Mariners Free Agent Target: Justin Morneau

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The Seattle Mariners would be wise to target Justin Morneau this winter

Jerry Dipoto and company have only been on the job for a couple of months, but they have already made significant changes to the Seattle Mariners roster. The M’s are definitely a more athletic team, but they are still lacking a veteran presence with great on base skills. I believe Justin Morneau would make for a very intriguing addition this winter.

The 34-year-old was originally selected in the third round of the 1999 draft by the Minnesota Twins. After playing parts of four seasons in the minor leagues, Morneau made his big league debut in June of 2003. By 2005, he had earned himself the everyday first base job with the Twins.

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2006 was a breakout season for Morneau. He won the American League MVP Award after hitting .321 with 34 home runs and a career high 130 RBI. Morneau registered a .375 on base percentage and slugged .559 across 157 games. Not surprisingly, the Twins made the playoffs that season. Morneau shined in the postseason, hitting .417 with 2 home runs and 2 RBI in only 3 games.

You would be hard pressed to find a more productive player than Justin Morneau between 2006 and 2010. Morneau posted a .298 batting average with 136 home runs and 526 RBI through 693 games. He registered a .372 OBP and slugged a ridiculous .528 across 2,979 plate appearances. He represented the Twins at four All-Star Games, won a pair of Silver Sluggers, won one MVP and was the runner up for the award in 2008.

Morneau was on pace for a career year in 2010, hitting .345 in early July with 18 home runs and 56 RBI. Unfortunately, his attempt to break up a double play at second base in Toronto on July 7th would alter the course of his career. Morneau was forced from the game with concussion symptoms, and he would not return until to the field until the following season.

Aug 1, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Colorado Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau (33) in the field against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The New Westminster, BC native was not the same player in 2011 after the incident in Toronto. Morneau eventually found his stroke again, but the Twins opted to ship the star first baseman to the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2013 season. Following Pirates postseason run, the Colorado Rockies inked Morneau to a two-year deal.

The move to Colorado proved to be a smart one for Morneau. The veteran won his first batting title with the Rockies in 2014 after hitting .319. Morneau added 32 doubles, 17 home runs and 82 RBI to his season totals. He was off to yet another strong start in 2015 before a concussion forced him to miss time. Morneau did manage to make it back for the final couple weeks of the year, but Colorado did not pick up his 2016 club option.

Morneau is a steady fielder at first base, and sports a .996 career finding percentage. He has led the league in range factor per game in each of his last three full seasons. Morneau also led the National League in total zone runs during the 2014 season with 11. He would be a significant upgrade in Seattle.

Baseball Reference is worried about Morneau’s ability to stay healthy in 2016. They project he will hit .283 with 9 home runs and 42 RBI in just over half a season worth of work. The experts at FanGraphs are slightly more optimistic. They expect Morneau will post a .265 batting average with 13 home runs and 55 RBI in 105 games.

Justin Morneau is one of the best first basemen available this winter. He is not on the same level as Chris Davis, but he is clearly the second best option available at his position. There is no draft pick compensation tied to Morneau, and he should have very little trouble finding work next season. Given his age and injury history, a two-year deal worth $18-20 million would make sense.

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The real question is whether the Mariners need to sign Morneau. Gone is 2015 opening day first baseman Logan Morrison. Mark Trumbo is currently penciled in to pay first next season, but it appears Dipoto is considering trading the 29-year-old. That would leave Jesus Montero as the only first baseman on the roster. I don’t think many M’s fans would be comfortable with that.

Dipoto and Scott Servais have both suggested improving the club’s on base percentage in 2016 is a top priority. Thus far, none of the moves this offseason have truly addressed this issue. Justin Morneau has a .349 lifetime on base percentage, and has posted a .363 OBP over the last two seasons. He could thrive hitting sixth in the Mariners’ lineup.

Next: Report: Seattle Interested in Marcell Ozuna

Morneau will likely never be the same power threat he was during the first few years of his career. However, he could be an excellent supplementary piece in Seattle. I view him as a John Olerud type of first baseman moving forward. Health will obviously be the key, but I would love to see Morneau in the Mariners’ opening day lineup next season.

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