The Recent Resurgence of Justin Morneau

It’s been a long time since Justin Morneau was anything close to a sure fantasy option. 2010 drafters had to decide which Morneau was the real thing, the player who hit .311/.390/.575 with 21 HR in the first half of 2009 or the player who faded badly down the stretch, killing a viable MVP campaign with an .077/.178/.179 September. Those who bought into his potential in 2010 were richly rewarded with princely production — .358/.465/.648 with 11 HR — in exactly half a season of work.

Since taking a shot to the head on a seemingly innocuous double play in Toronto, Morneau has been something of a mystery. He started last season poorly, but it looked as though he was finding his stride in May with a .264/.305/.418 month with 4 HR and 12 RBI. Unfortunately, from the end of May on, Morneau was limited to just 21 games due to a strained wrist and a reemergence of his concussion symptoms; during that time, Morneau hit just .179/.253/.244 and went without a home run.

While he came into camp under less scrutiny than the other half of the M&M duo, Morneau was certainly under a close watch, especially after telling reporters that another onset of symptoms could end his career. I suspect this garnered more coverage than it warranted because of the timing — the early spring training tempest-in-a-teapot phenomenon I’ve mentioned before — but the reality is that it would be hard to blame Morneau for not wanting to continually push himself into top physical condition only to have his brain fail him.

Morneau’s spring training numbers aren’t good: .220/.278/.440, but that doesn’t really convey how his spring has gone. From his first spring game on March 3 to March 22, Morneau hit a wretched .091/.167/.091 with just three singles to show for his work. From the 23rd through Tuesday’s game, Morneau looks like a different player. Over the last five games, he’s 8-for-17 with three home runs and a pair of doubles and just three strikeouts.

There are all sorts of caveats here: It’s spring, it’s a crazy small sample, everyone has hot streaks this time of year — well, except Pedro Alvarez — and did I mention it was a small spring sample? For most players, I’d look at this run of games with interest, but not much more than that, but for Morneau, I’m moving him up my draft boards, because this shows that there is still pop in his bat and the potential for production. As much as medical science can show us, and it is a field growing every day, brain damage is still largely a mystery, especially once the physical damage isn’t the problem anymore. If he had broken a leg or torn a labrum, his timetable would be clear and a serious deviation from that would be cause for concern, but with the concussion, there just isn’t a point at which we can say what is or isn’t a potential issue going forward. That said, Morneau’s issues this spring have been related more to the time he missed than the injuries that caused him to miss it, so the fact that his timing and eye seem to be coming back is a very, very good sign for the Twins and for his fantasy value.

I still have concerns with Morneau, who hasn’t always been a great fantasy 1B even when healthy. Target Field is still particularly inhospitable to lefties to the tune of a 91 LH HR park factor last year, which isn’t going to help Morneau’s power numbers at all. I’m not buying 17 ABs as a sign that he’s fully healthy either, not after his series of surgeries during 2011, but there is clearly upside left in Morneau of which observers were rightly skeptical when spring training started.

Even in AL-only, I’m not at all ready to bank on Morneau at 1B. I love the idea of having him as depth at 1B or starting him as a CI option, and with an ADP of 235 according to Yahoo!, owners can afford to move him around as needed. I don’t put a lot of stock in the projections for him, just because of how odd his last two years have been, but getting anything close to his ZiPS projection –.272/.348/.456 with 14 HR — out of a pick in the 230-240 range would be a solid win for most teams.

If you’re left needing to bank on Morneau because the rest of the good first basemen are gone, I highly recommend handcuffing him with Chris Parmelee. If Morneau founders and can’t hack it, it will likely be Parmelee that picks up most of the slack.

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Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

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I highly recommend avoiding any combination of Morneau/Parmalee in fantasy if you are trying to win.