Justin Morneau hit a home run yesterday, his first of the season. This would not seem newsworthy but for the fact that it was his first since last May 31 at Detroit, when he hit two. Since then, the first baseman/designated hitter has mostly been sidelined by a series of injuries, including the after-effects of a concussion.
Concussions have proved to be career-altering, and sometimes career-ending, for a handful of players in recent years, and given how long Morneau’s symptoms lingered, it was realistic to question if he would ever regain his old MVP-level form.
Even Morneau expressed doubts this spring, referring to his long recovery as “torture.”
Morneau has had a decent first week of games, hitting .273/.333/.500, which is not quite his old peak but great given that he hit .227/.285/.333 when he tried to play last year.
The Twins are going nowhere this year, though if Morneau and Joe Mauer are healthy and productive they might improve on last year’s 63-99 season almost by accident, but that won’t mean they can challenge the Tigers. Morneau is also expensive, earning $14 million a year this season and the next, money the Twins could better devote to… Well, it depends: if they’re going to use it to sign more pitchers who emphasize command over stuff, they might as well keep Morneau—that’s half the reason they’re in this mess. The other half is that they don’t have enough hitters like Morneau himself.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s home run, ESPN’s Jim Bowden speculated that the Yankees or Rangers might attempt to trade for Morneau if he continues to produce (Insider). Each team has different needs that Morneau might be able to fill. The Yankees are utilizing a designated hitter platoon headed up by the superannuated Raul Ibanez (who looks like he’s about 60 now that he’s lost his facial hair). The Rangers have a DH in Michael Young, but having failed to sign Prince Fielder, their first baseman continues to be the sorely disappointing Mitch Moreland.
Neither deal is likely to happen.
First, Morneau’s salary is a major disincentive, and it’s hard to see the Twins agreeing to retain responsibility for much or any of it in any trade. Then you have to question whether he can actually play the field, a real issue for the Rangers if they’re not going to lock up their DH spot. The issue there isn’t if Morneau is an adequate fielder, but if—no exaggeration—his brain can take the pounding of running, jumping, and diving.
As for the Yankees, a healthy Morneau would be a definite improvement over Ibanez, but in a year in which ownership has insisted that reducing payroll is a priority, how much would the Yankees be willing to pay, and how what would they, and for that matter the Rangers, be willing to give up? Texas has one of the best farm systems in baseball, but why would any team give up a Jurickson Profar or a Martin Perez for a pricey, damaged DH who is going to be a free agent in two years? The Yankees’ system is not nearly as deep, but the same question applies: is a DH, any DH, worth a Manny Banuelos?
Remember, the equation is often this: if a seller retains salary, he expects better prospects. If he’s getting out of a contract, he’ll often take lesser prospects… Although some GMs will push for both if they feel the market for a player is hot or he’s simply delusional. A revived Morneau who maintains his current level of production would be helpful to a contender, but it’s very difficult to conceive a deal that would satisfy all parties in a potential deal.