The past two seasons have been mostly terrible for Justin Morneau. Mostly, because before suffering a concussion against Toronto on July 7, 2010, Morneau was playing at an elite player, and was on track to win a 2nd MVP award. And terrible because since that time, Morneau has played only on a limited basis. He was limited heading into Spring Training a year ago, and while he attempted to play through lingering concussion symptoms, he was never really the same player he was before the head injury. Grinding his way though the 2010 season, Morneau suffered some additional injuries, including season ending wrist surgery, and produced a disappointing slash line of .227/.285/.333 in just 69 games. Before his injury Morneau had an OPS+ of 187, meaning he was 87% BETTER than the average player (while he was in the line up). Since then, he’s posted an OPS+ of just 71, 29% WORSE than an average player. While injuries unrelated to the concussion may have played some part in his reduced productivity, it is painfully obvious that Morneau has yet to put the concussion symptoms behind him.
In a recent interview with MLB Network Morneau admits that he’s still dealing with effects from the concussion, “You get hit, and the brain gets knocked off a little bit, you feel like you’re half a second off. It’s not registering properly. When you’re trying to hit, it almost makes it impossible to hit. You feel like the ball’s behind you by the time you recognize the pitches.” Morneau is saying the right things, and sounds like he is vastly improved from a year ago, but I’m not confident that he will be the Twins’ every day first basemen, even if he can elevate his production back near pre-concussion levels. More likely is that Morneau splits time at first base with Joe Mauer, Luke Hughes, and perhaps even Chris Parmelee if he makes the team coming out of Spring Training. When he is not playing at first, Morneau will likely spend time as the designated hitter, though Ron Gardenhire will definitely give Morneau plenty of time off, perhaps even adopting a similar strategy that he uses for catcher Joe Mauer, giving him the day off when there is a day game after a night game.
In 2012, Bill James projects Morneau to play just 87 games for the Twins. Certainly that number is conservative, but based on his performance over the past two years, 87 games would be better than nothing. James looks for Morneau to rebound and projects an OPS of .863, which is more in line with his career average of .851. Interestingly enough, James doesn’t have Morneau returning to form as a power hitting first basemen, instead, Morneau’s OPS is driven by a predicted .379 OBP and a batter average of .288, both above his career averages, even when discounting his disappointing 2011. If Morneau can return and hit the ball hard, as James suggests via a .310 BABIP Twins fans will be rewarded for their patience over the past year and a half. Hopefully the 87 games that Bill James predicts is only a conservative estimate and he is able to play closer to 130 games. In his five years as a starter prior to the 2010 season, Morneau averaged more than 150 games per season, which says a lot about his continued ability to grind it out and fight through the lingering effects from his concussion. I expect Morneau to play 125 games, splitting time between 1B and DH, I expect his slash stats to come back within 10% of his career averages and while I think he will hit for less power, he will be a more patient hitter at the plate, drawing more walks and striking out less. I think he will still hit 15-18 home runs, and I think James’ estimate of a .310 BABIP is reasonable. If he plays an even number of games at 1B and as a DH Morneau will be worth about 1.7 WAR. Producing at those levels Morneau will be worth just under $8.5 million dollars in 2012, but if he’s healthy and returns to his old form by the end of 2012 he will have a bright future ahead of him.