The Colorado Rockies declined Justin Morneau's 2016 option last month, avoiding a $9 million pay day for the first baseman who was dependable and successful in Colorado right up until suffering through a neck injury and concussion-related issues for the majority of the 2015 season.
Two months ago, Matt Gross looked in-depth into whether it would make sense for the Rockies to bring Morneau back for 2016. Of course, Gross was arguing this a month before we ended up learning the Rox declined Morneau's option, so read his post with that in mind, though Gross' work is certainly worth attention at this point.
To me, this part of Gross' work sticks out (emphasis mine):
1) [Bringing Morneau back] gives them an opportunity to flip him at the deadline next summer for a young / long term controlled piece.
2) The Rockies are unlikely to spend their 2016 money on anything more useful. If we're operating under that assumption that wins are of secondary importance in 2016, then it makes sense to take a chance on a guy trying to rebuild his value.
3) No matter what, it won't take up payroll space in 2017 and beyond which is where the Rockies really want to clear the books right now.
4) Morneau could provide some veteran presence in the clubhouse at the start of next season on a team that should be extremely young after other players are shipped away this winter.
So as we've been doing in this series—perhaps today just to get a break from writing up profiles on pitchers the Rockies will (probably) never pursue—let's evaluate Morneau's free agent candidacy.
Scouting Justin Morneau
Aside from the injury, which limited Morneau to 49 games in 2015, he did just as well this past summer as he did the year before, when he won a batting title with the Rockies. In two seasons in Denver combined, Morneau has slashed .316/.363/.487 with 42 doubles, six triples, and 20 home runs over 184 games (732 plate appearances).
The numbers represent a bit of a career resurrection for Morneau, who went through some lean years after 2010 in his final seasons with the Minnesota Twins and an abbreviated half-season with the Pittsburgh Pirates after a midseason trade in 2013.
The lefty is a good first baseman, a former MVP winner, and a four-time All-Star, but his best days are obviously behind him. He'll turn 35 years old in May 2016, and the biggest question for him—and any team that pursues him this winter—is when and how to use him at first base (or as a designated hitter) to maximize his value but not leave him open to an injury that would tank what will likely be a very short-term contract.
The case for the Rockies to pursue Justin Morneau
As Gross laid out a bit in his piece from several months ago, several good things would come were the Rockies to actually pursue Morneau this winter:
- He's a known entity. Not that it matters too much with 2016 likely being a lost year, anyways, but Morneau has had several successful years in Denver when he's been on the field, and the consistent veteran knows the team and organization very well.
- He'll return for a good bit less than the declined $9 million option from last month; on a cheaper deal, his track record in Denver is palatable for a season (or half-season), though that of course assumes good health.
- With Wilin Rosario having been designated for assignment, the Rockies could use some power help at first base alongside the underwhelming-but-not-that-awful presumptive starter Ben Paulsen.
- He'll return on a short-team (should be one-year) deal; if he does well—and most importantly, if he's healthy—the Rockies can move him at the trade deadline in July for a young return. It may be nothing special, but spending a couple million on a known veteran and getting some young player(s) in return at the deadline is not a bad flip for a team trying to contend several years from now.
The case against Justin Morneau
As good as Morneau has been with the Rockies (well, when he's been on the field), there are some pretty significant points against bringing him back, too:
- Morneau didn't crack 50 games in 2015, and as he ages—especially considering his now multi-year concussion-related injury history—his health risks will only become more pronounced. Even if he returns to Denver on a cheap deal, even if he plays well when he's on the field, an injury in the first few months of the season like what happened in 2015 would destroy his trade value and make Morneau a lost investment for the Rockies (for the second year in a row).
- Those same health concerns should probably make Morneau want to look elsewhere next year; an American League team where he can serve as a designated hitter at least part of the time would be a great fit for a player trying to reduce the wear on his body with age.
- The Rockies' current (presumptive) starter at first base, Paulsen, bats left-handed—just like Morneau. Having two lefties platoon at first base is not ideal, especially for a lineup that already struggles mightily against southpaws. Even in a lost 2016, if the Rockies have a few million dollars to spend on a rental platoon first baseman, it might be better spent on a right-handed bat that will complement Paulsen.
Justin Morneau's fit with the Colorado Rockies
Ultimately, I don't think Morneau returns to Denver next year, but I guess I wouldn't be surprised if it happened and it certainly wouldn't be the worst play the Rockies could make this winter. I'd personally prefer Mike Napoli; a right-handed power hitter who can play first base and in the outfield for a few months until a deadline trade ships him to a contender. (I made Napoli's free agent case with the Rockies here.)
Morneau's been great in Denver, but the calendar has caught up with him; the combination of age and health concerns ought to outweigh the positives in Morneau's free agent profile, and the Rockies would be better served adding a right-handed power bat on a short-term contract that can platoon with Paulsen.
That would mark the end of the road for the franchise's first post-Todd Helton first baseman, but Morneau acquitted himself well in two seasons; Rockies fans ought to have fond memories of the NL batting champ's (brief) time in Denver.