PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Pirates are all-in as they chase the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 21 years.
So is Justin Morneau.
Pittsburgh traded for the longtime Minnesota Twins first baseman Saturday, hoping the four-time All Star can give the Pirates’ middling offense a jolt heading into the final month of the season.
“We felt that this move gives us a better chance to play in October, a better chance to win the division, a better chance to advance in October,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said.
And for Morneau, the opportunity to get back in a playoff race proved too good to pass up. It’s why he hustled from Texas — where the Twins were playing the Rangers — to Pittsburgh to hang out with his new teammates for the final four innings of a 7-1 win over St. Louis that lifted the Pirates into first in the NL Central as the calendar flips to September.
“You try to get here as quick as you can because you want to be a part of this,” Morneau said.
The Twins obtained outfielder Alex Presley and either a player to be named or cash in Pittsburgh’s second major move in a week. The Pirates 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.”
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 could have 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.
The Pirates will pick up the remaining portion of Morneau’s $14 million salary, estimated at around $2 million. It’s not an insignificant investment for an ownership group that has sometimes shied away from paying the tab for proven players.
Yet with Pittsburgh on the cusp of its first winning season since 1992, Huntington worked aggressively after the non-waiver trade deadline to give the Pirates the pieces they need to remain in a tight three-team divisional race with St. Louis and Cincinnati.
“We made Clint’s job a little bit easier,” Huntington said. “He’s got a number of weapons at his disposal now.”
While Huntington believes he’ll be “mocked” for thinking the Pirates are true World Series contenders, he and Hurdle made a compelling case to Morneau, who had to OK the trade that ended a sometimes spectacular 11 seasons in Minnesota.
“It was tough saying goodbye,” Morneau said. “Look on the other side of it, you’re on your way to a team that is playing in front of a sold-out stadium and is playing for the playoffs and a division championship and all the other fun stuff. It’s a lot of adrenaline, a lot of emotion that I haven’t had in awhile.”
Morneau won the 2006 AL MVP award and was one of the best hitters in the game until a concussion knocked him out of action in 2010. Still, he remained one of the cornerstones of the Twins’ clubhouse. His departure is another emotional low point in a disappointing season.
“I have great respect for Morny,” Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He was our leader. He set the table. If there was something that needed to be said, he stepped up.”
While Morneau’s numbers have tailed off the last three years, his power should play better at PNC Park compared to 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.
Morneau joins 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 RBIs 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 him. 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.”
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