Projected Starter: Justin Morneau
2006 Stats: .321/.375/.559, 34 HR, 130 RBI
Potential Backups: Jeff Cirillo, Matt LeCroy, Ken Harvey
Last March, many Twins fans were understandably down on Justin Morneau. The once big-time slugging prospect had just come off a disappointing first full season, in which he showed some major flaws in his approach at the plate and displayed an utter inability to hit left-handed pitching. For the first several weeks of the 2006 campaign, Morneau showed similar issues, hitting just .208 in April while striking out 22 times in 77 at-bats. By the end of April, we had nick-named him Justin Mendoza, honoring his batting average which he was struggling to keep above the infamous Mendoza line.
Suddenly, in early May, Morneau started to turn things around. It sparked with a two-home run, six RBI performance against the the Rangers on May 9. Prior to that game, he was hitting .206, but within the next week his average shot back up near .250. In June, Morneau was ridiculous, hitting .364/.400/.737 with 10 homers and 29 RBI. In July he hit .410 with eight dingers and 23 RBI. His home-run power tailed off a bit in August and September, erasing dreams of a 40-HR season, but he continued to hit well overall and finished with a line of .321/.375/.559 along with 34 home runs and 130 RBI. The brilliant four-month stretch earned Morneau AL MVP honors, and a $4 million raise for this season.
So now, the big question entering the 2007 campaign is whether Morneau can manage to improve on his stellar MVP numbers or whether he'll regress a bit. Morneau really seemed to figure out his problems last year, as he became a force against left-handed pitchers (hitting .314/.345/.559 against them), came up with numerous clutch RBI hits, and cut down on his strikeout rate. He still wasn't drawing walks the way you'd like to see from a middle-of-the-order slugger, but that was about the only drawback to his offensive game.
Of course, there is the possibility that opposing pitchers will start working harder to adjust to Morneau and find flaws in his game now that he enters the season as the reigning MVP. Regardless of whether or not you believe he deserved the award, there's no arguing that it puts a big target on his back. I think opposing teams will start pitching around him a lot more often, especially in big RBI situations, and as a result we'll see his walks increase while some of his other numbers decline a bit. Even if that happens, Morneau should still be a force in the middle of the Twins' lineup, and I'm predicting a line somewhere around .300/.400/.575 with roughly 30 home runs and 100 RBI.
Morneau also quietly improved his defense at first base. Some considered him a liability there in his first couple major-league seasons, but Morneau was solid and consistent last year. I wouldn't put him among the league's elite at this point, but he is above average, capable of making all the necessary plays and then some.
As for other options at first base, newcomer Jeff Cirillo will likely serve as the primary backup to Morneau (as well as to Nick Punto at third). Cirillo is a right-handed hitter who has had a lot of success against left-handed pitching in recent years, so if Morneau regresses back toward his old struggles against southpaws, Cirillo will definitely be an option to spell him occasionally when the Twins are facing one. Michael Cuddyer can also play first base if needed, but he is cemented in as the starter in right field so I doubt that's a scenario we'll see any too often. I don't expect either Matt LeCroy or Ken Harvey to make the roster out of spring training, but if there's an injury they will likely be on the Triple-A roster and available for a call-up.
In summary, the Twins enter the 2007 season with a 25-year-old reigning MVP at first base who missed just five games last season. If Morneau gets hurt, the Twins could be in some trouble, but Cirillo provides a nice option off the bench should Morneau need a day of rest. If everything goes as it should, first base should be a major source of strength for the Twins in '07.