Thursday, March 11, 2010

Position Analysis: First Base

Likely Starter: Justin Morneau
2009 Stats: .274/.363/.516, 30 HR, 100 RBI

Is Morneau's back fully healed?

Potential Backups: Michael Cuddyer, Brendan Harris, Jim Thome

Justin Morneau entered the All-Star break last season with a stellar .311/.390/.575 hitting line to go along with 21 homers and 77 RBI, and it appeared that he'd be competing for another MVP award over the final months for the season. Unfortunately, things went south from that point; Morneau hit just .201 the rest of the way and finished the season with relatively ordinary numbers overall.

Late-season slumps are certainly nothing new for Morneau, whose career second-half OPS is 115 points lower than the first-half figure, but this time around there was a clear explanation for his drop-off in August and September: a fractured vertebrae that landed him on the shelf for the final weeks of the season and the playoffs.

The injury clearly took an immense toll on Morneau's performance -- in his final 20 games before being shut down he totaled only seven hits in 70 at-bats -- so if it his back is not fully healed this year, Twins fans have real cause for worry. Given that doctors prescribed rest rather than surgery to address Morneau's injury, I suspect that there will be persistent concerns early in the season that these issues may re-emerge.

The Twins need Morneau's back to be healthy and strong, because he'll be carrying a significant portion of the load as cleanup hitter in the Twins' powerful lineup. He's been one of the league's finest run-producers over the past several years, as a penchant for big knocks with runners aboard and a spot behind Joe Mauer in the lineup have helped produce four straight 100-RBI campaigns. This year he will bat behind three players with a knack for getting on base, and he'll have power threats looming behind him in Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. If his back holds up, Morneau is positioned to thrive in this lineup and help churn runs across the board like never before.

In the event that Morneau's back (or surgically repaired wrist) should act up, Michael Cuddyer would likely would likely step in at first base. Cuddyer donned his first baseman's mitt last year after Morneau went down and did an admirable job there, hitting .325/.398/.675 with eight homers and 24 RBI in the Twins' final 21 regular-season games while performing well in the field and playing a central role in the team's late surge to a division title. Beyond Cuddyer, there aren't many options on the roster to back up Morneau. Brendan Harris has a bit of experience there and could play it in a pinch. Jim Thome was once a full-time first baseman but he's now 39 and he hasn't played a single inning in the field over the past two years.

The Twins charged down the stretch last year with Morneau on the sidelines but he's clearly a focal point of this offense and if he's healthy he can help turn the middle of the lineup into a murderer's row. The Twins have surrounded their cleanup man with more offensive punch than ever before, so let's hope his back can hold up.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Morneau: .290/.375/.580, 35 HR, 120 RBI