The Pirates moved back into a tie atop the National League Central by shutting out the Cardinals behind another stellar Francisco Liriano start Friday night. With just 28 games left to play, Pittsburgh holds a 9 1/2 game lead over the third-place team in the NL wild-card race. Their next win will tie their total from last year, which matched their high-water mark from the last 20 years, and if it comes Saturday night, it will happen before September and move them into first place all alone yet again. The Pirates are going back to the playoffs this year for the first time since 1992, but they're not taking anything for granted. Just five days after acquiring Marlon Byrd from the Mets to greatly improve their production in right field, and with hours left before Saturday night's deadline for newly acquired players to be eligible for the playoffs, the Pirates have acquired former American League Most Valuable Player Justin Morneau from the Twins to improve, albeit less dramatically, their team performance at first base.
Morneau, who cleared waivers before the trade, is no longer the same player who won the AL MVP in 2006. With the exception of his injury-shortened 2011 campaign, Morneau's .259/.315/.426 line this season is his worst since 2005, worse even than the merely league-average .260/.336/.432 performance the Pirates have received from their first baseman thus far this season, but as a left-handed platoon partner for Gaby Sanchez, Morneau still represents a nice upgrade for Pittsburgh.
In 382 plate appearances against right-handers this season, the left-handed-hitting Morneau has hit .281/.343/.488 with 15 home runs, a much better showing than fellow lefty Garrett Jones' .251/.305/.444 against righties in 380 PAs (though Jones does have 13 homers against righties this year). Pairing Morneau with the righty Sanchez, who has hit .326/.440/.539 in 110 PAs against lefties this season, gives the Pirates a very productive platoon at first base, and, at least in the short term, frees up Jones to help fill in for the injured Starling Marte in left field, possibly as a platoon partner for the right-handed Jose Tabata.
Marte's return will likely push Jones to the bench, but that return isn't expected until the second-half of September. Plus, the slumping Jones, who hit just .159/.250/.365 in August, was finding himself riding pine more of late anyway, with Sanchez taking over the bulk of the first-base duties despite his struggles against right-handed pitching (.204/.301/.318 on the season). Morneau, who will be a free agent in November, is the perfect solution to that problem. The cost for Morneau was negligible. The Twins get 28-year-old outfielder Alex Presley and either a second player to be named later or cash. Presley, a career .261/.299/.416 hitter in the major leagues, is effectively a fourth or fifth outfielder who can play all three pastures but lacks secondary production (walks or power) at the plate. Presley, who had just 73 plate appearances for the Pirates this year, was an easy price to pay and is unlikely to be much more than a placeholder for the Twins. Morneau, however, could be a key bat for the Pirates as they continue to fight to avoid the double-elimination wild-card game and make their postseason run a long one.