2016 Statistics: 58 G, .261/.303/.429, 6 HR, 100 OPS+
Age on Opening Day 2017: 35
Position: DH/1B (mainly DH)
The Yankees are highly unlikely to pursue any big name free agents this winter not named Aroldis Chapman. So the key for Brian Cashman is to find affordable pieces to make contributions and keep this young Yankees squad in postseason contention for 2017.
Free agent Justin Morneau would have been labeled as a big name not too long ago, but due to injuries and aging, he has dipped into the category of low-cost rental. Despite posting the highest batting average of his career as recently as 2014 (a league-leading .319 through 135 games with the Rockies), neck problems and elbow surgery have prevented Morneau from playing over 60 games since that 2014 season.
While it is safe to say that the days of Morneau being an offensive juggernaut are over, there may still be some miles left on him that could help the Yankees in 2017. Injuries Morneau sidelined for most of last season, but he was still able to bat .261 for the year, including a .270 average during the final month of the season. Not bad for somebody returning from serious injury.
Of course, expectations have to be realistic. If the Yankees were to bring on Morneau, they would be acquiring an experienced left-handed bat who could see a slight increase in power numbers by capitalizing on Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field. He can still hit for average and can serve as a DH that doesn’t exactly cure the Yanks’ power absence, though he has shown in flashes that he still can hit.
Morneau’s monthly batting average increased every month through the 2016 season despite limited playing time. Perhaps there is still some life left in his bat. However, if he were to be a presence in the Yankees’ lineup next season, he would have to improve on putting balls in play. His strikeout percentage last season was the highest since his first season in the big leagues. It’s a small sample size, but still a concern.
His physical abilities are diminished but possibly useful, and his abilities as a leader and experienced veteran can help the Yankees in 2017, particularly at the first base position. Exclusively a DH in 2016, Morneau has likely seen his last days wearing a first baseman’s mitt, but he can help the up-and-coming Bombers that will be competing for the first base spot.
Greg Bird is a left-handed hitting first baseman coming off of major surgery. Does that sound familiar? Morneau can help a player like Bird rebound and develop, and also help the likes of Tyler Austin along the way. The primary goal is for Morneau to help in the lineup and to rediscover his hitting ways, but an added bonus would be the help he could provide to the younger Yankees who will need a veteran presence in the clubhouse.
Former White Sox manager Robin Ventura said that he believes Morneau has plenty left to offer, as long as he’s willing to go through the grind of physical treatment to make sure he is still able to perform through an entire season. Morneau has been battling those lingering neck problems for a while now, and consistently goes through constant treatment to keep it from flaring up. The big question will be if he can keep his health problems at bay for a season and let his hitting talents shine in a place like the Bronx.
An aging health risk will come relatively cheap for the Yankees, who will likely be seeking out short-term contracts to fill holes while the younger players develop and the epic free agent class approaches in 2018. Morneau could be an offensive improvement to the Yankees’ lineup in 2017, but we will have to see if he is still physically able. Maybe an opportunity to win a job in spring training isn’t a terrible idea.