Morneau was ready to seize the 1B job when the time came. Is anyone ready to follow in his footsteps? (Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)

Just Say No To Trading Justin Morneau

Let’s flash back to 2004 when the Minnesota Twins finished first in the AL Central with a 92-70 record and a +65 run differential. On the way to their division title, the team traded off incumbent 1B Doug Mientkiewicz. Drafted (5th round 2005) and developed by the Twins, he spent parts of seven seasons at the major league level and a total of ten seasons with the organization overall. The importance of the Mientkiewicz trade is that it facilitated the official ascension of 23 year old Justin Morneau at the position.

At the time of the July 31st trade, Morneau had 62 games of major league experience on his resume with 15 of them coming during the second half of that month. Mientkiewicz had 643 games of experience but between the two it was no contest as the younger Morneau was clearly the better option for the organization in both the short and long term. In the short term Morneau hit 0.270/.348/.628 during August and then 0.272/.350/.478 during September. Between the two months he hit 14 home runs and officially entrenched himself as the organization’s answer at the position.

In the 8 years that have followed, he’s been above league average offensively every season with the exception of 2011 and even the harshest critic has to give him a pass for that year as he was still trying to work his way back from the aftermath of the concussion he suffered July 7th, 2010 against Toronto. Morneau has pushed his name into the single-season and career organizational leaderboards in countless categories (more on this in a bit).

He’s been a huge piece of the team’s recent history, one of the faces of the franchise and a consistent presence that has picked up an AL MVP (2006), finished second in AL MVP voting (2008), won two Silver Slugger Awards (2006, 2008) and was an All-Star for four straight seasons (2007-2010). When our first son was born – the same month Morneau became an everyday player back in 2004 – we named him Justin.

So when Justin Morneau’s name is floated around in trade discussions, I’m a little more emotional, distraught and biased than most Twins fans. My son, who has really started to fall in love with the game this spring, and I check every day to see if any new rumors have developed. Together we have a lot riding on this decision, and even though we will remain fans of both player and team if they go separate ways, we’re hoping the two stick together beyond the trade deadline and into the 2014 season.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand all the reasons why he’s on the market and potentially available.

  • He just turned 32 which means that he’s likely already on or just starting the downslope of his career.
  • He’s in the final year of his 6-year, $80 million contract.
  • He’s just a year and a few days from having 10 and 5 rights and at that point he could veto any trade
  • He has value to both AL and NL teams since he’s capable defensively and typically rates as average or slightly above average in the field (2.8 UZR/150 in his career)

You could add to that list the line of thought that he wants to play in Minnesota as a part of the Twins. In theory they could deal him at some point in the next week and a half, pick up a piece(s) for their future and then sign him to a new deal this offseason. The sticky-wicket in that plan is layered.

The first piece we have to account for is that trading Morneau could alter his feelings about the organization. Slighted and discarded he could remove Minnesota from his list of potential destinations this offseason. His agent has reportedly already reached out to the Twins on multiple occasions to negotiate a new deal and thus far Pohlad and Ryan have elected to pass so some resentment may already be forming. That said, Morneau continues to reiterate that he wants to remain with the team and while that can often be a player just publicly stating what he’s supposed to, in this case I believe his real feelings and intentions match his statements.

Second we have to acknowledge that if he hits the open market as a free agent there is no guarantee that the Twins can get him back, even if he is willing to give them a discount. If he plays elsewhere and more of his power returns he could very quickly put his price beyond what the Twins are willing to pay. This season we’ve already seen his OPS increase from 0.688 in April to 0.750 in May and then bump again in June up to 0.821. So far in July he’s back down to 0.656, however that includes three home runs (he had four total on June 30th) and is bogged down by an out of place 0.162 BABip.

At this point I should go on record that I am not against trading Justin Morneau if they get good value for his services. The Twins have to evaluate whether or not the player(s) they receive back in a deal would be “worth” more than simply keeping him on the roster. Since Morneau’s value to the team goes beyond statistics this is far from a cut and dry assessment. While he is owed approximately $6 million for the remainder of the season, the less the Twins are willing to eat of that amount the less valuable the package they get back is going to be.

If Minnesota does receive a viable offer for the 32-year old 1B, the next question has to be, “who plays 1B?”

From where I’m sitting, that answer should not come easily. Granted there are ‘options” including turning the job over to either Chris Colabello (29) or Chris Parmelee (25). Both players have something to offer the organization and can be part of the future but neither of those strike me as all that viable as the long term, every day answer at 1B. If Morneau is moved and one of the Chris’s grabs the job and runs with it as Morneau did nine years ago, I’ll gladly eat crow but I’m not optimistic that they can come close to filling his shoes.

The problem with creating a hole on the roster, and this pertains to the “let’s trade Glen Perkins camp” as well, is that at some point you have to fill it. Yes, Joe Mauer could also play more 1B but then you’re just shuffling deck chairs during the cruise filling one hole by opening up a much bigger, much tougher hole to fill. That and the fact that Mauer behind the plate maximizes his potential contributions to the roster because he is the best catcher in the American League. Moving Trevor Plouffe over to 1B brings about the same issues, though to a lesser extent, as moving Mauer. At least in moving Plouffe they appear to have their 3B of the future playing in New Britain. However Miguel Sano will have growing pains at the major league level, just as he’s presently dealing with them in Double-A. Sano should make his major league debut at some point next season (if not in September of this year) but it would not be wise to count on him contributing consistently until 2015. For every Ryan Braun that hits the ground running in the major leagues, there are far more cases like Alex Gordon and even more cases where prospects flame out completely.

Sure, I want Justin Morneau to remain a member of the Twins organization for sentimental and emotional reasons but there are viable on-field reasons as well. Chief amongst those is that I firmly believe he is still working his way back from the concussion aftermath and he will play some of the best baseball of his career in the next 2-3 seasons. Second, as I mentioned above, the Twins don’t have an in-house option to replace him like they did back in 2004 when they moved on from Mientkiewicz. Even though Morneau hasn’t yet returned to his 2006-2010 form, he’s still been a slightly above average player with the bat and the glove both this season (102 wRC+, 101 OPS+) and last season (108 wRC+, 112 OPS+). He has value in the eyes of other organizations but I don’t see another team offering the Twins a package that will outweigh the value of keeping him on the roster for the remainder of the 2013 season.

Remember that when the team moved Mientkiewicz so Morneau could play 1B full time, and without looking over his shoulder, the latter was the better long and short term answer at the position. As of right now, the Twins don’t have a better option at the position, be it the long, or short, term. Despite all the flaws on the current team (see; rotation, starting) the AL Central is weak and will remain so in 2014 and Morneau could be a part of yet another division title if the Twins retain his services.

Then again I’m biased, as is my 9-year old son, and see things through Morneau-colored glasses.

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