August 2013

A few thoughts on the Justin Morneau trade

ARLINGTON — Judging by the reactions on Twitter, it appears most Twins fans aren’t happy with the decision to trade first baseman Justin Morneau to the Pirates for Alex Presley and a player to be named or cash.

And given what Morneau meant to the franchise in his 11 years with the Twins, and the fact that Presley is already 28 and profiles as a fourth outfielder, it’s certainly understandable.

Morneau was undoubtedly a face of the franchise along with Joe Mauer, and rightfully so, given his four All-Star Game appearances and his 2006 AL MVP Award. He deserved a better exit than this but at least he now has a chance to play in the postseason for the first time since ’06.

But the truth is his production dropped after sustaining his fateful concussion in Toronto on July 7, 2010, and he hasn’t been the same since.

He was an elite first baseman at that point with a career .286/.358/.511 line in 948 games, but since then he’s hit just .256/.316/.412 in 330 games while battling through wrist, knee and neck injuries.

And this year, even after an impressive August that saw him hit nine homers, Morneau hit .259/.315/.426 in 127 games. It’s not a bad mark given his OPS+ of 102 but not great when compared to other first basemen across the Majors, as the average first baseman has hit .260/.336/.436 with a 115 OPS+ this year.

Truthfully, Morneau didn’t have much value on the trade market, especially considering he’s making $14 million this season in the last year of his contract. The Twins shopped him since July, and decided to finally cash in on the final day he could be traded and be eligible for the postseason.

So while the return may look underwhelming, the Twins didn’t want to get left with nothing in case Morneau signs with another club this offseason. They were never going to offer him the qualifying offer this off-season to get draft-pick compensation, as Morneau would’ve took the one-year offer, which figures to be worth roughly $13-14 million.

Presley, at 28 years old, is no longer a prospect but has value because of his ability to play all three outfield spots and does have a career .377 on-base percentage in 285 games at Triple-A. The Twins simply aren’t long on leadoff-type hitters — outside of Aaron Hicks, who has struggled this year — so they’ll give Presley a chance to prove himself this September. He’s also under team control until 2018 and isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2015.

The Twins save money this year with the deal and will also receive another player, although he’s not expected to be a top prospect. But it’ll be worth monitoring to see what type of player they’ll get along with Presley, as Pirates general manager Neil Huntington. And it’ll also be worth seeing what Chris Colabello can do with regular at-bats at first base in September after dominating at Triple-A Rochester.

There’s also the chance that Morneau returns to Minnesota on a new contract this off-season, which is similar to what happened with former closer Rick Aguilera, who was traded to Boston in 1995 but still re-signed with the Twins. If he does return, then the trade is a win for the Twins, as they picked up two bonus players in addition to Morneau.

So while I was surprised the Twins decided to move Morneau at the last minute and believe it’s a modest return, it simply shows that Morneau just wasn’t worth all that much on the trade market.

In the end, they get a fourth outfielder and another potentially useful player for a one-month rental of a player expected to be used in a platoon at first base. So while it’s tough to see one of the best players in franchise history be traded, it does make some sense for baseball reasons even though it’s a tough pill to swallow.

Update: The player to be named is expected to be right-hander Duke Welker, according to sources.

Welker, 27, is a hard-throwing reliever, as the 6-foot-7 reliever’s fastball averages about 97 mph. He had a 3.25 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 61 innings at Triple-A Indianapolis, and also made two scoreless appearances with the Pirates in late June.

Welker, who is under team control until 2019, has the potential to develop into a decent set-up reliever at the Major League level.

Willingham stays put, not traded by the Twins

ARLINGTON — Josh Willingham is still a member of the Twins.

The left fielder was pulled back off waivers by the Twins, as the club was unable to work out a deal with the Orioles before Friday’s deadline. The Orioles claimed Willingham off waivers on Wednesday but ended up working out a deal with the Mariners for first baseman/outfielder Mike Morse instead.

Willingham, who is also under contract for $7 million next year, now can’t be traded to any club this season.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” Willingham said. “Now I know where I’m going to be.”

Willingham said he knew a trade wasn’t completed when he didn’t hear anything from the Twins or his agent on Friday, but was never officially notified by anyone he wasn’t traded.

But he was happy to be in the lineup on Friday against the Rangers, and said he prefers staying in Minnesota.

“I’m comfortable here so I’d like to stay here,” Willingham said. “The bottom line is I didn’t have any control so I didn’t worry myself with it.”

Mauer feeling better but no timetable for his return

MINNEAPOLIS — Twins catcher Joe Mauer met with the media on Thursday for the first time since sustaining a concussion on Aug. 19, and said he’s feeling better but that there’s no timetable for his return.

Mauer suffered the concussion after being hit by a foul tip while catching on Aug. 19 and was placed on the 7-day concussion disabled list the next day after feeling dizzy during batting practice in Detroit.

He was able to do light exercises for the first time on Wednesday at Target Field, and said he’s doing better after spending the last week resting at home. But he said he’s still feeling some symptoms such as sensitivity to light and sound.

“My symptoms have been getting better, which is good,” Mauer said. “Even the things yesterday, I’m definitely conscious of the way I’m feeling and exercising and taking a break for a little while to see where I’m at. But it’s been going good so hopefully it’ll be another good day today.”

Mauer, though, said it’s too early to tell when he’ll make his return. He’s not making the trip to Texas for the Rangers series but will ramp up his activities while the Twins are away. He added that he plans on playing again this season.

“Shutting it down never entered my mind,” Mauer said. “I want to be out there. Obviously I want to be smart about it, but I want to get out there and play.”

But Mauer said he hasn’t talked to the Twins about how much he’ll catch this season when he makes his return. But general manager Terry Ryan said he’s hopeful Mauer will be back behind the plate this year.

“I hope so,” Ryan said. “That’s his position. You can get hurt on a baseball field wherever you go. Even at DH.”

Twins recall Tonkin to take Gibson’s roster spot

DETROIT — The Twins recalled right-handed reliever Michael Tonkin from Triple-A Rochester on Tuesday to take the spot of right-hander Kyle Gibson, who was optioned to Rochester after his start on Monday.

Tonkin, 23, has a combined 2.39 ERA with 60 strikeouts and 13 walks in 52 2/3 innings between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester this year. He also made his lone Major League appearance with the Twins on July 11, throwing 1 1/3 scoreless innings against the Rays, when left-hander Caleb Thielbar was on the bereavement list.

He’s regarded as one of the organization’s top relief prospects, as he possesses a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider he uses as his out pitch. He showed off his big arm when he struck out Rays star Evan Longoria with a 96 mph fastball in his debut with the Twins.

But his stint with the Twins could be a short one again, as the club is without a starter for Saturday’s game against the Indians with Gibson sent down to Rochester.

The Twins could opt to use long reliever Anthony Swarzak in a spot start or could call up a starter from Triple-A such as Liam Hendriks, Scott Diamond or P.J. Walters.

Gardenhire offers opinion on expanded instant replay

MINNEAPOLIS — Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said he’s in favor of Major League Baseball expanding instant replay in 2014 but questioned the new challenge system that would be in place.

Under the new guidelines presented by MLB vice president Joe Torre to all 30 clubs on the last day of the Owners Meetings on Thursday, managers will have a much more active role in instant replay next year. But those changes will still have to be voted on in the next Owners Meeting in December and will also need approval from the Players Union and umpires.

The proposed changes would allow managers to inform the umpire they want to challenge a call that doesn’t involve balls or strikes. Managers will be allowed one challenge in the first six innings and two more from the seventh through the end of the game. And if the manager wins the appeal, they get to keep the challenge but the challenge from the first six innings does not carry over. The current system of reviewing boundary calls for home runs will remain in place.

Gardenhire, however, said he’d prefer to see a system that has an extra umpire at the ballpark to review all calls because he believes it would help the pace of the game and allow all calls to be properly reviewed. Under the new system, all replays will be reviewed by umpires at headquarters in New York.

“I’ve said all along they should have a guy in the booth with a replay set right in front of him and he signals yes or no,” Gardenhire said. “I’ve always thought that’s the quickest way to do it. I know they’ve talked about it being too expensive to have another person up there but they have people all around watching umpires anyway. So why not give them a monitor and make a decision quick instead of them having run off the field.”

Gardenhire pointed to the fact that if managers don’t have any challenges left, incorrect calls could be made at critical junctures late in games. He also said the new system does nothing to improve ball and strike calls.

“That gets more arguments than anything — balls and strikes,” Gardenhire said. “And that’s because umpires are given a zone where they have to call balls and strikes in. And that’s the toughest part of the game for them, too, because they have to call these strikes.”

Twins general manager Terry Ryan, who is a member of MLB’s Playing Rules Committee, said he understands Gardenhire’s concerns but said MLB is doing its best based on the opinions of many in baseball.

“I think the important thing is we’re going to try,” Ryan said. “We have the technology.”