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Prospect Retrospective: the career of Justin Morneau

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Justin Morneau returns to Minnesota as a special assistant. Here’s how his playing career looks in context

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Minnesota Twins signed Justin Morneau as a special assistant last week, as he transitions into front office work and officially closes the book on his playing career. Let’s take a look at that career in context and how he developed as a prospect.

Justin Morneau was a high school catcher in New Westminster, British Columbia, eligible for the 1999 MLB draft. He was well known to scouts due to his performance for Canada’s national youth baseball squad, impressing with his hitting skills and raw power, but his defense was considered substandard.

His cold-weather background and questions about his glove pushed him down to the third round of the draft, where the Twins selected him, although this still made him the highest-drafted Canadian in ‘99. He played 17 games in rookie ball, hitting .302/.333/.396 for the Gulf Coast League Twins.

I had restrictive space limits in the old STATS Minor League Scouting Notebooks back then and didn’t have room to write about the typical GCL player, but there was something about Morneau that struck me as special. I also had a very enthusiastic report from a scout who called Morneau “a young Larry Walker.” I made sure to put him in the book, writing that “Morneau probably won’t stay at catcher because his mobility is limited, but he definitely has enough power to handle first base. He’s a long-term prospect and his grade (C+) reflects that, but I have a good gut feeling about him.

The Twins sent Morneau back to the Gulf Coast League in 2000 to work on his defense behind the plate. He wasn’t terrible, throwing out 36% of runners, but most observers still saw him as a first baseman in the future.

No matter his position, his hitting skills were way ahead of the GCL: he hit a stunning .402/.478/.665 with 10 homers, 30 walks, and only 18 strikeouts in 194 at-bats. I had him as a Grade B, which is a high grade from me for a rookie ball guy.

Moved up to Low-A Quad Cities to open 2001, Morneau hit .356/.420/.597 in 64 games. The Twins moved him to first base and he adapted well defensively, but the bat was clearly special. His OPS was outstanding at +43 percent better than league.

Promoted to Fort Myers in the High-A Florida State League, he continued hitting with a .294/.385/.437 mark in 53 contests, good for a +19 percent OPS. He hit just .158/.214/.184 in 10 games in Double-A, but nobody was concerned. Overall he hit .314/.389/.497 in 127 games. Scouting reports were excellent and I gave him a Grade B+ entering 2002, ranked 22nd among hitting prospects.

Morneau spent 2002 with Double-A New Britain, hitting .298/.356/.474 with 16 homers, 42 walks, and 88 strikeouts in 494 games. His OPS was decent but not spectacular at +13 percent, however New Britain was a tough place to hit and he was hampered much of the year by an infection, possibly cutting into his production. Scouting reports remained very positive, and I gave him a Grade A- entering 2003, ranking him 12th among all hitting prospects.

He began 2003 back at New Britain but a .329/.384/.620 mark in 20 games gave him a promotion to Triple-A, where he hit .268/.344/.498 in 71 contests for Rochester. He spent time in Minnesota before the All-Star Break but struggled, went back to Rochester and remained in something of a slump. Overall he hit .226/.287/.377 in 106 major league at-bats.

Scouting reports remained impressive, although his plate discipline gave him some trouble at the major league level and he fanned 30 times in those 106 at-bats. Despite his inconsistency he looked like an excellent power prospect to me and I gave him a Grade A entering 2004, ranking him as the Number Six hitting prospect in the game.

2004 was split between Triple-A (.306/.377/.615 in 72 games) and the majors (.271/.340/.536 with 19 homers in just 74 games), justifying his high ranking as prospect.

ALDS Game 3 - Yankees v Twins
Justin Morneau, 2004
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

He struggled at times in 2005 (.239/.304/.437, 22 homers but just a 93 OPS+), but in ‘06 he broke through with a .321/.375/.559, 34 homer, 130 RBI season that won him the American League MVP.

This was a controversial choice by the voters, as Morneau’s 4.0 WAR was just the 22nd-best in the AL that year. However, he benefited by getting hot in June, July, and August, pushing the Twins to the post-season and keeping his name in the consciousness of the voters at the right times.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays v Minnesota Twins

Morneau remained a very productive hitter in ‘07, ‘08, and ‘09. He was outstanding in 2010 (.345/.437/.618 , OPS+ 187), leading the major leagues in OBP and SLG at the All-Star break and possibly heading towards another MVP. He already had a 5.1 WAR at mid-season.

However, his campaign ended prematurely after he suffered a serious concussion on July 7th. He was not the same player in ‘11, hitting just .227/.285/.333 in 69 games, clearly suffering from concussion aftereffects as well as nagging shoulder, neck, foot, and wrist injuries. He rebounded somewhat in 2012 (.267/.333/.440, 19 homers, OPS +113) but still didn’t look like the force he was before getting hurt.

He had one final flourish with the Colorado Rockies in 2014, leading the National League with a .319 average.

Overall, Morneau was a career .281/.348/.481 hitter, OPS+ 120, career fWAR of 22.6, and a four-time All Star selection.

Sim Score comparables are Adam LaRoche, Aubrey Huff, Cliff Floyd, George Bell, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Klesko, Prince Fielder, Eric Karros, Kent Hrbek, and Ted Kluszewski. Among first basemen with a similar amount of playing time, Morneau’s 22.6 fWAR put him in the same territory with Kluszewksi (27.2), Fielder (27.0), Andre Thornton (23.8), Paul Konerko (23.2), Jeff Conine (22.0), and Mike Sweeney (21.1).

Although not a Hall of Fame type, Morneau had an impressive career, although one wonders how things might have gone without the 2010 concussion. As for his development as a prospect, Morneau became very much the hitter that his minor league numbers and scouting reports suggested he could become. He didn’t turn into another Larry Walker, but Morneau never had Walker’s athleticism.

Morneau combined decent strikeout rates with power production in the minors, avoiding excess whiffs. He’s also another example of the “if you’ll hit, you’ll play” category, as his failure to become a strong defensive catcher didn’t hold him back.

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images