Monday, August 27, 2012

Pursuing a tangent: Trading Justin Morneau

Justin Morneau takes Saturday's home run around the bases.
The first baseman is hitting .322/.368/.517 since the
All-Star break.

Following up on the Monday print column, about last week's waiver-wire megadeal between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers:

Dylan Hernandez,  Dodgers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, reported in an offhand reference on Saturday that the trade came together after "after a failed attempt to land Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau last week."

Hernandez did not detail that "failed attempt," and an inquiry into an August deal for Morneau could easily have failed because Morneau didn't make it through waivers. (Waivers go by league first, so if, any American League team claimed Morneau, the Twins couldn't trade him to the Dodgers.) Or the Twins could have had no interest in trading the former MVP.

That latter might be a mistake. The Boston-L.A. trade came as a surprise to many because the Dodgers were willing to take on almost all of some very large contracts (not only Gonzalez but Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford) AND surrender two significantly talented but unestablished pitchers in Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster.

Such trades are increasingly rare. Usually teams will give up that caliber of prospect only if the trading partner picks up most of the contract obligation.

Morneau himself would have been far cheaper than Gonzalez. Morneau is getting $14 million this year and $14 million in 2013, the final year of his contract; Gonzalez won't pull in less than $21 million in any season through 2018. And that comparison doesn't include the poison pills of Crawford and Beckett, owed a total of $133 million on their contracts.

There are three potential reasons for the Twins to trade Morneau:

  • To free up payroll space;
  • To open a position for Chris Parmelee;
  • To upgrade pitching talent.

I suspected during the speculation leading to the trading deadline that any Morneau offers the Twins were getting met no more than two of those reasons, and perhaps only the second.

It's worth remembering that for most of July Morneau was hitting under .260 and had done almost nothing against left-handed pitching all season. Low-ball offers then were quite likely. (It's also worth remembering that Parmelee's assault on International League pitching this season wasn't quite as noteworthy as it appears today, partly because he had spent so much time sitting on the major league bench.)

Boil the issue down to this question: Would a trade of Morneau for Webster and de la Rosa fly?

I think the Dodgers would have done that last week; I think it would have made sense for the Twins as well. I also think the timing was wrong for it. Morneau's resurgence likely made it impossible to get him through waivers.

And I think that just because the Dodgers would have taken the contract and given the prospects doesn't mean other trading partners will do both. This could easily have been a unique opportunity.

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