The Unheralded Greatness of Justin Morneau

There’s been a lot to get excited about the past month-and-a-half if one is a Twins fan.  Even if the Twins fail to make it to the postseason, Twins fans have been blessed to see Joe Mauer become the superstar we all knew he could become.  We have seen Francisco Liriano emerge as one of the most dominant and un-hittable pitchers in all of baseball.  Joe Nathan has continued to be his lights out self, even if he hasn’t seen an abundance of save opportunities.  And Johan has been Johan, and even when his dominance become expected, it’s still awesome to watch.

I feel that one guy who has been lost in the hype surrounding all these other players has been Justin Morneau.  I understand that there was talk about him potentially being selected for the All Star game, at least locally.  I understand that the local media—and to a lesser extent, the national media—has given Morneau some ink, discussing his growth into a legitimate power threat.  I still feel, however, that the press Morneau has gotten has understated how great he’s really been, especially since the beginning of June.

Before play began on June 1, Morneau was hitting .244 with an OBP of .307 and slugging .465.  Those are pretty bad number, especially for a first baseman who is supposed to be the power source for your lineup.  It looked like we were going to endure another year of an under-achieving Morneau.  I swear that if I saw him wave at another slider down and away, I was going to need to shoot something.

I have no idea what happened in early June, but since June 1, Morneau has dramatically increased his production.  Morneau’s hit .379 in that time, with a .410 OPB and a ridiculous .750 slugging average.

I tend to follow the belief that OPS (On base + Slugging) is the best well-known statistic at measuring the offensive value of a player.  Even with his horrible start to the year, Morneau is tenth in the league in OPS with .946 (Mauer is seventh with .974).  In the last month, Morneau’s OPS is 1.184, which is good for fifth in the league.

Those are really good numbers.  Those are the sort of numbers that get a player MVP votes—maybe not first place votes, but votes nonetheless.  Travis Hafner aside, Morneau might have the most legitimate gripe for not being chosen for the All Star game.  If he can keep up what he has been doing for the past month, the Twins chances of making a run at a playoff spot aren’t as ridiculously small as they might otherwise seem.

All this makes me wish that the Twins could put Morneau into the cleanup spot, which is where he really belongs.  I know that it would be foolish to put the left-handed hitting Mauer and Morneau back-to-back in the lineup, lest opposing managers bring in dominating lefty relievers to face them.  On the other hand, both Mauer and Morneau are hitting lefties well enough this year that the proposition of betting them one after the other in the lineup is less crazy that it was a year ago.

The Twins have bigger problems then having to bat Cuddyer in the cleanup slot right now, however.  With Shannon Stewart and Torii Hunter both placed on the DL following last night’s game, we could see a lot of Cuddyer-Punto-Tyner and Cuddyer-Punto-Kubel outfields over the next few weeks.  The fact that you have either of those sets of three guys in the outfield isn’t really that big a deal.  Though many Twins fans might not be familiar with Tyner, he was actually a serviceable major league outfielder for a few years with the Devil Rays before he became part of the Twins organization. 

The real problem is that moving Punto to center field will force Gardenhire to start either Terry Tiffee or Luis Rodriguez at third.  I’m a Terry Tiffee guy myself, and while I understand that he’s not the sort of player that you want to be playing everyday for your team, the fact that he has at least some power makes me feel that he’s a better option as temporary third baseman than Rodriguez.  Also, starting Tiffee would allow the Twins to keep Rodriguez on the bench, where his versatility—Luis can play all four infield positions—would be of the greatest benefit to the team.  Regardless, having to start either Tiffee or Rodriguez everyday is not an enviable position.

I’ll admit I know very little about Josh Rabe.  His Triple-A numbers are neither awe-inspiring nor horrifying.  He was hitting .297 in Rochester before the call-up but also walked 34 times, which is pretty nice.  He doesn’t have much power to speak of, but had stolen six bases this year for the Red Wings.

My real worry with Rabe is that he’s almost 28 years old and has never before played in the major leagues.  I understand that the Twins outfield has been crowded the last several years, but players who don’t make it to the majors in any form until they’re 27 generally don’t turn into superstars or really even tolerable major leaguers.  I hope Rabe proves me wrong and fills the gaps the Twins currently have well for the next few weeks, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

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