Saturday, March 11, 2006

Position Analysis: First Base

Likely Starter: Justin Morneau
2005 stats: .239/.304/.437, 22 HR, 79 RBI


Potential backups: Michael Cuddyer, Garret Jones, Terry Tiffee, Ruben Sierra

First base doesn't exactly carry a lot of competition this year. Justin Morneau is all but named the starter, as he is viewed as one of the future cornerstones of the organization. There may be issue to such a claim though. Morneau had an awful overall season last year. Yes, he led the team with 79 RBI, but he was an atrocious .221 with runners in scoring position, doing only slightly better (.258) with two outs. Granted, his .818 OPS with runners on isn't too bad, but those are all numbers to improve on. He hit .201/.255/.331 against lefties, and .211/.277/.397 after the All-Star break.

Morneau, essentially, had one good month last year and that was in April, when he hit .439 with 2 HR and 10 RBI. Otherwise his best month was (gulp) May when he hit .222 with 5 home runs, 19 RBI, and 11 walks. However, the most evident issue with Morneau was his placement. When Gardenhire made the decision to bat him cleanup, it was not good. Morneau hit .226 in the cleanup spot last year, with only 9 HR and 37 RBI. The spot he had the most success in was the number seven spot, where he hit .277 with 4 HR and 17 RBI in 94 at-bats. Needless to say, he has lots to work on and Gardy would do best not to put him too high in the order. Since there are a few question marks (Tony Batista namely), Morneau probably should be in sixth spot unless Jason Kubel has a great spring.

Defensively, Morneau is probably about average, as he is still learning the position. He did fairly well last year and probably above a lot of people's expectations. If anything, Morneau will only get better.

Competition is going to be slim to none at the position. Even if Morneau had an awful spring (he's in the World Baseball Classic, so his action is limited already) and Terry Tiffee had a great spring, there's really no chance the Twins would replace Morneau.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons to have optimism. Morneau did get to work out a lot this offseason and has reportedly worked very hard on his swing by reducing his movement. He had a good day Thursday for Team Canada in the WBC, as he went 3 for 5 with an RBI double against a fairly strong United States pitching staff that started Dontrelle Willis. Morneau should also benefit a great deal from the changes around him. With a veteran like Rondell White to take the cleanup spot, a healthy Torii Hunter, and patient hitters like Joe Mauer and Luis Castillo to pass fastballs down to him, he should get a lot more chances.

I think Morneau will probably improve a lot this year. I wouldn't put him up there with 40 homers and 120 RBI yet though. Since he'll be lower in the order, at least to start, I wouldn't estimate too many RBI opportunities. I'd say 28 home runs and 90 RBI for Justin with a .265 average. Thats a conservative estimate, but it would be an improvement for Morneau and numbers like that would certainly help the Twins in pursuing a championship. At least, a lot more than last year's numbers. But don't fuss too much. Morneau will hit 30 or more home runs soon enough. After all, he's still only 24.

His sole backup at first will most likely be Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer is currently favored to win the right field spot, but unless the Twins carry Garret Jones or Tiffee (both of which are unlikely unless Gardy decides a few good Spring at-bats really means something), Cuddyer is really the only other player on the roster with first base experience. Ruben Sierra has been getting in a little work at first this spring, but he has never played there in his career before, so that could be a little rough.

3 comments:

Jeff A said...

I don't know how he hit in other spots, but give how poorly he hit in the four spot and how well he hit lower down, it would seem reasonable to think he was putting too much pressure on himself while batting cleanup. That's something a young player would be likely to do. Maybe another year of experience and maturity will help him relax.

Nick N. said...

That's the hope. Adding veteran run producers like Rondell White and Tony Batista to the lineup should take a lot of pressure off Justin and allow him to thrive. I also think the Twins need to find a way to avoid ever having Morneau start against southpaws... Cuddyer, if he's not starting in right, would be a decent option.

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