Just over a year ago, Justin Morneau was being thrown in with the dogs after reporters and writers had christened him and Joe Mauer with the "M & M Boys" title. Of course, this nickname also referred to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris of the 1961 fame, making the notion that it could be applied to a couple second-year players a tad ridiculous. Mantle was one of the best players ever and Maris had a few great seasons, including the 61 HRs in 1961. Yet, while the comparison was unfair, there was every reason to believe that Morneau would build on some success in 2004 with a big '05 campaign. What happened?
Morneau hit just .239/.304/.437 with 22 home runs and 79 RBI last year. He only had one great or even good month, hitting .439/.442/.707 in April, much of which came in after returning from some missed time due to being hit in the head by a pitch. The rest of the year Justin was awful. But for a 24-year-old, it wasn't that bad. After all, some of his notable comparables through age 24 are Carlos Delgado, Derrek Lee, Pat Burrell, Nick Johnson, and Cecil Fielder. Those guys are some pretty good company. And his .273/.345/.473 numbers with runners on were pretty good, leading one to the conclusion that he was not a total failure as a middle-of-the-lineup presence.
The great thing is that so far this year, Justin has been much more consistent. Though he slagged through April, hitting .208/.274/.416, he did it with 5 HRs and 15 RBI, which put him basically on par with last year's numbers, if only a little better in the run-producing department. Since then, he has hitt .282 with 9 HRs and 32 RBI. The great thing is that he was pretty good in May (.274/.333/.505) and has been hot in the first couple weeks of June (.306/.350/.667). Two good months, as opposed to the one he had in the entirety of last season, shows to me Justin is improving.
The RBI numbers have improved greatly. He is hitting .287/.359/.667 with runners on and .278/.368/.537 with RISP. His 47 RBI currently rank 12th in the AL, with his 13 dingers ranking 15th. For a Twin, that's not too shabby. Neither are the 39 HRs and 129 RBI he is currently projected to finish the season with. Most will say he won't reach those heights, but I think Morneau is steadily improving, as he showed this weekend by hitting lefties for power and poking outside pitches the other way as well, a la Mauer.
I certainly think that Justin has a 30-100 season in him and he'll probably hit about .265. To me, that would be huge, not just for a Twin, but particularly for a 25-year-old. A confident Morneau sitting in the middle of the lineup and supporting Mauer will be a big boost. As my associate Mr. Nelson pointed out yesterday, it may be time to try him out in the fourth spot again. This may well be just a hot streak, but I see indications of consistency as well.
He may end up more Harmon Killebrew than Derrek Lee (defense included), but that's alright for me. An underrated performer who has taken more than his share of criticism from the Twins fanbase, perhaps now is the time for a little praise.