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December 4, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Mile-High Morneau

by Russell A. Carleton

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COLORADO ROCKIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Agreed to sign 1B-L Justin Morneau to a two-year deal worth roughly $13 million. [12/3]

In the craziness of Tuesday's transactions, a former MVP signed on with a new team, and it was something of an afterthought. Justin Morneau inked a two-year deal with the Rockies for a the low price of about $13 million. Total. Morneau, a former first base icon in the Twin Cities, now replaces the retired Mile High City first base icon Todd Helton.

Much has been made of the roller-coaster ride of Morneau's career, from the peak of his 2006 (questionably awarded) MVP season to the concussion he suffered in 2010 and his absolutely forgettable, injury-plagued 2011. Over the last two years, Morneau has rebounded to average 600 plate appearances, but gone are the days of slugging percentages of.500 to go with an on-base percentage of .360. Morneau's line reads a lot more like a league-average hitter now, and his previous raw hitting numbers, while gaudy in a vacuum, lose a lot of their shine when you adjust for the fact that he plays first base and isn't a particularly interesting fielder or baserunner.

Still, Morneau did smack 36 doubles last year, suggesting that he still has some power left in his bat, and in a ballpark that is, to put it mildly, conducive to power, he'll probably have a good back-of-the-baseball-card season. It's just that on a roller-coaster, after the first drop, you don't approach that same height again. It's physics, or in Morneau's case, the fact that he's going to be 33. It's tempting to want to believe that he'll finally be healthy and he'll re-approach his old self. Sure, it's possible. I wouldn't bet on it.

There are probably those who will be wondering whether the lingering effects of the concussion that he suffered in 2010 might be a cause for concern, mostly because baseball fans (and people in general) have a very poor understanding of what a concussion is. Morneau suffered his initial concussion after taking a knee to the head while sliding into second base. For it to be diagnosed as a concussion, his head would have to have been jarred so hard that his brain bumped forcefully against his skull. There may have also been some bleeding and swelling in the tissue, and because there's no place for blood to escape from the skull, that's a bigger problem than if it had been his arm. Brain injuries are also a lot harder for the body to heal.

Without having his neuroimaging scans in front of me, it's impossible to tell where the damage happened, and where it happened matters a lot. There are different parts of the brain that control different functions. One does motor control. Another does emotional processing. Another recognizes faces. Another analyzes complex patterns, and so on. Where the damage happened will dictate some of the symptoms. It's entirely possible that there's been some damage to a part of the brain that affects something involved with baseball-playing ability. Maybe it didn't. Concussions aren't the kind of injury that you just rehab.

The good news is that Morneau's record over the past two years suggests that his baseball-playing skills are still MLB caliber, if not MVP caliber. If the Rockies know what they're doing, part of his pre-contract physical will include a good neurological evaluation to see how his recovery is progressing. But from his play on the field, we can see that he didn't suffer any catastrophic loss of functioning, and while concussions may have lingering effects, they are not likely to be re-aggravated by normal baseball activity (other than being bonked in the head again).

In a vacuum, a price of about $6.5 million for a hitter who might provide a win or two is a nice deal, and has a decent chance of being a bargain. And it all seems like such a nice fit in terms of a reasonable price to fill a need. The problem is that, if rumors are to be believed (and when aren’t they!), the Rockies traded away a younger and better Dexter Fowler earlier in the day to clear salary space for Morneau.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  Colorado Rockies,  Justin Morneau

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