There are few people who have climbed within the Twins organization after their playing days faster than Justin Morneau, who was announced as the 2020 addition to the Twins Hall of Fame earlier this year.
The Twins have made Morneau one of their biggest names in public relations, with one personal appearance after another and doing work with companies such as Cambria.
Morneau played 11 seasons with the Twins before being traded to Pittsburgh in August 2013. He then played two seasons in Colorado — including winning a batting title in 2014 by hitting .319 — before finishing his career with the White Sox in 2016. He remains one of only five players in Twins history to win an AL MVP award, doing so in 2006 before several concussions curtailed his playing career.
Since retiring, Morneau has taken on a big role with the club. He joined the Twins broadcast crew in 2018 with Fox Sports North. Morneau could become a full-time analyst in the future.
This year he will call 80 games for the club as Bert Blyleven continues to wind down his career as an analyst. The Hall of Fame pitcher has gone from calling 80 games in 2018 to 50 in 2019 to an expected 30 games in 2020.
Morneau was asked for his expectations from the Twins this season as they open spring training this week.
“Hopefully we’ll still hit a lot of home runs, but hopefully be better defensively,” he said. “Move [Miguel] Sano over to first and you have [Josh] Donaldson at third, who is a good defender. You want to see the continued growth of [Byron] Buxton and [Max] Kepler and [Jorge] Polanco and [Luis] Arraez. There is a good mix of young and veteran players, so it should be hopefully more of what we saw last year. It should be a good division.”
The Twins adding pitchers such as Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Homer Bailey to their rotation is something Morneau says he thinks will make a big difference, but he also says the lack of moves from teams such as the Royals, Indians and Tigers could play a big part in the Twins’ success, too.
“I think it helps that Kansas City and Detroit are going through a rebuild and that should help us win a few more games,” Morneau said. “[The Twins] have added guys, some veteran guys, brought back [Jake] Odorizzi, [Jose] Berrios will hopefully take a step forward and become the ace that everyone wants him to be. I like where our pitching is at.”
Sano, Buxton still key
While a lot of focus has fallen on the Twins’ new additions, Morneau says Buxton and Sano are the key to truly making this team a contender.
“Sano has the potential to hit 50 home runs,” Morneau said. “I don’t like doing that to guys, but he has so much power. I remember the first time I saw him swing, he reminded me of Miguel Cabrera, the way he can drive the ball to any part of the ballpark.
“If he can stay [healthy] and get 550 at-bats, you might be looking at the American League home run leader. He has that much potential, that much power. He’s starting to figure out his approach at the plate and starting to look like a guy who has an understanding of who he is and what he can do in the batter’s box.”
Buxton’s defense, like Sano’s power, could be the best in the game, according to Morneau.
“I think [Buxton] is probably the most important defensive player maybe in the American League,” Morneau said. “He makes our pitchers better, he makes our pitchers more confident that they can throw the ball over the plate because he is going to catch it. Whatever he does offensively is icing on the cake, but to have him out there for 150 or 155 games playing center field would really be a difference-maker.”
Local hoops talent
An item last week about the Gophers basketball team losing recruits to Wisconsin brought an e-mail from Richard Hurt, the grandfather of brothers Michael Hurt (Gophers) and Matthew Hurt (Duke), pointing out the Badgers aren’t the only college team finding success with Minnesota-grown talent.
In late January, ESPN released a list of their Top 25 college players in the country, and four players were from Minnesota. Gophers center and Cretin-Derham Hall grad Daniel Oturu was No. 4 on the list. Freddie Gillespie, who graduated from East Ridge and plays forward for Baylor, was ranked No. 12. Tre Jones, the Apple Valley point guard and Duke star, was No. 15. And Zeke Nnaji, who graduated from Hopkins and plays forward at Arizona, ranked No. 16.
Yes, the collective talent coming out of this state is the best it has ever been.
Gillespie is averaging 9.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks for No. 1 Baylor. Gillespie is playing 27.5 minutes per game for the Bears (22-1).
Jones is second in scoring for the No. 7 Blue Devils (21-3) at 15.6 per game and leads the team in assists (6.6).
Nnaji entered Thursday averaging 16.2 points and 8.9 rebounds for Arizona (16-7).
Guard Both Gach of Austin is playing for Utah (14-10) and averaging 10.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore.
Sacar Anim and Theo John are at Marquette (17-6). John, a junior forward who went to Champlin Park, is averaging 4.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. Anim, a senior guard and former DeLaSalle standout, is averaging 13.1 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Former Champlin Park star McKinley Wright IV is playing for No. 16 Colorado (19-6) and leading the team with 13.6 points per game to go along with 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists. He is one of only nine players in Division I college basketball averaging at least 13 points, five rebounds and five assists per game.
Watertown-Mayer grad Trae Berhow is averaging 14.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore guard for Northern Iowa (22-3), which is leading the Missouri Valley Conference.
Jericho Sims, who went to Cristo Rey Jesuit in Minneapolis, is a junior forward averaging 9.7 points and 8.2 rebounds for Texas (14-9).
One of the biggest standouts in the Pac-12 has been Stanford freshman guard Tyrell Terry. The former DeLaSalle standout entered Thursday averaging 15.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists for the Cardinal (16-7).
And Steffon Mitchell of Shakopee, a junior forward for Boston College, just posted a historic line with 21 points, 15 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal in a 77-73 overtime victory against Virginia Tech.
When you consider these players, along with Badgers forward Nate Reuvers (Lakeville North) and guard Brad Davison (Maple Grove), Minnesota has been a fountain of basketball talent over the past few years.