We're not even two weeks into the month of June and yet the speculation season has started to build its hype. In regards to the Twins, who could be one of very few early sellers in what is definitely shaping up as a seller's market, plenty of names are being bandied about: Francisco Liriano, Matt Capps, Josh Willingham, Denard Span.
And, of course, Justin Morneau.
Morneau, who is still due approximately $7 million this season and another $14 million in 2013, has been the basis of speculation from numerous sources. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports listed him as a trade candidate. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe thinks the Twins will entertain trade offers for him. The Star Tribune's Jim Souhan, as unreadable as he can be, is right when he says the team should still sell, which is also exactly what Ken Rosenthal thinks the Twins should be: sellers.
A seller's market it may be, but Morneau's price tag is going to prohibit a large number of teams from getting involved in any potential discussions. Minnesota will be looking to shed salary in order to release resources that will help them build towards a better future, so it's unlikely they would willingly pick up much if any of the tab. With that in mind let's take a look at some of the teams who are really struggling at first base and designated hitter to see if we can find a good match or two. (AL Central teams will be excluded, stats courtesy of ESPN.com.)
Bottom 10 Team OPS as 1B (Contenders Only)
Mets (.553), Marlins (.556), Pirates (.593), Dodgers (.674), Braves (.691), Rays (.693), Giants (.710), Brewers (.728), Orioles (.734), Phillies (.741)
Bottom 2 Team OPS as DH (AL and Contenders Only)
Rays (.650), Orioles (.779) (All other contending AL teams have DH performances with an .800+ OPS)
In spite of giving most of their first base plate appearances to Carlos Pena and their designated hitter time to Luke Scott, neither player is producing at the rate Tampa must want them to. While adding a big bat like Morneau to this lineup would give the Rays a significantly better offense, their Opening Day salary of $63.6 million was more than $20 million higher than it was in 2011. That's prohibitive. On the plus side the Rays have very little committed to their '13 payroll. A deal with Tampa Bay seems unlikely.
As the other team on both of the above lists, the Orioles have a bigger rotation between these two roles. Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds, and Nick Johnson all see plenty of time (when healthy), but only Davis is posting numbers that couldn't easily be replaced. The Orioles are in the midst of the most competitive season they've had in a long time, and while payroll is in the mid $80s you'd think that if they could make a move for a bat like Morneau they would at least consider it. The trick is for them to stay in this race for the next few weeks, to see if making a move for a big bat makes sense. After a cold stretch they've won four of their last six, so it bears watching even if it does seem far fetched.
Freddie Freeman, the inevitable return of Ryan Howard, and riding the hot bat of Travis Ishikawa. In that order. All very unlikely.
After finishing seventh in 2010's Rookie of the Year voting and having a pretty good 149 plate appearances last season, Ike Davis is having a terrible year. After cutting nearly $50 million off their Opening Day payroll from last season it's somewhat surprising to see the Mets in contention, and considering their stated desire to rebuild there will also be pressure in New York to buy if they remain within spitting distance of the Nationals and Braves. If they want insurance for the middle of their lineup, if they want to give Davis some breathing room, if they want to give David Wright some protection when they pick up his option for 2013, maybe this is something they look at. But it's also what they've tried in the past and want to stay away from.
Miami made a big deal of splashing their money around over the winter, and while they didn't land Albert Pujols they still made their run. Instead they've been stuck with Gaby Sanchez and, more recently, Logan Morrison. Neither player provides any offense, especially not what you'd expect from first base, which might make them the best fit on our list so far. Jose Reyes is getting on base at a decent clip, Hanley Ramirez is having an okay year, and Giancarlo Stanton has been a monster. Inserting Morneau into that group might give them a decent offense, which is one thing they are sorely missing.
Last season the Pirates were searching for a "professional hitter" as they were fading away from the contention spotlight, and once again they find themselves at the top of the NL Central in spite of their lackluster first basemen. Casey McGehee and Matt Hague have been awful, and Garrett Jones provides power without getting on base. We know they're looking for corner infield bats. Would they consider picking up Morneau and his salary if they continue to stay close? It's a lot of money for a team with Pittsburgh's resources.
The Dodgers are still baseball's best team, in spite of James Loney's .255/.328/.359 triple slash. Even after Matt Kemp returns, being able to slide Morneau into the middle of the lineup suddenly makes LA very dangers. With Dee Gordon and the surprise Elian Herrera at the top, being able to add power to Andre Ethier and Kemp in front of Bobby Abreu would be huge. Payroll was down on Opening Day this season, which isn't much of an issue. The real problem would be that the Dodgers are already on the hook for $100 million in salary for 2013...and that doesn't include options being picked up or raises through arbitration. This is a good fit for this season, but next year would be worrisome.
After nine homers in 209 plate appearances last season, Brandon Belt hasn't hit a single home run in 141 plate appearances this season. Aubrey Huff looks finished, and Brett Pill has somehow been worse than Belt. Payroll on Opening Day this season was already at $130 million, and next year the Giants have three players making at least $20 million, so it's not as though this is a great financial fit. A trade with the Giants is probably off the table as a result, which is a shame because this is definitely a team where Morneau could step in and make a big difference.
As far as I'm concerned the Marlins, Orioles, and Dodgers seem like the best fits among the teams discussed above, but Miami seems to have the best fit in terms of an available roster space and the cash to spend. It's also impossible to count out teams like the Red Sox and especially the Yankees, both of which never mind spending a little extra money to make that final push to October. Between those two New York is probably the better choice, since their designated hitter role is currently a rotation and Morneau would no doubt be more attractive than Eric Chavez or Andruw Jones. And we all know that Justin crushes the ball in Yankee Stadium.
Naturally I shudder at the thought.