PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Pirates are all-in for the franchise’s pursuit of its first playoff appearance in 21 years.
Pittsburgh traded for longtime Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau on Saturday, hoping the four-time All Star can give the Pirates’ middling offense a needed jolt heading into the final month of the season. The Twins obtained outfielder Alex Presley and either a player to be named or cash after Pittsburgh made its second major move in five days. Pittsburgh sent a pair of minor leaguers to the New York Mets on Tuesday in exchange for outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck.
“We’ve got more depth, we’ve got more options than we had four days ago,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’re a better team. We’re a stronger team.”
Pittsburgh entered Saturday tied with St. Louis atop the NL Central with 29 games remaining. The Pirates have been in contention all season thanks in large part to a pitching staff currently second in the majors with a 3.17 ERA. Morneau’s presence should make an immediate impact on an offense that ranks 10th in the NL in runs.
The 32-year-old Morneau hit .259 with 17 homers and 74 RBIs this season for Minnesota and is finishing off a red-hot month in which he smacked nine home runs.
“I think he’s found some ways to spark some things offensively in the second half,” Hurdle said.
Morneau is in the final year of his contract, making $14 million. He has been with the Twins for 11 seasons, winning the American League MVP award in 2006 and becoming one of the best hitters in the game until a concussion knocked him out of action in 2010.
While his numbers have tailed off the last three years, his power should play well at PNC Park rather than cavernous Target Field. It’s just 320 feet from home plate to the right field wall at PNC, an inviting target for left-handed sluggers.
The Pirates had Morneau’s No. 36 jersey ready minutes after the trade was announced and Hurdle held out hope Morneau would make it to the clubhouse in time for Saturday night’s game against the Cardinals.
Whenever Morneau arrives, he’ll give a club reaching heights not seen in a generation another proven bat and more than an ounce of legitimacy. And he’ll do it while taking away at bats from longtime friend Garrett Jones.
Jones has spent most of the season platooning with Gaby Sanchez at first and broke out of a lengthy slump by going 3 for 4 with a home run and four RBI in Pittsburgh’s 5-0 win over the Cardinals on Friday. Now he’ll likely be moved to the bench or spot duty in the outfield.
Playing behind Morneau is nothing new for Jones. He was a prospect in Minnesota’s farm system for years but couldn’t break into the majors on a regular basis with Morneau entrenched at first. Jones called Morneau “a friend” and understands why the Pirates pursued Morneau. Until Friday, Jones was hitting just .119 in August.
“When we’re winning and we know we can get a good player, sometimes you’ve got to suck it up and know what’s best for the team,” Jones said. “Hopefully I can still continue to get in there and play and contribute.”