Media reports coming out of Ft. Myers point out that Justin Morneau hasn’t played first base for the Twins in the past ten days. The conclusion being drawn is that, at best, Morneau is likely to open the season as the team’s Designated Hitter and, at worst, could open the year on the Disabled List.
The Twins entered Spring Training with a lot of question marks, not the least of which concerned Morneau’s health. With under two weeks before Opening Day, there’s been good news and bad news about #33. The good news is that we’ve heard nothing to indicate Justin has had any recurrence of the concussion symptoms that have largely kept him off the field for most of the past season and a half. The bad news is that he’s clearly not hitting the baseball like the old Justin and now, apparently, there’s reason to doubt he’s ready to man first base defensively.
While there’s been no official word about Morneau being unfit for defensive duty from Terry Ryan, who’s assumed responsibility for all communication regarding players’ health, clearly the team doesn’t feel Justin is ready to man his position. So, if that remains the case, who will be the Twins’ regular first baseman when games start to count?
Ryan Doumit would, on the surface, seem like the most likely option. He had been penciled in to the regular DH spot, but if Morneau is going to play that role, how better to get Doumit’s bat in the line up regularly than to simply allow him to swap positions with Morneau? This makes perfect sense… except for the pesky fact that he’s barely been asked to play the position this spring for the Twins. If they truly planned to simply swap Doumit and Morneau around, certainly Ron Gardenhire would be getting Doumit a lot more innings at first base.
So, if not Doumit, who?
If the past is predictive of the future, the best way to figure out who’s in the Twins plans if Morneau can’t take the field on Opening Day may be to look at who’s been playing there lately.
Morneau last played first base in a game on March 13 against the Blue Jays. The Twins have played ten games since then. Here’s the list of players that have taken throws at the first sack:
Doumit and Hughes: 1 game each (both yesterday vs. the Yankees)
Mauer: 2 games
Hollimon: 3 games (none of them as a starter)
Bates: 5 games (two as a starter)
Parmelee: 6 games (five as a starter)
As I write this, Joe Mauer is scheduled to start at 1B against the Rays today, with Morneau once again DH’ing.
Looking at these numbers, it’s clear that neither Ryan Doumit nor Luke Hughes will be the Twins’ regular first baseman. Hollimon and Bates are also unlikely candidates. That appears to leave two possible scenarios that the Twins may be considering.
1. Keep Chris Parmelee to open the season and play 1B. Parmelee clearly won’t be kept unless he’s going to play every day, but he’s hit well enough this spring to warrant consideration if Morneau can’t go. This option becomes almost a certainty if Morneau should find himself on the DL to start the year. If Morneau is the regular DH, however, this option means Doumit becomes purely a bench player, backing up at catcher and the corner outfield positions. It also means one less bench position is available for the current group of middle infielders battling for those spots. [EDIT: Parmelee is getting a start in RF today, which certainly indicates he's getting a long look for an Opening Day roster spot.]
2. Make Joe Mauer the regular first baseman and Ryan Doumit the starting catcher. If Morneau is the DH, then the entire expected line up remains intact, with only a shifting of defensive positions.
Of course, the bigger question yet to be answered is whether Justin can get his swing back to the point where he can turn on the ball and drive it the way he used to. It was good to see him drive a double over the center fielder against the Yankees on Friday and we’re all hoping that’s an indication of better days to come because the Twins can’t afford to start the season with a cleanup hitter struggling to reach Drew Butera’s offensive output levels.