; family man. He’s doing all the right things. But as my mom once said, getting old sucks. Don’t weep for Morneau; he’s fortunate to have been paid $80 million for it since 2007. But do pay him some respect on the way out. On and off the field, he’s earned it.