Skeptics, and there were plenty, snickered when the Rockies signed free agent Justin Morneau to a two-year, $12.5 million contract last winter to become their first baseman.
Colorado, hoping to build an offensive juggernaut that could decimate teams at Coors Field, saw Morneau as a power source at a position where it lacked punch. Todd Helton, whom Morneau was replacing, had not hit as many as 20 homers since 2005.
Doubters saw Morneau as a four-time all-star whose skills at the plate had been eroded by age and a devastating concussion suffered in 2010. Morneau was convinced he could be the 25-home run, 100-RBI force he was in his glory days with Minnesota. A quarter of the way into the season, he’s making disbelievers take another look, with a .329 average, eight home runs, 29 RBIs, a .593 slugging percentage and a .949 OPS.
He leads National League first basemen in all of those categories except home runs.
“I knew that if I was healthy, I could do it,” said Morneau, who turns 33 on Thursday. “Playing through stretches where I was healthy last year, I played like I knew I could.”
Morneau hit .259 with 17 homers in 127 games for the Twins last year, with nine of those home runs coming in August before he was traded to the playoff-bound Pirates. With Pittsburgh, he went homerless in 97 at-bats, including the postseason, watering down demand for him on the free-agent market.
Morneau wasn’t discouraged. For the first time in years, he spent the offseason preparing for the next season rather than trying to heal up.
“It was so nice to start getting ready for baseball instead of rehabbing from injury,” he said. “It’s been nice just to come in every day and feel like you are contributing.”
Morneau has not been just a Coors Field phenomenon: He’s hitting .315 with four home runs and 13 RBI away from home.
Outfielder Michael Cuddyer, a teammate of Morneau’s in Minnesota for eight seasons, relentlessly campaigned for the Rockies to sign his friend. Manager Walt Weiss is glad he listened.
“I guess you could say that I’m a little surprised that there has been this much power this early,” Weiss said. “The fact that he hit nine (homers) last August gave us all reassurance that there was still a lot of power in his bat.”
Cuddyer said he had no doubt Morneau could still produce.
“I was 100 percent convinced,” Cuddyer said. “He played more games last season (152) than anybody on this team did. Way more. So that told me that last year was a year when he proved to himself that he was healthy again.”
Weiss and the Rockies’ front office relied heavily on Cuddyer’s endorsement, but Weiss also watched a lot of video.
“The swing, and the length of the swing through the hitting area, was something that got my eye when I watched video of him,” Weiss said. “We call it ‘stay-through.’ He’s got a lot of stay-through in that bat, and he’s in the hitting area for a long time. He stays on balls, and that’s how you create the backspin and you get the ball to carry.”
The concussion that derailed Morneau’s career is not a subject he likes to talk about. Quiet and introspective by nature, the last thing he wants to do is rehash July 7, 2010. That’s the day his head slammed against the knee of Toronto Blue Jays second baseman John McDonald while breaking up a double play on a grounder hit by Cuddyer. What followed was the fog of recurring postconcussion symptoms, as well as surgery in June 2011 to remove a herniated disc fragment from his neck. The one-time American League MVP was no longer a feared slugger.
Asked whether he has put all of that behind him, Morneau gave a hint of a smile and said: “I don’t think it will ever be in a my rearview mirror. It’s something that’s less prevalent now. It’s something that anytime there is a collision, I can’t help but wonder about how my body is going to react. It’s something I deal with. But now I know it’s something I can overcome.”
As for his fresh start this season in Colorado, Morneau is thrilled, even if he doesn’t outwardly show it.
“It’s been great, a lot of fun,” he said. “There is an energy that reminds me of the Twins teams when we were winning and going to the playoffs. As soon as we get a guy on base, we feel like we are ready to take off. Good teams have that, and that’s going on here. I think everybody has bought into it. There are no side agendas or personal agendas. People are here to win.”