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There are a number of storylines relating to the Twins that will increasingly come into focus as we edge toward spring training. The answers to a handful of important questions will play a large part in dictating whether the season is a success or a failure. Will Tsuyoshi Nishioka be able to effectively transition his game from Japan to the States? Will Joe Nathan be the same dominant late-inning reliever he was prior to surgery? Can Francisco Liriano blossom into one of the league's premier aces?
All players worth following. But to me, no storyline looms larger than the recovery of Justin Morneau, who hasn't been able to comfortably swing a bat since sustaining a concussion on July 7 of last year. If Morneau experiences another setback in spring training or takes any kind of bump to the head while on the field, the Twins will be facing the very real possibility of having to play without him for an extended period of time.
Up until this week, the front office had done little to address such a scenario. But on Friday, the Twins announced that they'd reached agreement with Jim Thome on a one-year, $3 million deal. The contract, which includes incentives based on playing time, ensures that a great bat from 2010 will be back in the mix this year, and also supplies the Twins with some Morneau insurance.
As great as Thome was last year, he's not necessarily an ideal fit. He's 40 years old and incapable of playing any position, which limits flexibility in an already suspect bench. He's a left-handed hitter who's weaker against southpaws, so if Morneau's healthy Thome does nothing to offset the Twins' vulnerability to lefties at the DH spot. (This was an issue many fans were pointing their fingers at after the Yankees took a two-game ALDS lead on starts from CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte.)
Of course, those concerns are secondary when you consider the price. It's impossible not to like this signing at the terms the Twins were able to get. Thome is guaranteed only $3 million, which is a pittance for a player who became one of the league's best hitters upon stepping into regular duty last season.
After Morneau went down on July 7, Thome batted .303/.438/.669 with 15 home runs and 31 RBI in 50 games. His production was a key reason the Twins were able to handily lock up the AL Central despite losing their best hitter amidst an MVP-caliber season.
That performance, along with his excellent clubhouse rapport and tremendous fan appeal, has already earned Thome his 2011 salary, in my mind. As a fan, it's always more enjoyable to watch a player who truly likes being here. This was evident in Thome's demeanor last season and in the fact that he reportedly turned down at least $1 million from Texas to return to Minnesota. He's a class act and it will be a pleasure to watch him blast home run No. 600 -- only 11 more to go -- in a Twins uniform.
As a bench bat, Thome will be a godsend for a group that features Drew Butera, Matt Tolbert and Jason Repko. But there is room for concern over what will happen if indeed Morneau -- or Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel, for that matter -- should go down and force Thome into regular duty.
One can't realistically expect the Hall of Fame slugger to repeat his spectacular performance from last year. It was one of the top five seasons of his career, and duplicating that at age 40 with a balky back could be an impossibly tall order. One miraculous season for an aging star does not promise another -- just ask Brett Favre.
I've noted before that the track record for historically elite sluggers after turning 40 is not particularly pretty. Even the all-time greats tend to decline swiftly at this age. Then again, there wasn't much precedent for what Thome did last year, and he claims his back is feeling good, so why doubt him? He might not be ideal in terms of balancing the roster, but he's a great hitter and a great guy at a bargain price. I've got a lot more peace of mind now than I did a week ago when it looked as though he might be leaning toward the Rangers.
That peace of mind came in handy this weekend as I read the final paragraphs of a Joe Christensen story updating progress of Morneau's recovery:
Smith has had multiple conversations with Morneau's doctor and noted a recent change in the recovery plan.
"In July, August and September, the protocol was if he had any concussion symptoms, he needed to back off," Smith said. "Now I think the doctors have given him a little more of the go-ahead. If you have mild symptoms, you need to work through it, play through it.
"So we think that's a great sign, and the doctor was very pleased with where [Morneau] was when he saw him the last time."
I can't help but be troubled by what Smith was trying to frame as a positive update on the first baseman's condition. It indicates that, more than six months after initially sustaining his concussion in Toronto, Morneau still has not shaken symptoms. I'm not distrustful of the team's doctors, but it does strike me as a bit of a slippery slope advising Morneau to "work through" his symptoms -- this is a brain injury, not a sprained ankle. I'm sure that ultimately they'll exercise appropriate caution, as they have all along in this process.
Should worse come to worst with Morneau, it's comforting to know that the team now at least has someone on the roster capable of making up for even a fraction of that missing power production. In the best case scenario, Thome will serve as a late-inning weapon on the bench and occasional DH. For those purposes, you couldn't ask for a better hitter -- or person -- than a man who will soon become the eighth in major-league history to reach 600 home runs.
For some quick additional reading, check out this article from the ESPN.com Stats & Info Blog on the historical significance of Thome's numbers against right-handed pitching. You might be surprised by how high he ranks.
The whole sports world was aflutter yesterday after reports arose that Brett Favre has been informing his teammates that he won't be returning for this season. It's yet another chapter in a seemingly endless drama, but I'm confident that when it's all said and done, Favre will be starting for the Vikings against the Saints in their season opener.
The matter that is weighing on my mind is a far more ominous and immediate concern, and that's the continued absence of Justin Morneau from the Twins' lineup. The slugging first baseman sustained a concussion in early July against the Blue Jays, and a month later his return to the lineup still is not in sight.
Morneau was a human wrecking ball over the first three months of the season, posting a stellar .345/.437/.618 hitting line to go along with 18 home runs and 56 RBI. While the Twins offense slumped at times early in the season, Morneau did not, as he kept on pounding the ball while looking more comfortable and disciplined at the plate than ever before. It seemed as though this might finally be the year that Morneau kept on hitting through the end of the campaign and clearly established himself as the American League's most dangerous offensive first baseman.
Then, on that July 7 game in Toronto, Morneau suffered a seemingly innocuous injury when he hit his head against the knee of Blue Jays shortstop Alex Gonzalez while trying to break up a double play. The woozy Morneau initially expected only to miss a couple games, but days have stretched to weeks and those weeks have now stretched to a month. How much longer will it be? No one seems to know, but one can't help but be alarmed at today's report via MLB.com that Morneau "was not feeling as good Monday as he did Sunday following a light workout back in Minneapolis."
This tells us that Morneau is not particularly close to returning, perhaps confirming a report by USA Today's Bob Nightengale from a couple days ago that the first baseman is "still likely weeks away from returning."
Concussions are the most tricky of injuries. They can confound even the most respected of physicians, and there is generally no treatment capable of curing the effects of the injury. Either Morneau's headaches will go away with rest or they won't, but either way it's something that will largely have to happen on its own.
In seeing Morneau's post-concussion effects continue to linger on, one can't help but be reminded of another former Canadian Twins slugger, Corey Koskie. After spending several outstanding (and, in my opinion, often underrated) seasons in a Twins' uniform, Koskie signed with the Blue Jays following the 2004 campaign. After the '05 season, the Jays traded Koskie to Milwaukee, where he sustained his fateful concussion in a July game against the Reds.
At first glance, Koskie's injury was as minor as Morneau's. Patrick Reusse recounted the situation in a 2007 Star Tribune column:
Koskie was chasing a looping fly ball that day in Miller Park. "My only chance to catch it was to put my head down and run to the spot," he said. "When I got there and looked, the ball was behind me. So, I bent back and reached, caught the ball, and hit the ground."
Koskie crashed onto his back. His head didn't clearly slam to the ground, but his neck whiplashed. The ball popped from his glove and Bill Hall caught it for the half-inning's final out.
"I thought I was OK, but when I went up to hit, the pitcher was out there somewhere ... like he was behind a TV screen," Koskie said. "I felt nauseous. I was woozy. I slapped at a couple of pitches and fouled them. I got to a 3-2 count and remember thinking, 'What happens if I draw a walk here and have to run the bases? I won't be able to do it.'
"As it turned out, I struck out. And when I got the dugout, I told the trainer, 'This isn't going to work,' and left the game. I assumed I would be back in the lineup the next day."
But he wasn't. In fact, that ended up being the last regular-season major-league game that Koskie would ever play in. At the age of 33, the third baseman's career as a baseball player was effectively done. But the effects of the injury stretched far beyond Koskie's career. For years after the concussion, he regularly dealt with headaches and nausea. I recall reading stories suggesting that at times Koskie couldn't even manage to play with his young children. The story was heartbreaking.
Now, plenty of other baseball players have experienced concussions and bounced back without issue. In fact, Morneau himself took a pretty nasty hit to the head early in the 2005 season, and it's now a distant and oft-forgotten memory. But post-concussion syndrome is very real and as Koskie's situation proved the effects can be long-lasting and extremely serious.
Baseball is a secondary concern for Morneau right now, but it's going to be a real shame if the Twins are forced to play through the final months of the season without him for a second straight year. When he was healthy, his bat was easily the best in the lineup. Being without Morneau's outstanding (and expensive) bat for the remainder of the season would be devastating. I don't even want to think about the complications that could arise if the issues stretch beyond September.
Hopefully, Morneau can eventually put this injury behind him return to the lineup at full strength down the stretch. The Twins will need him.
But, however long the recovery takes, please (PLEASE) don't accuse the Twins' first baseman of being "soft." Concussions are nasty business.
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