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Trade Retrospective: Twins trade Justin Morneau to the Pirates

The Twins traded away one of their best players of the past decade.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

For the fourth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here. This series was first started in 2016 by Spencer Bingol, who has been part of the Red Sox Baseball Operations department for the past two years. Congratulations to Spencer on the team’s recent World Series championship!

At the 2013 waiver wire trade deadline, the Twins traded Justin Morneau to the Pirates in exchange for Alex Presley and Duke Welker. Morneau himself was in a contract year.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

The Pirates were in the midst of something exciting. They were close to clinching their first winning season since 1992, and more importantly, they were right in the thick of the playoff hunt. The 1992 season was also the last time they made the playoffs, which was the longest postseason drought at the time. Going into the waiver wire deadline, the Pirates were sitting at the top of the division, tied with the Cardinals and 3 1/2 games up on the Reds.

The first base situation in Pittsburgh was basically a platoon — an odd choice for first base given the era of short benches — involving Garrett Jones and Gaby Sánchez. It was not working out too well, either. Sánchez was doing fine with a .353 OBP, but he was slugging below-.400. Jones was hitting for more power, but he was suffering from a sub-.300 OBP. Put together, they were combining for less than 1 WAR, per FanGraphs.

Even though there was only one month left in the season, every little bit helps in such a tight division race. That being said, it was hard to see what made Morneau desirable, because he was hitting only .259/.315/.426. He was having a strong August, but that was after having a horrendous July. It’s all just arbitrary endpoints, anyway.

One would assume that Morneau would be taking plate appearances away from Garrett Jones, the left-handed side of the first base platoon. Going back a few years to look at Morneau’s track record against right-handed pitching, because one season’s worth of platoon splits is too small, and he looked to be quite a bit better in that regard compared to Jones. With the rosters expanding in September, the Pirates could hang on to Jones anyway. With virtually no cost in roster spots until the playoffs, and the cost in talent being so low, once could rationalize this deal for the Pirates, even though the upside would be worth a few runs at most.

As for the Twins, they were 20 games out of first place, with their season having been over for awhile. Morneau was going to be a free agent, and the rebuilding Twins had little need to re-sign a declining first baseman going into his age-33 season, despite the great career he had in Minnesota. They did not get much for him, but they had to get whatever they could. Morneau likely would have attracted better offers at the non-waiver deadline if it were not for his terrible July, though honestly, the return probably was not going to be too much better.

The Results

It’s funny, because Morneau’s month with the Pirates was about equal by wRC+ as his season with the Twins, but he accomplished it very differently. He had a .370 OBP in September while slugging a paltry .312. His extra-base hits that month comprised of only four doubles.

The Pirates were not able to win the division, but they were successful in snapping their 21-year streak of missing the playoffs. They hosted the Wild Card game where they beat the Reds in a strange game that involved Johnny Cueto looking like he lost his nerve. They almost succeeded in eliminating the division rival Cardinals in the next round, falling to St. Louis in fives games. Morneau was a non-factor during that postseason with his power outage continuing, hitting .292/.320/.333 over 25 PA.

Believe it or not, the Pirates declined an opportunity to spend money, so Morneau went elsewhere during the subsequent offseason. He signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with the Rockies that included a team option worth $9 million. Fun fact: He was the first Rockies player to wear number 33 since it was worn by fellow Canadian Larry Walker.

Morneau did well in Colorado, even when accounting for the ballpark, hitting .316/.363/.487 during his time there. However, he played in only 49 games in 2015 due to having received another concussion. He had struggled with concussions and their symptoms over his career, so this new one had to be taken very seriously.

Unsurprisingly, the Rockies declined Morneau’s team option for for 2016, and he did not end up landing with a team until June. The White Sox signed him to a $1 million deal, though he did not play in his first game until after the All-Star break. He was sub-par with a line of .261/.303/.429. The following year he played for Canada in the World Baseball Classic, but he was unable to find work in the majors. He then took a job with the Twins’ front office, effectively ending his career.

Alex Presley had lost his outfield job to Starling Marté in 2012, but he would have been easy to trade anyway. Going back to the start of 2012 to the time of the trade, he had just a .277 OBP, and was more or less a replacement level player. He was claimed off waivers by the Astros before the 2014 season, but he was not any better with them. He landed with the Brewers in 2016 and was then cut later that season, followed by the Tigers picking him up that August. He actually had a decent 2017 with them, hitting .314/.354/.416 in 264 PA, but that was the last time he saw major league action. At 33 years old, his career is likely over.

Duke Welker used to be a prospect of note in the Pirates’ organization, but his stock had fallen once Neal Huntington took over as GM. He actually got traded back to the Pirates that November in exchange for Kris Johnson. Unfortunately, he had to get Tommy John surgery in June 2014, and to make matters worse, the Pirates cut him the following month. He tried to make a comeback by signing a minor league deal with the Giants in 2016, but he was unsuccessful. Before the trade, his only major league action consisted of two appearances out of the bullpen in June, facing a total of four batters and getting them all out. That is still the only major league action he has ever seen.

Because Morneau and Presley saw only one month with their respective new clubs, with Welker not even getting that much, we will forgo the usual tables that are usually included in this series that show the production and salary of the players involved. Suffice it to say that the results were unremarkable. It was nice to see Morneau see success in Colorado afterwards, though.

That concludes the fourth season of Beyond the Box Score’s Trade Retrospective series, and my third season doing it. I you have enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.