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The Aging Mountie: Justin Morneau

If you know much about me, you’re not terribly surprised I’ve chosen to profile Justin Morneau in the scope of Colonel Sanders publishing his first base rankings this past Monday. And while I think the conception that Morneau had a less-than-optimal season is probably apt — he’s 26th in Zach’s rankings — there are some underlying factors to his season that might be signs for optimism that one doesn’t usually find in a stiff-bodies first baseman entering his age-31 season.

When Morneau was injured in July 2010, he was riding as high as he had at any point in his career — including his MVP campaign in 2006. In a half-season of games played, Morneau had a .448 wOBA, 5.1 WAR, and was likely on his way to walking at a rate over two percent higher than he ever had. The concussion when it occurred seemed pretty minor, but when Morneau just wouldn’t get better, there was considerable concern. And not just for the Twins budget, as Morneau was the club’s second-highest paid player at the time, but rather much more so for his quality of life, especially considering the battles fellow Canadian and former Twin Corey Koskie went through with his career-ending concussions.

Initially, the prognosis was that Morneau might be able to return for that fall’s postseason play, which would have made for a nice story considering Justin missed the previous season’s ‘run’, if one can call it that. But soon, not playing that fall gave way to Morneau looking gaunt, thin, and not particularly healthy the next spring. And when Morneau played a career-low 69 games last season, providing only a .275 wOBA with a career-low walk rate, the Twins had cause to be concerned with whether or not Dudley-Do-Right would ever return to form.

On the surface, Morneau’s 2012 is relatively underwhelming. Morneau hit .267/.333/.440; first basemen as a whole hit .258/.336/.442 in the junior circuit. Ergo, Morneau was essentially the league-average first baseman. And while there’s some real-world utility there — especially if one saw how Chris Parmelee hit to begin the season, or how Ryan Doumit fields anything — nobody is really clamoring to pick a guy up like that in fantasy baseball. In a positive sense, Morneau almost doubled-up how many games he appeared in from 2011, and in my view that would be the first step for Morneau in ‘returning’ to form. Can’t put the ox before the cart, you guys.

But there are some intricacies in Morneau’s season that are potentially worth monitoring. For one, the Twins should possibly consider signing a lefty thumper to be Morneau’s caddy. Check out his splits:

V. LHP 4.7 21.0 0.22 0.232 0.271 0.298 0.569 0.066 0.284 13.6 -10.8 0.252 55
V. RHP 11.0 16.0 0.68 0.290 0.371 0.531 0.902 0.241 0.301 58.5 17.9 0.378 141

Essentially, lefties ate Morneau’s lunch. In fact, it took a late season ‘surge’ of sorts for him to even look that competent versus portsiders. A platoon partner could go a long way to improving Morneau’s value, whether that be fantasy-wise, real life-wise, or in terms of trade value, as Morneau is entering his walk year.

Additionally, Morneau’s season month-by-month was uneven:

Mar/Apr 9.6 22.9 0.42 0.230 0.313 0.459 0.773 0.230 0.255 10.2 0.8 0.327 106
May 6.7 16.7 0.40 0.264 0.317 0.642 0.958 0.377 0.225 10.4 3.5 0.388 148
Jun 8.7 18.3 0.47 0.232 0.298 0.316 0.614 0.084 0.280 8.6 -3.3 0.276 71
Jul 6.3 12.5 0.50 0.315 0.365 0.483 0.848 0.169 0.338 14.5 3.6 0.362 130
Aug 5.2 14.7 0.35 0.314 0.345 0.505 0.850 0.190 0.330 17.1 3.9 0.356 127
Sept/Oct 14.4 22.5 0.64 0.236 0.351 0.315 0.666 0.079 0.288 11.1 -1.6 0.297 86

The early season whiff rate makes sense; Morneau was clearly trying to swing through the rust that had come with sporadically playing over the past year-and-a-half. Pitchers figured this out rather quickly, and threw him more strikes in May, which Morneau punished for his best month all season long. The June slump is sort of hard to explain; the walks came back, and so did the whiffs as Morneau had a midseason lull before picking back up during the dog days. Based on my sense from watching him and combing over these numbers, I feel like he could be the guy who played in July and August moving forward; essentially, better than this year, but not really close to what he did at his ‘peak’, but right in line with his career numbers. I think Morneau clearly wore down as the season closed, as Morneau hadn’t played that many games since 2009. If I were evaluating Morneau’s season on the whole, I’d probably omit the first month — somewhat good — and the last month — bad — to get a good feel for how well he played overall.

Again, this would probably be with a platoon partner, but there are typically plenty of lefty-mashers on the free agent market each season. The Twins would do well to invest in one, or perhaps better yet, platoon him with Mauer at first versus lefties. Then no additional funds would be required with Doumit already on the club.

As far as advice on drafting Morneau, don’t do it solely on my platoon advice; Gardenhire hasn’t shown a strong tendency to platoon, and the Twins will likely use most of their munitions on pitching this offseason. Still, Morneau should make for a good flier pickup toward the end of drafts, and I think he could be a pretty good one-year sleeper candidate. I’d be stunned if he finishes this poorly again.