Better is not enough for Twins' Morneau
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The first thing on Justin Morneau's mind is Minnesota's place in the standings. The Twins are 65-91, barely ahead of last year's 99-loss pace.
The other frustrations for the 31-year-old first baseman are a .273 batting average, 19 home runs and 77 RBIs. Those aren't bad numbers by any view, particularly given the myriad health problems Morneau has had to overcome to get here.
But despite his less-than-fulfilled feeling about the 2012 season, the Twins can't help but be glad. For the first time since 2008, even though these games down the stretch haven't meant much other than a source of pride and the opportunity to spoil the playoff race for others, Morneau is still on the field after mid-September.
"I'm not just happy to be out there," Morneau said. "I'm just grinding through. I'm not going to be satisfied when the team's in last place. To be out there is a start, and hopefully next year we're playing for something and I'm out there with us."
Morneau has one season left on his contract after this, his $14 million salary a significant chunk of payroll for a rebuilding team in dire need of starting pitching. He hasn't shied away from speculation that he could be traded this winter to help the Twins repair other areas of the roster. With the way prospect Chris Parmelee has torn up Triple A this year, the Twins probably won't hesitate to make him an everyday player next spring if there's an opening at first base or elsewhere.
But that's a matter to be sorted out in a couple of months. This is a time, even given Morneau's reluctance to express much relief at his ability to play in 131 of the team's first 156 games, that the Twins can finally breathe easier about their homegrown slugger's status. His career, seriously threatened a year ago, appears to have plenty of life left in it.
"We're just more interested in making sure he's in the lineup right now," said general manager Terry Ryan.
Morneau has been at first base for 97 games and the designated hitter 33 times, plus one game he entered as a pinch hitter.
"He's had some good stretches, and he's had some not-so-good stretches," Ryan said. "We've got him out there. It's an acceptable figure after what he's gone through the last two years. Now next year, our expectations are going to be higher. He's a power-hitting first baseman who hits in the fourth or fifth spot in this lineup, and I would anticipate that his numbers are going to go up."
The most important physical hurdle he had to clear was in his head, after the concussion that cut short his MVP-caliber 2010 season right before the All-Star break and resurfaced again last year. This season, he's had no recurrences of those debilitating symptoms of headaches, fatigue and general fogginess.
Morneau's left wrist is also healed, an important source of his power at the plate. It was so weak and sore last season that he finished with only four home runs in 288 plate appearances. He had just as many surgeries last year as he hit home runs, needing operations on his neck in June and his left knee and his right foot as well as the wrist in September.
He also, in 2009, had a stress fracture in his lower back that kept him out of the end of that season.
So even though there's no pennant race to enjoy along with it, manager Ron Gardenhire has certainly appreciated being able to write "Morneau" on the lineup card almost whenever he wanted this year.
"Even the times I've talked to him about it -- 'I think you need a day here' -- he's argued back into the lineup," Gardenhire said. "It's been fun to watch him go out there and perform. His numbers can be better, absolutely, but the numbers that he has have been very important for this ballclub because he's been on the field, leading."
Morneau drastically changed his diet during the offseason, too, eliminating dairy, gluten and sugar so he could have more energy and recover quicker from those injuries. He actually had his specially prepared food flown in to each city the Twins traveled to this year so he could stay on track with his ambitious nutrition plan. He said he's noticed a difference in his overall wellness, but in these final days of the season not many players around the game truly feel good.
Especially when their teams are buried at the bottom of the league.
"I'd rather be playing for something," Morneau said.