Why the hell is Justin Morneau in the minors?

Morneau, the 22-year-old hitting machine from British Columbia, nearly made the Twins in spring training, losing out because Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan didn’t think they could give him enough playing time in the majors. Since then, three of the Twins’ Opening Day starters have made their way to the disabled list, including Matt LeCroy, who nominally beat out Morneau for the DH job.

When Joe Mauer injured his knee in the second game of the season, I figured that would create the opening for the Twins to recall and play Morneau. LeCroy could take over behind the plate, and Morneau could get the majority of the DH at-bats until Mauer returned. When LeCroy himself was hurt the next day, the move seemed even more logical. Now the Twins needed a bat in a big way, and Morneau would have no competition in the DH role for at least two weeks. The Twins instead went to 12 pitchers and no Morneau. Torii Hunter‘s strained right hamstring didn’t help him, either; the Twins instead recalled Lew Ford, a decision that actually made sense under the circumstances.

At this point, I’m not exactly sure what has to happen for Morneau to be recalled. Is he only an option if Doug Mientkiewicz gets injured? Do a number of other players, perhaps including Randy Bush and Tony Oliva, have to go down before Morneau will be considered for a job? It’s not an exaggeration to say that he might be the best hitter in the Twins’ organization, and yet he’s stuck in Triple-A.

Meanwhile, the Twins have been using Jose Offerman as their DH and occasional cleanup hitter. Offerman has had a hot two weeks–he’s hitting .316/.366/.632 so far–but he spent last year in the minors and hasn’t had a major-league EqA above .260 since 1999. Putting him on the roster as a pinch-hitter and backup infielder was marginally defensible given the Twins’ available options. Making him an everyday player at Morneau’s expense is baseball malpractice. There’s not even a service-time case to be made here; Morneau spent close to two months in the majors last year, so unless the Twins plan to leave him in Triple-A until August, they won’t be able to avoid his being arbitration-eligible after 2006.

Through all this, Morneau has remained at Rochester, where he’s hitting .422/.490/.756 in the season’s first two weeks. The Twins haven’t exactly suffered without him, opening the season 8-4 and currently riding a five-game winning streak. They’re averaging more than six runs a game and hitting .304/.382/.503 as a team. That’s not likely to continue, to put it mildly:

                           2004                 Career
                      AVG   OBP   SLG       AVG   OBP   SLG
Jacque Jones         .313  .365  .625      .291  .332  .465
Doug Mientkiewicz    .286  .460  .523      .279  .371  .415
Luis Rivas           .279  .295  .465      .263  .312  .377
Jose Offerman        .308  .400  .615      .274  .361  .373
Henry Blanco         .344  .475  .750      .219  .295  .353

The Twins should call up Morneau, hand him the DH slot and get on with their season. When LeCroy comes back, they can platoon the two, getting LeCroy some additional playing time behind the plate against right-handers. When Mauer comes back, evaluate the situation. (As hard as they made it for LeCroy to win a job the past four years, I think it’s hilarious that they would now make him a barrier to a superior player in Morneau.) In the interim, put your best team on the field.

The root cause of all this is the two-year contract the Twins agreed to with Mientkiewicz, a deal that effectively sealed off first base through the end of next season. I have a hard time getting too riled up about that deal. Mientkiewicz is only making $6.55 million over the two seasons, and while he doesn’t provide great power, he’s a good OBP guy and he might be the game’s best defensive first baseman. He’s a good value at $3.3 million/year, and keeping him may have had some small intangible benefit.

Mientkiewicz isn’t the problem. The problem is the Twins’ refusal to field their best team, a problem they’ve had for years. They’re a better team with Morneau in the lineup, the same way they’re a better team with Lew Ford in the lineup and the same way they were a better team once Matt LeCroy got to play last year.

Just because you can get away with it in the AL Central doesn’t make it right.

I got into a discussion last week with Pete Schoenke of Rotowire about the value of team perfomance in evaluating players. Pete is probably the smartest “traditional ” sports fan I know, and I mean that as a compliment. He holds opinions that I can’t possibly agree with, but I’m always better for having the exchange.

Anyway, Pete was proffering the idea that a player should have to lead his team to a championship to be considered for the title of “best ever.” He wasn’t calling it the most important factor, but he did believe that he should come into play in close calls. Pete drew parallels to other sports in making his case, and we spent an a lot of time walking up fairways–not necessarily the ones we were supposed to be on–talking about this.

I think we got a pretty good example this weekend of why that mentality, a football/basketball mindset that has corrupted baseball, is so egregiously flawed. Each of the three Dodger/Giant games–all won by the Dodgers–showed us that one great player can only do so much:

  • Friday night, the Giants trailed 3-0 entering the ninth inning. Jeffrey Hammonds drew a walk after being down 0-2, and Eric Gagne started Marquis Grissom with a fifth straight ball. Grissom flailed away at the next pitch, however, flying to center field. Barry Bonds followed with a long home run that cut the game to 3-2, which is how it ended a few minutes later.
  • On Saturday, the Giants again trailed in the ninth inning, this time by a score of 5-3. A Pedro Feliz homer off of Gagne made it 5-4 and two walks wrapped around a sacrifice bunt made it first and second with one out. Once again, however, Grissom happened: he grounded into a double play that ended the game with Bonds in the on-deck circle.
  • Finally, on Sunday, the Giants trailed 7-2 in the fifth inning. Thanks in no small part to Bonds, they cut that lead to 7-6 in the seventh, and had one out and runners on the corners after Bonds’ RBI single. With eight outs to go, the Giants seemed assured of, at the least, getting Bonds one more at-bat, even if they couldn’t tie the game before then.

    But A.J. Pierzynski grounded into a double play that ended the seventh-inning rally, and the Giants got just one more baserunner the rest of the way. The game ended, once again, with Grissom at the plate and Bonds in the on-deck circle.

Bonds had a huge series, but was denied the opportunity to win the game for his team in all three ninth innings. That wouldn’t happen in football, where a quarterback touches the ball on every play and can determine whether a great running back or receiver gets it. In basketball, the best player on the floor almost always gets opportunities to be the difference between winning and losing a close game. In baseball, though, your opportunities to make a difference entirely depend on your teammates. If they fail, you fail.

That’s why evaluating a player based on team performance doesn’t work in baseball. It’s a paradox–the sport where we can best measure individual performance is also the one where the individual’s opportunities are most dependent on his teammates–that invalidates all parallels of Barry Bonds to Michael Jordan or Troy Aikman or any of the superstars crediting with leading their teams to NBA and NFL championships

(By the way, Felipe, you might want to rethink the idea of having the .320 OBP guy bat in front of the .520 OBP guy. Grissom can’t hit righties, and will absolutely kill you as long as you allow him to.)