I'll be honest, I was a little worried about Justin Morneau this spring. He'd struggled through the latter portion of the 2009 campaign due to a back injury which ultimately forced him to watch the final weeks of the regular season (and the Twins' playoff series against the Yankees) from the bench. Rather than medical treatment for his fractured vertebrae, Morneau was told by doctors to simply rest and let the ailment heal on its own. We've seen this approach fail plenty of times in the past. Morneau also underwent wrist surgery during the offseason.
Thus far, Morneau has thoroughly squashed any such concerns. He left last night's game with a strained back, which is somewhat alarming, but the Twins insisted that his removal was strictly precautionary and that he will be fine. Hopefully that's true, because up to this point he's been an absolute monster amidst the Twins' lineup, batting .352 through his first 20 games while getting on base literally almost half the time and providing solid power with four homers, five doubles and a triple. The fast start is nothing new for Morneau, who is a career .298/.375/.540 hitter in the month of April, but he's doing things this year that we've never seen from him before.
The early success of the Twins' first baseman looms especially large in light of the contract Ryan Howard signed with the Phillies on Monday. The five-year, $125 million extension will pay Howard an annual salary even higher than Mauer, and easily shatters the six-year, $80 million deal that Morneau signed prior to the 2008 season.
Aside from their numbers not being all that different, there are other factors that make Morneau look like an enormous bargain in light of Howard's new deal. Chief among them is the age difference between the two players. When Morneau signed his six-year extension with the Twins, he was just 26 years old and clearly amidst his prime. Howard is 30 -- a year and a half older than Morneau is even now, two years into his deal. When you account for the fact that Howard seems unlikely to age well given his body type and historical comparables, it's easy to see which team is going to be feeling better about their first baseman's current contract in a couple years.