Justin Morneau was considered one of baseball’s best hitting prospects for multiple seasons, but Doug Mientkiewicz was blocking his path to the big leagues. He played parts of the 2003-04 seasons at the big-league level with mixed results. In 114 games, he combined for 44 extra-base hits and a 109 OPS+. By 2005, he got his first full season with the Twins, and things didn’t go perfectly out of the gate.
Minnesota handed Morneau the starting first base job in 2004, as the team was in the middle of a winning window. This can mean added pressure for a top prospect, especially when they are taking over for a fan-favorite like Mientkiewicz. His 93 OPS+ in 2005 was his lowest total in a season where he played over 70 games.
The 2006 season was magical for the Twins, and Morneau was a big part of that success. He’d win the 2006 AL MVP after hitting .321/.375/.559 with 34 home runs and 37 doubles. His MVP win is somewhat controversial as his 4.0 WAR ranked as the 22nd best in the AL. However, he compiled substantial numbers in the counting stats (HR, RBI, etc.) that were important to voters at that time.
In retrospect, a benching in early June might have been the reason Morneau won the MVP. Minnesota was in Seattle and Morneau was called into manager Ron Gardenhire’s office. He entered that meeting hitting .236/.297/.450 (.747) with 19 extra bases for the season. Gardy told him that his focus needed to be on the field, and he helped Morneau realize that he could be a lot better. For the rest of the season, he hit .362/.412/.611 (1.023) with 53 extra-base hits. It was a career changing conversation for Morneau.
Over the next four seasons, Morneau was a perennial All-Star as he combined for a 137 OPS+. His 2010 season looked like he was headed for another MVP as he hit .345/.437/.618 (187 OPS+) in 81 games, Unfortunately, a now-infamous slide in Toronto ended his season. It wasn’t his first concussion, and it wouldn’t be his last. His career took a different trajectory from that day forward, and it can leave fans wondering what could have been.
From 2011-2016, he bounced from Minnesota to Pittsburgh with eventual stops in Colorado and Chicago. During these years, he hit .275/.331/.433 (.764), which resulted in a 106 OPS+. During his final season as a full-time player, he led the National League in hitting with a .319 batting average. Concussion issues and other injuries followed him throughout the rest of his career. By the time he retired, Baseball Reference had viewed Morneau as similar to players like Freddie Freeman, Cliff Floyd, and Kent Hrbek.
Morneau doesn’t have the resume needed for election to Cooperstown, but his time in Minnesota was memorable. He helped keep the Twins relevant for most of the 2000s, and he lived up to the hype he garnered as a top prospect.
Morneau’s post playing career has kept him close to the game. He immediately signed on as a special assistant with the front office, and he has assisted multiple Twins players and prospects in this role. He and his wife, Krista, continue to stay active in the community including holding an annual coat drive that keeps families warm throughout the Twin Cities. Twins fans have also enjoyed his time as a color commentator as he brings an insightful approach that had been missing from the booth.
His impact has been felt long after his retirement, including with players like Gerrit Cole, Trevor Larnach, and Alex Kirilloff. However, one has to wonder if his playing career would look different at the end if he had avoided that slide in Toronto back in 2010.
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