I am not Michael Morse’s agent. I promise. I do like his at-bat music. It gave us one of the coolest Washington, D.C. sports moments in recent memory. I think he’s a fine hitter – when healthy. But that’s been a concern throughout his career. He also leaves something to be desired in the field and on the bases. He is an every-day player for a lot of teams in the major leagues, especially in the American League where he is an ideal designated hitter.
But he was not going to be an every-day player anymore in Washington. The December trade for center fielder Denard Span made that clear. Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth became the corner outfielders. When first baseman Adam LaRoche re-signed with the club last week that left Morse’s last, best hope dashed. The conventional wisdom was that he would be traded soon and that finally happened on Wednesday. Morse goes back to the Seattle Mariners and the Nats end up with pitching prospects A.J. Cole, Blake Teinen and a player-to-be-named from the Oakland A’s. Now I’m going to make the argument for why that trade wasn’t necessary.
Morse will turn 31 during spring training. If he seems younger that’s because he didn’t become a regular in the big leagues until 2011. Knee and shoulder injuries derailed a promising career in Seattle. He was acquired by the Nats as a reclamation project after the Mariners sent him to Triple-A following spring training in 2009. By August of that year he was back in the majors and then showed enough in spring training in 2010 to make Washington’s 25-man roster. Playing time was still sporadic, but he eventually forced his way into the lineup that season and hit 15 home runs in 266 at-bats. That set up a breakthrough season in 2011 – a .303 batting average, 31 home runs, 95 RBI.
In fact, over the last three years only 17 big leaguers with at least 1,000 at-bats have a better slugging percentage than Morse (.516). That list is littered with names like Cabrera, Bautista, Hamilton, Votto…Cano, Kemp, Fielder, Holliday. His wOBA – or weighted on-base average, an effective way to measure a player’s offensive value – is .371. Only 22 players have done better since 2010.
This seems like a guy you’d want to keep on your team. He is entering the final year of a two-year, $10.5 million contract. His salary for 2013 will be $6.75 million – a relatively cheap price given that recent production. He did miss the first two months of last season thanks to a lat muscle tear that showed up in spring training. Morse’s OPS dropped from .910 – a career best – to .791. Those are all legitimate concerns. Except he isn’t under contract next season. You have to assess the future value of Cole, Teinen – likely a reliever at the higher levels – against the value of Morse off the bench to a team that believes it can win a title in 2013.
You could argue that it’s unlikely Morse would rebound in Washington next year under these circumstances. There just wouldn’t be enough at-bats. But is that true? The Nats found a way to get utility man Steve Lombardozzi 384 at-bats in 2012. There were ways to still get 400 at-bats out of Morse. He can play right field, left field and – as he showed filling in for an injured LaRoche in 2011 – first base.
It also seems that he was a solid insurance policy. And that Washington could need one. Werth will turn 34 in May. He missed three months last season with a broken wrist. Is there really any reason to run him out there for 150 games? There’s no question Werth looked fresh during the stretch run last season. He ended up playing 81 games – the majority of them in August, September and October. He’d been reasonably durable the previous four seasons, three of them with Philadelphia, but the risk of injury obviously increases as a player ages.
Now, let’s look at Span. He is in the prime of his career at 28, a fine defensive player who gives the Nats an experienced leadoff hitter. But a concussion in 2011 and the lingering symptoms kept him to 70 games that season. A shoulder injury kept him out of the lineup for 25 games in August and September of last season and he appeared in 128 total. He’s not exactly been Lou Gehrig. And if he does miss time in 2013, Harper could have moved to center with Morse easily sliding into a corner spot.
Harper, meanwhile, has youth on his side at age 20. He played in 139 games last season and missed the first month in the minors. Then again – he’s a maniac in the field and on the base paths. No one would want to reign in Harper. His electric playing style is infectious. But that could easily lead to injury, too. Meanwhile, LaRoche’s shoulder injury in 2011 gave Morse his first shot at consistent playing time. And while he has been durable for most of his career, age looms as an issue for him as well at 33.
It’s possible any one of those players makes it through next year unscathed. But it’s unlikely all four of them do. Not many teams would have a better option off the bench than Morse. Yes, the team likes Tyler Moore. The 25-year-old immediately took to a pinch hitter role last year as a rookie. He hit 10 home runs with nine doubles and had a game-winning hit off the bench in Game 1 of the NLCS against St. Louis.
But Moore had only 156 at-bats last season. His on-base percentage was .327 and he struck out 46 times. He isn’t much better than Morse in the field. It’s hard to argue that Moore is the stronger option for 2013 – and in this context that’s all that matters. After all, the farm system has been built and produced. The Nats’ own actions – going all-in with an expensive signing like reliever Rafael Soriano – say they are pushing to win now.
Manager Davey Johnson’s bench is relatively set. Roger Bernadina is the defensive outfielder and a left-handed pinch hitter, Kurt Suzuki shares the catching duties with Wilson Ramos, Chad Tracy is the veteran lefty pinch hitter and Lombardozzi is the utility infielder who can switch hit. In the short-term, Moore almost certainly was the odd-man out if Morse stayed.
But with Morse a pending free agent it would have been at most for one season. And even if he started the year at Triple-A, Moore would have been among the first recalls if injuries struck. Maybe someone like Corey Brown would get the nod as a defensive replacement if Bernadina was injured. But either way it’s unlikely Moore would have been banished to Syracuse like pitcher John Lannan was last season.
In the end, the Nats found a deal for Morse that they liked. His contract status, age and injury history in theory worked against his trade value, but Cole still flashes great promise. Even after a rough 2012, he is just 21 and ranks only behind 2012 first-round pick Lucas Giolito in the organization’s revamped pitching prospect hierarchy. There is no longer a first-round pick in 2013 thanks to Washington signing of Soriano. And top prospect Alex Meyer had already been dealt to Minnesota for Span. There just aren’t many high-level pitchers left in the farm system and general manager Mike Rizzo obviously wanted to start restocking now while he had a trade chip. That’s a logical road to take. It just wasn’t the only one available to him.
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