Likely Starter: Justin Morneau
2012 Stats: .267/.333/.440, 19 HR, 77 RBI, 63 R
Potential Backups: Chris Parmelee, Joe Mauer, Jeff Clement
It’s been so long since we’ve seen Justin Morneau at his best, it’s easy to forget what “his best” even looked like. In the two-and-a-half seasons since his fateful concussion in Toronto, Morneau has shown only the occasion glimpse of elite hitting ability. Beyond the lingering effects of the head injury, which dragged on for well over a year and often prevented him from being able to work out at full capacity, Morneau has dealt with a barrage of dings, nicks and strains to nearly every other part of his body. It's like his voodoo doll fell in a blender.
For such a sturdily built athlete, the first baseman has had a shockingly difficult time staying healthy. He was definition of durability in 2008, when he played in all 163 of Minnesota’s games, but since then he’s missed at least 27 games every season. Just when it seems like he’s gotten past another major ailment, something else invariably pops up to take a treacherous toll on his performance or sideline him.
That’s why it’s understandable if you're dubious of Morneau right now, despite the fact that he is – by all accounts – as healthy as he’s been in years, and absolutely crushing the ball this spring.
One year ago, Morneau was openly pondering the idea of retirement, feeling as though his nagging head and wrist issues may never disappear. Now, he's fresh off a brief but dominant stint with Canada in the World Baseball Classic and his decision to participate in the tourney was significant.
Entering the final leg of his current contract, this is a hugely important season for Morneau's future; his health and production over the course of the coming campaign will dictate whether he lands a one-year make good or a sizable multi-year deal afterward. That he was willing to forgo the controlled pace in Ft. Myers and compete in a pressure-packed preseason environment signals a high level of confidence in the state of his 31-year-old body.
Everything he’s done on the field over the past month has helped to legitimize that confidence. In a handful of games played with the Twins, Morneau was locked in, smashing hard liners to all fields and knocking in runs. In 20 at-bats, he tallied three doubles, a homer and eight RBI, bringing back memories of his heyday from 2006 through 2009 when his total of 470 RBI ranked him fourth in baseball, behind only Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.
While batting cleanup for the Canadians in the WBC, he continued to rake, collecting seven hits (three doubles) in 11 at-bats for a cool .636 batting average.
Put all the pieces together, and you've got a healthy, confident former MVP who's playing for a contract. If the guy takes you by surprise this year, you haven't been paying attention.
Of course, to come full circle, it would not be a surprise if health again became a problem for the battered slugger. Nor would it be a surprise if he were traded at some point during the summer. Therefore, depth here is important.
Chris Parmelee, who will open the season in the outfield, looms as the heir apparent, if all goes to plan. He's in line to replace the veteran at first next year and circumstances could hasten that process, although Parmelee will need to hit.
Jeff Clement, the former premier prospect turned 29-year-old flameout, could eventually become an option. Chris Colabello, a fellow minor-leaguer journeyman who's had a pretty nice WBC himself
, is a long-shot contender.
But, as is usually the case, Minnesota's system is short on outstanding first base prospects. They're counting on a big year from Morneau, who could become an appealing trade chip while also helping keep the Twins relevant.
But, as the future of the position is concerned, they're counting on a big year from Parmelee even more.