Are the Rays Really Interested in Twins 1B Justin Morneau?

By Robbie Knopf

Entering the 2013 season, Rays fans had to wonder would their team would be getting from the first base and designated hitters slots in the lineup. James Loney had never been anything too special and was coming off his worst season while Luke Scott had an inconsistent first season for the Rays and hadn’t been good in three years. But sure enough, everything has worked out more than fine for both of them. Loney got off to a great start and simply refused to fade, managing a .315/.366/.466 line (133 OPS+) in 356 plate appearances in the first half. Scott, meanwhile, struggled initially after coming off the DL in May but then caught fire, finishing the first half with a .274/.359/.479 line (134 OPS+) in 220 plate appearances. Loney and Scott have been about as good as the Rays could have possibly dreamed, ranking second and third on the team in OPS+ behind only Evan Longoria. Yet despite their success, word came out yesterday that the Rays are interested in Twins first baseman Justin Morneau. What is going on?

Morneau, 32, is best known for beating out Derek Jeter to win the 2006 AL MVP, but he has been far from MVP-caliber this season. Morneau has struggled to his worst OPS in any season over 300 or more plate appearances in his career, managing just a .273/.331/.406 line with 23 doubles, 7 homers, 52 RBI, and a 62-25 strikeout to walk ratio in 86 games and 366 PA’s. He has managed just a 101 OPS+, basically league average and solidly below average for a first baseman. Morneau, like Loney and Scott, is left-handed, and can only play first base and DH. He hasn’t even played the outfield since Rookie ball. Where could he possibly fit on this Rays team? The answer is pretty clear: pending injury, he doesn’t. So why would the Rays be looking at him as a player to acquire?

The Rays have absolutely no need for Justin Morneau right now. After this season, though, he could be exactly the type of player they could look at should Loney and Scott leave as free agents. He has shown plenty of ability in the past, managing a .298/.372/.528 line from 2006 to 2010 including three 30-homer seasons, and he was a productive player as recently as last season, when he managed a .267/.333/.440 line with 19 homers, 26 doubles, and 77 RBI. And by the way, he hasn’t even been that bad this season. Signings like Casey Kotchman, Jeff Keppinger, and Loney have worked to perfection for the Rays, and Morneau has a chance to be better than any of them. The monetary commitment might be a little bit more and he may even get a two-year deal, but if the Rays believe he can stay healthy, it may just be worth it.

Pending a catastrophic injury, the Rays are not about to acquire Justin Morneau. Instead, what they are doing is gaging the market for him and whether it’s realistic to think that he’ll leave Minnesota next season. Teams needing a first baseman may recognize Morneau’s name and get the bidding for him too high for the Rays’ liking, so instead they’re assessing him now, giving them the chance to strike quickly to sign him when free agency begins if they choose. For now, you can ignore the Morneau to the Rays rumors. But keep it in the back of your mind, and at the end of the season, we will see what happens.