The good news is that Morneau has been able to play. He's started all but seven of the Twins' games over the first two months, and is on pace to make over 600 plate appearances.
Sadly, the good news pretty much stops there. While Ron Gardenhire has continued to trot him out at the cleanup spot based on his past reputation as an elite power-hitting run producer, Morneau is hitting just .242 with a .626 OPS. He has managed two homers and 17 RBI while hitting .186 with runners on base. His performance thus far would put him in line for less than 10 home runs and 55 RBI in a full-season workload, which would obviously represent the worst production of his career by a pretty wide margin.
Obviously, something is wrong with the former MVP. The pertinent questions are what and why.
Studying him from afar this season, my observation is that his reactions seem to have dulled. Razor-sharp reflexes, forged in part through years of deflecting screaming pucks as a hockey goalie, were a principal strength for the slugger prior to last year's season-ending concussion. They've been conspicuously amiss this year.
It's shown in the field; while he's still competent out there he's not the defensive asset he once was. Hard grounders he used to snare routinely have escaped his reach, and we've seen him scoop far fewer low throws than in the past despite lousy infielders giving him ample opportunity.
It's also shown at the plate, and that's been more troubling. If the Twins are to return to contention next year they're going to need Morneau mashing and up to this point he's not shown that he has it in him.
It's not that Morneau looks completely overmatched at the plate. He's not striking out a ton, which is encouraging and indicates that his hand-eye coordination remains intact. The problem is his pitch selection. He's swinging at way too many balls outside of the zone -- a career-high 33.9 percent, according to FanGraphs.
Pitchers have adjusted and are offering fewer strikes -- 41.5 percent, lowest rate of his career -- but Morneau has been unable to adjust. He's walked in only 5.6 percent of his plate appearances this year, which is bordering on Delmon Young territory.
The first baseman is simply chasing too often, and while he's making contact at a solid rate, it just isn't the same kind of authoritative contact we've grown accustomed to seeing from him. He's trying to pull too many outside pitches, golfing for too many low breaking balls. Late on heaters, early on offspeed. He just isn't reading the ball well.
His natural talent has allowed him to stay afloat in spite of these issues (Morneau is actually hitting .289 over his last 20 games) but until his pitch recognition improves he won't return to being the dominant force he was prior to injury.
I'll check in on Morneau again after another third of the season has gone by, and hopefully by then he'll have shown the kind of improvement that suggests his immense early struggles have merely been the result of rust from a prolonged layoff. I prefer not to think about the alternative.
It can hardly be