Morneau's forecast with the Twins: Cloudy

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2013 - 7:07 AM

Justin Morneau is entering the final year of his contract, and he acknowledges he is not sure what lies ahead.

FORT MYERS, FLA. - Justin Morneau made the rounds of the clubhouse as his teammates filed in from their morning workout on Friday, shaking hands with those he knew and introducing himself to a handful that he didn't.

He was saying hello. The next time he shakes their hands, it could be goodbye.

Morneau, who reported to camp on the eve of Saturday's first full-squad workout, said he has not asked and will not ask the Twins to extend his contract this spring, and he doesn't plan to bring it up once the regular season starts, either. That means he will be a free agent in the fall, once he earns the final $14 million of his six-year, $84 million contract, and is a possible trade candidate all summer.

"It'll take care of itself. If I get through the year healthy, we'll see what happens then," said the 2006 American League MVP, who has missed 234 games to a variety of ailments over the past four seasons. "I think from their side and my side, [we both] want to see where I'm at."

But once they find out, he might be somewhere else. Morneau acknowledged the possibility that the Twins might trade him if they determine he's not likely to stay in Minnesota, and he repeated more than once that he wants to play for a winning team -- something that looms as a challenge for a Twins team that lost 195 games the past two seasons and then traded away a couple of starting outfielders this offseason.

"I want to win, obviously, so that's the important thing," said Morneau, who will turn 32 in May. "If it looks like there's a chance we're going to win, I'd love to stay here. I've been here my whole career, and this is where I hope to be in the future. ... But sometimes those decisions aren't yours."

In this case, the decision-maker is General Manager Terry Ryan, who agreed, in general terms, that Morneau's health is too big a mystery to wager another huge contract on -- yet.

"Everybody knows where we stand with Justin. He's coming off some injuries, coming off a concussion, coming off the wrist and ankle [surgeries] and so forth," Ryan said. "There's nothing to say, though, that we probably couldn't address that at a later time."

Morneau said he would rather not once Opening Day arrives.

"It's not something I'm really interested in doing during the season because it can become a distraction," he said. "But I'll never say never."

Over the past few years, the Twins have tried to preempt their biggest stars from walking away as free agents. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana was traded as he approached the final year of his contract, while closer Joe Nathan and catcher Joe Mauer each cashed in on their one-year-left leverage by agreeing to multiyear extensions during spring training.

It might have been Morneau's turn this year, too, if either side knew whether his formerly league-leading durability -- he played in all 163 games in 2008 -- would return. A concussion ended his 2010 season three months early and spoiled 2011, too. He eventually needed operations on his foot, wrist, knee and neck. That's not a résumé likely to inspire a general manager to splurge on another big-money contract.

"I think I know what we would get as far as effort," Ryan said. "It's just a matter of being healthy enough to be productive."

He bounced back somewhat last season, playing 135 games, though nagging injuries kept his power numbers down (19 home runs and a .440 slugging average). But Morneau was able to work out this winter with the same intensity as during his cleanup-hitting prime, and the result is a chiseled, imposing frame of roughly 230 pounds, eight or nine pounds heavier than last year.

It gives him a chance, Morneau said, to finally be the run-producer he once was. That's a development that could possibly keep his salary in the eight-figure range once he hits free agency, whether from the Twins or another team.

"You never know what the future holds, or if I'm going to be here or not," Morneau said. "I've never been in this situation before. Obviously, as a young player, you make the team and you try to make it to arbitration and get some stability. And for me, I was locked up after my first year of arbitration. So it's something I haven't experienced before but it doesn't change anything. The goal is still to win."

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