Rockies finalize two-year deal with Morneau
Four-time All-Star first baseman is the replacement for Helton
DENVER -- It took a longtime star first baseman to take the place of one.
The Rockies signed free agent Justin Morneau, a four-time All-Star and 2006 American League Most Valuable Player during a lengthy career with the Twins, to a two-year, $12.5 million deal on Friday, with a mutual option for 2016. Morneau, 32, steps into the position that was vacated when Todd Helton retired after 17 distinguished seasons in a Rockies uniform.
The left-handed-hitting Morneau, an 11-year veteran, played with the Twins from 1999-13, then finished last season with the Pirates, who acquired him to help with a successful playoff run.
"I don't think anybody ever really fills his shoes," Morneau said. "You see how rare it is for someone to play their entire career with one organization and put up the numbers that he had.
"We're different people. We're different players. His career is Hall of Fame-worthy, for sure. If that happens, that's great. For me, I'm going to do the things I do well and not really try to replace him or be anybody else. I'll just help this team win ballgames."
Morneau's signing is part of an active offseason for the Rockies, who hope for a quick turnaround from last year's 74-88, last-place finish in the National League West. Veteran righty closer LaTroy Hawkins, who also began his career with the Twins, signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal. The Rockies traded for lefty starter Brett Anderson during the Winter Meetings. Earlier Friday, they reached a three-year, $16.5 million agreement with lefty reliever Boone Logan -- one that will be announced officially next week, pending a physical.
The challenge excites Morneau, who has seemed drawn to the Rockies.
A native of New Westminster, British Columbia, Morneau grew up playing on Larry Walker Field, which is named after the longtime Rockies star outfielder. Morneau also played goalie and idolized Patrick Roy, who performed the second half of a Hall of Fame career with the Colorado Avalanche. And he has an offseason home in Scottsdale, Ariz., about 10 minutes from the Rockies' Spring Training complex.
When the calls came this offseason, Morneau wanted the Rockies as much as they wanted him. In addition to club officials, former Twins teammate Michael Cuddyer spoke to Morneau for about 45 minutes.
"They were the team that contacted us first, said that they were going to have some interest this winter," Morneau said. "We'd heard things about Cuddyer moving to first. But after talking to Cuddyer and his experience there and talking to Larry Walker and how much he loved playing there, it was at the top of my list going into the winter if there was interest on both sides.
"Them being aggressive from the beginning made a big difference, letting us know they were interested."
Morneau slots into the Rockies' lineup in the fifth or sixth spot, with defending National League batting champ Cuddyer batting in front of or behind him. If healthy, the Rockies' regular lineup will include four players who have All-Star Games on their resume -- Morneau, Cuddyer (two appearances), shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (three) and center fielder Carlos Gonzalez (two).
"We're getting an accomplished veteran," manager Walt Weiss said. "Those are pretty tough shoes to fill -- we're talking about Todd Helton -- but we got a guy with a great track record. He's got a strong reputation as a great pro in this league. A guy like that can a handle any situation.
"He's been a middle-of-the-lineup guy, so I'm not afraid to hit him in the middle of our lineup. It'll all work itself out. What's important is we got a productive bat."
Much of Morneau's All Star-level play came before 2010, before he ran into a lengthy period of injuries -- especially a concussion that took a long time to heal. But Morneau played in 152 games in 2013 and hit a combined .259 with 17 home runs and 77 RBIs with the Twins and the Pirates.
"It was exciting to be able to go through that and play in a new league and all those new opponents," Morneau said. "But going through Spring Training with the guys, knowing your teammates from the beginning, being settled in a city, there's some excitement level there."
Morneau heads into 2014 on the strength of a normal offseason.
"The last four offseasons I've had some kind of surgery or injury that I've been rehabbing through, and this year I didn't have to deal with any of that," Morneau said. "Seems like the season ends, something happens and I go into rehab from October until December and I don't really get that real big strength base and the training that I need. This year has been so much better mentally and physically, to be able to spend time with my family and get back into my regular training routine."
Morneau arrives with a .347 career on-base percentage -- .370 in 2013. Before the injury bug, his ability to reach base as well as slug made him a premier offensive first baseman in the American League.
Morneau also has a career .893 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) against right-handed pitching. That number strengthens the Rockies' lineup. The club also is planning to use catcher Wilin Rosario at first base against left-handers. But late in those games, Morneau could be a force off the bench in much the same way Jason Giambi was 2010-12.
But Morneau wants to have chances against lefties. As recently as 2009, he posted an .836 OPS against lefties over a full season, but after the injuries his time against them decreased. While the plan is to give Rosario some time at first just to keep his bat in the lineup, Weiss said he will start Morneau some against lefties.
"I don't see it strictly as a platoon situation," Weiss said. "Justin's track record is that he's hit lefties over the course of his career. Maybe the numbers weren't great last year, but he's capable of hitting left-handers. That stuff tends to work itself out."
Morneau wore No. 33 throughout his time in Minnesota as a tribute to Walker and Roy. It wasn't available in Pittsburgh, where he wore 66. It's not clear if it'll be available here.
The only time it has been issued since Walker was traded to the Cardinals in 2004 was in 2011, to pitcher John Maine. However, Maine never appeared in a Major League game. The Rockies have not officially retired the number of Walker, a Hall of Fame candidate, but honored him on the field last year, and some fans believe it should be retired. The Rockies have said they're retiring Helton's number.
Morneau said he'd like to wear it, as long as it's with the blessing of Walker and the Rockies.
"Our towns are 20-25 minutes apart," Morneau said. "I played at Larry Walker Field. Larry Walker is the guy from my area that proved that we could play in the big leagues and that we can have an impact.
"I've actually talked to Larry about it and told him I would be honored if I had his blessing to be able to wear 33 there. For me it would be like Cuddyer said when he went there, [No. 3] would be a way to honor Harmon Killebrew. Obviously, Larry is still with us, thankfully for that."
The signing puts the Rockies' Major League roster at the limit of 40.