Morneau slips in rankings of first basemen

Editor’s note: Veteran sportswriter Luther Dorr is on his annual visit to Florida where once again he’s following baseball’s spring training and the Minnesota Twins. This is his third report from the Sunshine State.

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By Luther Dorr

Mille Lacs County Times

Last week, in a game against the Pirates, Justin Morneau hit two balls hard to the opposite field, one a liner to left and the other a liner to third.

The all-knowing fans in the stands declared that to be a good sign, repeating the oft-heard line from the Twins’ hierarchy that when Morneau uses the whole field, he’s a better hitter.

The news got better the next day against the Yankees when he banged one off the center field fence for a double.

And it got even better the next day when Morneau pulled two homers to right field against Tampa Bay.

But, oh, how the mighty have fallen.

In a USA Today Sports Weekly ranking of possible first basemen in the American League that came out recently, Morneau was listed at No. 17. Adam Dunn of the White Sox, who had a horrendous year in 2011, was listed ahead of Morneau.

And in a listing of all the first basemen in both leagues, Morneau came in at 28th.

It wasn’t long ago that Morneau was one of the most feared sluggers in the game. Twins fans may even forget the kind of numbers he was putting up with regularity.

Morneau was the American League MVP in 2006 as he hit 34 home runs, knocked in 130 runs and hit .321. Only a bad September in 2008 kept him from being MVP again.

From 2006 through 2009 he batted .290, and despite missing a whole month in 2009 with an injury, he averaged 36 doubles, 30 homers and 118 RBIs a year.

And in 2010, the year that he sustained a concussion that began all his problems, he had 18 homers, 54 RBIs and was hitting .356 in exactly a half season.

He was named to the All-Star team four years in a row through 2010 and even won the home run contest at the All-Star game.

We all know what has happened since.

Now there is talk that Morneau, who has been a designated hitter in the last eight spring games he has started, instead of being at first base, will be mainly a designated hitter. General manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire have denied that, as has Morneau, but in a new development Monday, Morneau said that may be a possibility.

Before he hit a double on Monday against the Rays, Morneau was hitting only .154 with three extra-base hits. But his last four hits have been doubles or homers, so maybe things are starting to come together.

The guy has a lifetime on-base percentage of .353 and has been a good fielder, a good teammate and a run-producing machine.

Maybe he’s turned the corner. Let’s hope so because the Twins, no matter if Joe Mauer returns to form and the pitchers get back to what they were in 2010, won’t get far without Morneau being what he used to be.
Spring training odds        and ends; former Twins

There was Tony Oliva, probably the most popular ex-Twin now that Harmon Killebrew died, signing autographs in the parking lot at Minnesota Day recently. He always has a ready smile and is ready to talk to fans. A guy who looked to be about 70 got his trumpet out and played the “We’re Gonna Win Twins” song, the “Minnesota Rouser,” and “Minnesota Hail to Thee” (a halftime song at football games). Many joined in singing. Oh yes, the guy was dressed in maroon and gold.

Francisco Liriano has had command of his fastball, slider and change-up in his last two starts and is unscored upon in 10 innings. When I saw him against the Pirates he was unhittable. Dare we hope?

Mauer Chevrolet, a relatively new car dealership in St. Paul, passed out bottled water with the Mauer name on the label, as well as T-shirts. Fans swarmed to get them, one even saying he had talked to Joe Mauer’s father.

Luke Hughes, as he did last spring, is making a good run at being on the roster. He leads the team in homers (4), RBIs (13), is hitting .385 and has a slugging percentage of .795. Chris Parmelee, the September 2011 call-up who hit over .300, has also looked good and can play the outfield, as well as first base.

GM Ryan and manager Gardenhire have some tough roster choices ahead, a lot of the decisions depending on how many catchers to keep, and if Morneau is to be primarily a DH.

It will be an interesting season watching former Twins on other teams. Even Jason Repko has gotten a lot of time with the Red Sox this spring as he attempts to make their roster. Here’s what a team of former Twins would look like:

The starting pitchers would be Kyle Lohse of World Series champ St. Louis, where he is to be the Opening Day pitcher. Johan Santana is also scheduled to be No. 1 for the Mets. Phillip Humber of the White Sox went 7 innings and gave up only one run in his last start. And you have Matt Garza of the Cubs and R.A. Dickey of the Mets who had an ERA of 3.23 in 208 innings in 2011.

Joe Nathan (Texas) would be the closer with Grant Balfour (Oakland) and Jose Mijares (Kansas City) also in the bullpen.

The catcher could be A.J. Pierzynski of the White Sox (four homers this spring), or young Wilson Ramos of the Nationals, the player traded for Matt Capps.

Garrett Jones of Pittsburgh  (average of 19 homers, 63 RBIs and 28 doubles a season as a part-time player) would be at first base.

Orlando Hudson (Padres) would be at second, J.J. Hardy of Baltimore at short and Casey Blake (Colorado) at third. Jason Bartlett (Padres) could the utility infielder.

You’d have Torri Hunter (Angels), Jason Kubel (Diamondbacks) and Michael Cuddyer (Rockies) in the outfield. Or if you had the versatile Cuddyer play another position, Delmon Young (Detroit) could be in the outfield.

The DH would, of course, be David Ortiz of the Red Sox, although Young could be the right-handed DH, as he likely will be with Detroit in some games this spring and even played first base in one game last week.

Not a bad group. And the Twins have little to show for those departed players.

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