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Twins' Morneau is finally healthy

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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FORT MYERS, Fla.

There were the concussions that interrupted his 2010 and 2011 seasons. He underwent surgeries on his neck, left wrist, left knee and right foot amid the neurological haze. Finally, when Justin Morneau resumed playing first base regularly during the middle of last season, he began to feel normal again.

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By the end of the season, he rarely brooded during games about the risk of sustaining another concussion. Mostly, he thought about baseball. The normal stuff. Then he had a normal offseason. Now he’s having a normal spring training.

And with Morneau, normal is newsworthy.

Morneau, a four-time All-Star, appeared in 134 games for the Minnesota Twins last year, his most since 2009. He finished with 19 home runs and 77 RBI, to go along with a .773 OPS. The production wasn’t normal when compared with his 2006 American League MVP standard. But there was — and is — a lot of hope in those numbers.

Consider: Morneau had a solid 2012, even though concussion symptoms limited his workouts leading up to it. Facing no such restrictions this offseason, Morneau reported to camp in better shape than one year ago. He’s thick with muscle again. “I was able to start hitting when I normally would, work out like I normally would,” Morneau said. “It was nice.” Yes. Normal is nice.

So, this spring, we can ask if Morneau is capable of 30 home runs and 118 RBI — his average from 2006 through 2009. The question is a sign of how far Morneau has come since his head struck John McDonald’s knee on a fateful play at second base in July 2010. For the first time in more than 2 1/2 years, Morneau’s future is about more than trying to save his career.

HEAD FIRST

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Against that backdrop, Morneau and the Twins are preparing for a season that could define them both. Morneau, who turns 32 in May, is in the final year of his contract. He’s staring at the prospect of free agency for the first time. The Twins, the class of the AL Central throughout the last decade, are coming off consecutive last-place finishes. The viability of their charming brand — homegrown talent, airtight fundamentals, strike-throwing pitchers — is going on trial.

At this point, a number of outcomes are plausible: If Morneau has a big first half, the Twins could re-sign him at the All-Star break. They also could trade him, if (a) he plays well enough to maintain value and (b) the team performs in a manner that screams for an infusion of young talent. Then there’s the best-case scenario: Morneau plays like his 25-year-old self and signs a huge contract extension while the Twins emerge as surprise contenders.

“I’ve been around long enough to know if things are meant to be, then they’ll happen,” Morneau told FOXSports.com on Wednesday. “If it’s time to go somewhere else — if the situation isn’t right here, if the fit isn’t right, if I don’t fit in the plans — then it’s part of the game. It’s not the part of the game I like to see. It’s not the part of the game I like to be involved with. But it’s something we’ll address when the season’s over.”

It may not wait until then. The Twins could be trade-deadline sellers unless new starters Mike Pelfrey, Vance Worley and Kevin Correia deliver huge performances; if Morneau becomes available, he would be one of the most coveted left-handed power bats. Also of note, Morneau said he’s willing to have contract discussions with Twins management during the season.

“I understand why it hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “I’m not surprised. It’s kind of the way it’s expected to go. They want to see how I am and get through the whole year.

“If something comes up during the season, I’m not against it. It’s not something I’d like to do, unless it starts close and seems realistic from the beginning. You don’t want to drag negotiations out for weeks in the middle of the year and become a distraction. … But if it’s an offer that makes sense, we (could) get it done, say, over the All-Star break. If not, I’ll go into the winter and see what happens.”

At this point, we might as well acknowledge something that’s bound to surface this season: The Toronto Blue Jays — the lone major league franchise in Morneau’s native Canada — reportedly had interest in trading for him in recent months. The Blue Jays, as evidenced by their offseason makeover, are trying to win now. The Twins, who traded center fielders Denard Span and Ben Revere during the winter, are rebuilding.

Asked about the possibility of playing for the Blue Jays at some point in his career, Morneau said: “That was my favorite team growing up, so that would be very cool. … If I have to leave here — where I have grown up, the only organization I’ve known — then hopefully it’s (with) a chance to win. … I would prefer it to be here, with us making the trades to add guys. But (Toronto is) one of those intriguing places, where if you win you have the whole country behind you. I grew up in Vancouver, and I was a Blue Jays fan. It’s nationwide. … It would be cool, but like I said: I would rather win here.”

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Whether Morneau ever plays for the Blue Jays, he’ll have the chance to represent his country at the World Baseball Classic next month. Canada faces Italy, Mexico and the U.S. in pool play. (Team USA catcher Joe Mauer — his Twins teammate and close friend — has kiddingly refused to give Morneau any hints about how the Americans will pitch to him March 10 in Phoenix.) Canada has a thin starting rotation but otherwise stands a decent chance to earn one of the group’s two bids to the second round — especially if the Cincinnati Reds allow 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto to participate.

“The bullpen, I think, matches up with anybody, with (John) Axford and (Jesse) Crain at the end,” said Morneau, who batted .364 in five games during the first two World Baseball Classics. “We’ve got some real good arms down there. I’m interested to see (Pirates pitching prospect Jameson) Taillon. What game he starts, I don’t know.

“I always enjoy playing with Joey Votto. I think he’s probably the best left-handed hitter in the game right now. It’s always fun just being around those guys. It’s pretty much the same cast of characters every time. We have fun. We enjoy the game. We enjoy each other.”

For the time being, Morneau is immersed in his role as the Twins’ steadfast leader, quiet yet candid, a link to the postseason berths that not long ago were celebrated as regular holidays in the Land of 10,000 Grounders. Morneau has noticed a renewed commitment to fundamentals in the early days of this camp, an acknowledgement from manager Ron Gardenhire and his staff that a lot of proper cutoff throws and baserunning turns led to those six division titles in nine seasons.

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MILITARY MISSION

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But many of those stalwarts — Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Nick Punto, Mike Redmond — are gone. Of the 20 Twins to appear in their riveting one-game playoff victory over Detroit for the 2009 AL Central title, only Mauer and Morneau are still with the team.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve lost a ton of good players, a ton of character guys,” Morneau said. “There’s a lot of guys that have an opportunity to become those (players). We have guys in here who have done it, who have been there, who lead by example.”

Morneau does simply by stepping on the field. He endured two miserable years because of those concussions. He visited doctors and followed protocols and hoped to one day feel like himself again. Last year, Morneau wore a specially designed batting helmet that offered protection against pitches thrown up to 100 mph. Wednesday, that model became standard issue across the majors.

Morneau was happy — for his peers and himself.

“Sometimes you don’t want to be the only one,” he explained. “You want to blend in.”

You want to be normal. And now you are.

Tagged: Twins, Rangers, Blue Jays, Reds, Joe Nathan, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joey Votto

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