Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Morneau Making Comeback

Morneau has returned to form with the Rockies after several disappointing seasons
What do you know? Another Rockies post! (I'm a Red Sox fan, I swear). It's just that Colorado has so many compelling narratives right now. How do you not write about Nolan Arenado's hit streak, or Troy Tulowitzki's terrific start, or Charlie Blackmon's out-of-nowhere first month?

The narrative nobody seems to be talking about, however, is that of Justin Morneau, former American League MVP back from the dead after three disappointing seasons.

Maybe that's because it's been a great year for comebacks. Albert Pujols has returned to form, and so has Mark Teixeira. Derek Jeter's back for one final go-round after missing almost all of last year, and Grady Sizemore's a contributor again after missing all of the past two seasons.

Overshadowed by these more compelling narratives as well as the players on his own team, Morneau has slipped under the radar even though, after going 2-for-5 last night, he's hitting .336/.356/.600 on the year with ten doubles, seven home runs and 26 RBI. Buoyed by good health and a slight boost from Coors Field (he still has a .920 OPS on the road), he's hitting like the Morneau of old.

You do remember the Morneau of old, don't you? The one who (somehow) snuck away with the 2006 AL MVP award, was runner-up to Dustin Pedroia in 2008 and made four straight All-Star teams? The RBI machine who knocked in at least 100 runs every year from 2006 through 2009, averaging 30 home runs and 118 ribbies per year? The two-time Silver Slugger who teamed up with Joe Mauer to form a potent 1-2 punch in the heart of Minnesota's order, back when the Twins ruled the AL Central? Seems like ages ago, doesn't it?

He was on his way to another monster season in 2010 with a 1.055 OPS through the season's first 81 games. Then he suffered a concussion sliding into second base and his career went into a downward sprial. He missed the rest of the season and the playoffs, and 2011 was basically a lost season for him, too; he played only 60 games and posted a career-worst .618 OPS. He bounced back in 2012, hitting .267/.333/.440 (112 OPS+) with 19 home runs and 77 RBI in 134 games, but not to his previous levels.

He put up similarly mediocre numbers last year, and with his contract expiring at the end of the season Minnesota declined to pick up his option and dumped him on the Pirates late in the season. The lifelong Twin failed to make much of an impression in Pittsburgh, with only five extra base hits and three RBI in 117 plate appearances (including postseason). Not surprisingly, the Pirates opted not to bring him back.

Colorado, in need of a first baseman following Todd Helton's retirement, took a chance on the 32 year-old, giving him a two-year, $14 million deal to hold down first base, join former teammate Michael Cuddyer and hopefully revive his career with a little (or a lot) of help from Coors Field.

Sure enough, he has. Morneau looks like a new man and is playing his best baseball in half a decade. Who knows if it will last or for how long, but for the time being it appears Morneau has halted his decline and re-captured the offensive skills that made him one of the best hitters in the game not too long ago.

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