Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Re-Emergence of Justin Morneau?

Photo Courtesy of Rob Tringali, Getty Images
Wednesday July 7, 2010.  A hot, muggy summer day.  Toronto was under an extreme heat alert.  The Minnesota Twins were in Toronto for a three game series with the Blue Jays.  After losing the first game 7-6 on Tuesday night, the Jays were looking to Marc Rzepcynski to even the set at a game a piece.  Minnesota countered with Kevin Slowey.  But despite Toronto coming away with the win that day, nobody really remembers that game for the box score. 

Canadian Justin Morneau was in the midst of possibly the best season of his MLB career.  In 81 games he had 102 hits, 25 doubles, 18 home runs (going into that game, he was just three behind Jose Bautista) and was hitting to the tune of a .345 average.  He was on pace to meet or surpass his season that won him MVP honours in 2006 (The first Canadian to win the AL MVP)
and had already been voted in as the starting first baseman for the AL All Star squad.  However on that day his stellar season (and career to that point) came to a screeching halt.

It was the eighth inning.  Minnesota was down by a run.  Michael Cuddyer was at the plate for the Twins with nobody out and Morneau at first base.  Cuddyer hit a ground ball to a back peddling Alex Gonzalez who quickly got the ball to McDonald to force Morneau at second.  Justin slid in hard to second.  As he should have.  As anyone would do in an attempt to break up the double play.  He was successful.  John McDonald jumped over Morneau to throw the ball to first and Cuddyer beat the off line throw easily.  However when McDonald jumped, Morneau was coming in so fast he slid through the bag at second.  His head hit McDonald's knee as McDonald was attempting to clear him.

Justin suffered a concussion that caused him to miss the rest of the 2010 regular season and the playoffs.  He returned in 2011 but was reduced to playing in only 69 games.  Over that span he batted just .227 with 4 home runs.  Well below his career numbers.  2012 and 2013 were marginally better.  In 2012 Justin was able to play 134 games, posting a .267 batting average and hitting double digit home runs (19) for the first time since that 2010 season.  2013 marked the last year of his contract with the Twins.  As a result Justin was dealt on August 31 to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Alex Presley and a player to be named later. (On October 5 that player was named as Duke Welker.)  The Pirates appeared to be playoff bound for the first time since 1992 and were looking to add a bat to help put them over the top.  After batting .259 in Minnesota with 17 home runs, Morneau unfortunately did not bring what the Pirates were hoping for.  He debuted in Pittsburgh on September 1, wearing number 66 and playing first base.  Through 77 at bats as a Pirate, Justin hit .260 with 4 doubles, 3 RBI's and no HR's.  I'm sure not what he or the Pirates were expecting.

Even though he was three and a half seasons removed.  Justin had never been able to get back to his pre concussion form.  Justin was granted free agency on Oct 31, 2013.

I've been a Justin Morneau fan since he broke into the league.  I have always followed him closely (as I tend to do with all of our Canadian born players) while he was a Twin and whenever he represented team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.  I have been rooting for him and hoping that he would at some point get back to where he used to be for one more season or two before his career is over.

I know it's early.  Heck, it's barely May.  But it appears that this year may finally be that year.

On December 1, 2013 Justin Morneau was signed by the Colorado Rockies to replace their long time first basemen Todd Helton, who retired at the end of the 2013 season after spending his entire career in Colarado.  The contract is a two year deal worth $11.75 million dollars and carries a mutual option worth $9 million for 2016.  Maybe it's the mountain air.  Maybe a change of scenery.  Maybe the National League.  Maybe batting between Troy Tulowitzky and Wilin Rosario. Who knows?  But whatever it is Justin seems to have found his stroke again.

As I said, it's early.  But through 30 games so far, Morneau is batting .339, with 6 HR's, 9 doubles, and 24 RBI's.  That would put him "on pace" for a 32 HR, 129RBI season if you believe in that sort of thing.  This appears to be the best stretch that he has put together since that day in July of 2010.

I am very hopeful that this is a sign of the year to come for Morneau.  That he is finally going to bounce back and put together a monster season that will put him back on top and have him back in the conversation amongst analysts when they discuss the year's top performers.  But more importantly, that he is finally healthy and feeling 100% again.  Enjoying both baseball and life to their fullest extents.

As of today Justin Morneau is the top performer among Canadian players in Major League Baseball this year.  Perhaps this might be the year Joey Votto (who I am also a big fan of) might have a threat to end his streak of Tip O'Neill awards.  The Tip O'Neill award is handed out annually by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame to a Canadian Baseball player, or players who are "judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while adhering to the highest ideals of the game of baseball."  Morneau has won the award in before in 2006 and 2008.  Votto is the current Tip O'Neill award winner and has won the award for four straight years (although he and Jon Axford shared the award in 2011.  The third time the award has been awarded to co-winners).  How great would it be if both of these Canadian first basemen put together a good season and were neck and neck when it's time for the Canadian ball hall to choose its winner for 2014?

Oh, and by the way.  Watch out for those Rockies.  With a record of 19 and 13, they are currently one game out of first place in the NL West behind the Giants and half a game up on the World Series favorite Dodgers.  There are some good things happening out in Colorado this year.  They're definitely worth checking out if you're surfing around MLB.TV some day looking for a game to watch.

Keep an eye on Morneau.  I definitely will be.

 - Rob

Justin Morneau was born on May 15, 1981 in New Westminster, British Columbia.  He was drafted in the third round of the 1999 amateur draft by the Minnesota Twins.  He made his MLB debut with the Twins at age 22 on June 10, 2003 against coincidentally the Colorado Rockies.  Morneau went 2 for 4 from the clean up spot in his first game.

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