Justin Morneau is no longer a member of the Minnesota Twins. The team’s third-round pick in 1999, who made his debut as a 22-year-old in 2003 and was named AL MVP in 2006, was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Alex Presley and a player to be named later or cash.
The trade did not catch many people by surprise. Morneau suffered a concussion in 2010, was injured for most of 2011 and has not been the same player since. He was red hot at the time he was traded, hitting nine home runs in August, but he has not been the same since 2009 when he hit .274/.363/.516 with 30 home runs with 100 RBIs.
Morneau is a player on the decline and the Twins, heading toward their third straight losing season, wanted to get value for him before he hit free agency.
Despite all that, it’s still hard to see him go.
Morneau has been a fixture in Minnesota since 2003. Many fans still wear his jersey. He played in Minneapolis throughout his prime and Joe Mauer insisted he wanted to keep the M&M Boys together until the end.
Call me naïve, but I’m still surprised that the Twins didn’t win a championship, or at least make a playoff run with Mauer and Morneau in the heart of the lineup.
In order to truly understand what the loss of Morneau means for the Twins, we must first look at the highs and lows from the M&M Boys era, what this means for Mauer in his prime and how the team will move forward without him.
The Wrong Ending for the M&M Boys
I am sorry that during my time here we weren’t able to achieve our ultimate goal of winning the World Series, but I will forever carry many wonderful memories of my time here.
– Excerpt from Morneau’s letter to Twins fans on August 31, 2013.
It seems far-fetched now that Minnesota was close to winning a championship with Mauer and Morneau hitting in the three- and four-hole, but back when Target Field was built, the sky appeared to be the limit.
Minnesota had dominated the AL Central, winning six division championships from 2002 to 2010. In 2009 and 2010, they had been knocking on the door, looking to get past the mighty New York Yankees.
It was a David and Goliath matchup: the small-market Twins with homegrown Mauer and Morneau against the internationally recognized Yankees and big-time free signings like the ever-growing C.C. Sabathia and the steroid-fueled Alex Rodriguez.
After years of seeing the Metrodome Twins, with their minimal payroll, overachieve on a regular basis, fans believed that the additional revenue from Target Field would give ownership the incentive to fork over the cash necessary to keep the team’s biggest stars in town. Imagine the Oakland A’s or Tampa Bay Rays getting a new stadium right now? That was the Twins in 2010.
They had just re-signed Joe Mauer, the league’s best catcher who had grown up in nearby St. Paul, and with the new park packing standing room only crowds, more big signings appeared to be on the way.
Unfortunately, injuries and poor personnel decisions caught up with the team and, over the course of a year, the team went from 94-68, their best record since 2006, to 63-99, their worst record since 1999—the year Morneau was drafted.
The team’s downfall coincided with the health of Mauer and Morneau. The catcher played only 82 games in 2011, the first baseman only 69.
By the time the two were healthy again, in 2012, the rotation was shot and Morneau was not the same player he once was. Not only was he entering the final years of his athletic prime, but two concussions and multiple other injuries had also expedited his aging and he appeared to be a shell of what he once was.
He showed signs of recovery at age 32, but Minnesota is undergoing a youth movement and it makes little sense to take a financial risk with an older player. I thought maybe they’d keep him and sign him to a three-year, $24 million deal—or something in that range—because he was a franchise player, but Morneau probably will look for more money in the open market and even that amount is hefty for a player that might end up coming off the bench in the near future.
Morneau’s last years as a Twin left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth, but no one will soon forget the division championships—the years when 162 games were not enough and the times when 30 home runs, 100 RBIs and a .300 batting average appeared commonplace for the Canadian sensation.
He also goes to a team that is easy to cheer for. Morneau is not joining a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Yankees that is swimming in cash. He is now a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team in another small-market, sports-crazed city. Like the Twins, the Pirates have plenty of history, but their fans have been suffering for even longer.
The memories from the Morneau era are wonderful, but at this point it is time to move on.
What about Joe?
I’ve been around long enough to not worry about rumors and things like that.
You kind of have to wait and react to something if something happens so we’ll see. Hopefully he’s my teammate for a long time.
– Mauer, in reference to Morneau, on August 14, 2003.
Mauer earnestly sounded like he wanted to finish his career with Morneau as a teammate, or at least have a couple of more years with him. He is two years younger than Morneau, so he might have had a few years at the end without his Canadian friend, but it’s hard not to think that if the Twins were winning, Morneau would have gotten an extension by August.
Mauer shared a house with Morneau during his 2006-07 season and, at the time, when he signed his massive eight-year, $184 million extension in 2010, things appeared to be going well.
Baseball is a business, every player knows that, and Mauer probably can see that it’s a sound business decision to let his longtime teammate go.
Still, you have think that he, like all of is, is not too thrilled about how it ended. While his injuries, as well as Morneau’s, were culpable in the team’s 2011 tailspin, he has played exceptionally well this year and Morneau, at the very least, has been a productive player and the team is entering its third straight losing season.
There are also concerns about Mauer’s health. Morneau suffered his first concussion at age 29 and Mauer, 30, enters September on the disabled list due to a concussion sustained at the end of August. He also missed half of the 2011-12 season with knee injury.
Play the game long enough and you’re going to have to endure a few injuries, especially at the catcher position, but this has to be concerning.
At the same time, Mauer was hitting .324/.404./.476 with an OPS+ of 142 before getting concussed. He hit .319/.416/.446 the year before and, worst case scenario, will just have to suck it up and play first base for the rest of his career if he is taking too much damage behind the plate.
Mauer will probably have to suffer through one more losing season, this without Morneau at his side, before he is on a winning team again, but with the way Minnesota’s future looks, it will probably be well worth his wait.
What’s Next for the Twins
Most of us wait a decade to have one guy in our system that's a franchise-changing talent. To have two? It's like having Harper and Trout both, in one organization. – An anonymous AL general manager in reference to Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, as quoted in Sports Illustrated (August 19).
The many Twins fans that have stuck it out through this season have already got a glance into the future and, for the most part, should like what they have seen.
Aaron Hicks got sent down at the end of July, but spent most of the season with the big league club. Considered a combination of the two players he replaced, Denard Span and Ben Revere, the 2008 first-round pick is capable of covering most of the field and making highlight reel catches when necessary. He needs to improve his approach at the plate. The Southern Californian was below the Mendoza Line for most of the year, but the 23-year-old had games, like his two-homer outing against the Chicago White Sox, that let everyone know why the Twins think so highly of him.
Oswaldo Arcia is a hard-hitting outfielder that was signed as an amateur free agent in 2007 from Venezuela. He is the opposite of Hicks, struggling in the field while raking at the plate. He hit .254/.309/.431 as a 22-year-old rookie and some of his 10 home runs were hit so hard that they should have been counted twice.
After struggling at shortstop, Brian Dozier looks pretty solid as a converted second baseman. His defense has improved dramatically and his second half performance at the plate has earned him a job for next season.
Minnesota still needs a lot of help when it comes to pitching, but Kyle Gibson looks like he can provide some help in the future. The 25-year-old is coming off of Tommy John and had a pitch count, but had he not been injured last year, he easily could have made his debut earlier.
He’s a strikeout pitcher (!) with filthy stuff that just needs to sort through the mental aspect of his game.
The two players everybody has been waiting for, however, are nowhere to be seen and unlikely to play in Minnesota until next season at the earliest.
Byron Buxton was chosen No. 2 overall in 2012 and was considered the best player available in that draft. He is the future center fielder, likely moving Hicks to the corner, who supposedly can rake at the plate.
Miguel Sano was signed out of the Dominican Republic and, while his defense may not be as sound as Buxton’s right now, he will eventually take over where Morneau left off as the cleanup hitter.
Buxton and Sano are considered the next wave of top prospects. They are expected to have the success that Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado did when they entered the league. They will be expected to join forces with Mauer and whoever else can snag a job in the coming weeks to bring glory to the Twins organization once again.
Morneau will always be remembered favorably in Minnesota. Like when Torii Hunter returns to the Twin Cities, he will always get a round of applause from the audience at the game.
His time in Minnesota is over, however, and the next championship will have to come without him. The team came so close to beating those damned Yankees back in 2009 and 2010, but it’s a different league now, with a lot more competitive teams, and Minnesotans are ready to see the Twins join the fray.
You think people are dying to see Sano and Buxton? Their arrival can’t come soon enough.
All quotes were obtained first-hand.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.