Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Whither Michael Morse?

Yesterday the Washington Nationals agreed to terms with first baseman Adam LaRoche on a two-year contract worth $24 million dollars.  Bravo to the Nats for completing this deal; they held fast on a two-year deal for the 33-year-old LaRoche, rather than the three years that he had reportedly been seeking.  Even the notoriously acerbic Keith Law said he would be content to have LaRoche for two years back when free agency opened.  In all reality, once the Nats gave LaRoche a qualifying offer of one year and $13.3 million, they were always the most likely landing spot for him, as few teams were going to sacrifice a first-round draft pick to sign an aging first baseman with a .268/.338/.482 line coming off something of a career year.  The real drama was in a) how long the negotiations would take, and b) what they would cost.

I say "something of a career year" because LaRoche's 2012 (.271/.343/.510) is only marginally higher than his career rates, and his home run total of 33 topped his previous best by a single round-tripper.  His 2012 numbers look like outliers because he lost most of 2011 to a shoulder injury, struggling to a .172/.258/.288 line before getting shut down after 43 games.  Discounting that lost year, LaRoche has been consistent throughout his career, and it is reasonable to expect that while he probably will regress from his 2012 totals, the decline shouldn't be too steep.  Of course, he could potentially be Dale Murphy and just irretrievably fall apart at the seams, but for now let's look past that possibility.

The more important question, now that LaRoche is wrapped up for the next two seasons, is what does Washington do with Michael Morse?  Over the past two-plus seasons, Morse has proven that he can rake, posting a .296/.345/.516 line with 64 home runs over 346 games from 2010-2012.  He has also proven that he is at best slightly inadequate and at worst atrocious in the outfield, and in any case the team should have one of the best outfield defenses in the majors with Bryce Harper, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth patrolling the grass.  Morse is slated to make $6.75 million in 2013, an expensive price for a backup first baseman/pinch-hitter who should only man an outfield corner spot for this team in case of nuclear emergency (Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, and Steve Lombardozzi are all probably better options with a glove).  Before we delve into potential outcomes, let's look at what the Nationals' best 25-man roster probably is right now (likely starters underlined):

C: Wilson Ramos (r), Kurt Suzuki (r)
IF: Adam LaRoche (l), Danny Espinosa (s), Ian Desmond (r), Ryan Zimmerman (r), Chad Tracy (l), Steve Lombardozzi (s)
OF: Jayson Werth (r), Bryce Harper (l), Denard Span (l), Michael Morse (r), Roger Bernadina (l)
SP: Stephen Strasburg (r), Gio Gonzalez (l), Jordan Zimmermann (r), Dan Haren (r), Ross Detwiler (l)
RP: Drew Storen (r), Tyler Clippard (r), Craig Stammen (r), Ryan Mattheus (r), Henry Rodriguez (r), Christian Garcia (r), Zach Duke (l)

On the outside looking in: Tyler Moore, Yunesky Maya, Corey Brown, Eury Perez, Ryan Perry

Pretty good, right?  With two lefties and a switch-hitter, the lineup has decent balance, and the rotation, particularly if all is right with Haren again after a pair of injuries slowed him in 2012, is dynamite.  Every single one of the bench bats is capable of making things happen at the plate, and Lombardozzi and Bernadina can run as well.  The biggest weakness is in the bullpen, where despite having two guys with serious closing experience (Storen and Clippard), they have only one southpaw (maybe) in Duke, who spent most of 2012 in AAA (although Clippard certainly is effective against hitters from both sides).  The other issues are that Moore, based on his work in 2012 (.263/.327/.513 with 10 bombs in just 171 trips to the plate), probably needs to play, and that there is no real insurance for any of the starting pitchers should one get hurt.

The temptation is to deal with the most glaring need and trade Morse for a LOOGY to replace Sean Burnett.  But relievers are highly fungible, and there's no way that a LOOGY will provide anywhere near the same value that Morse will even in a part-time role.  If the team is going to trade Morse, they should be looking to get in return either a sixth starter that they can stash in Syracuse until/unless someone gets hurt, and/or depth to replenish their farm system after trades for Gonzalez and Span divested them of four top prospects.  There are several teams that could use a first baseman/emergency outfielder with big power to all fields and a relatively cheap contract for just one year.  Those teams include the Rays, Marlins, Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox, Pirates, and Rockies.  So who makes the most sense as a trading partner?  Let's examine some fake trades as well as another option.

Nationals trade Morse to Rays for RHP Jeff Niemann
If the Rays are indeed going to keep recently acquired Wil Myers in the minors to delay the start of his service time clock, they are going to be in desperate need of a bat.  Their projected lineup (by position) reads like this: Jose Molina, James Loney, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar, Evan Longoria, Sam Fuld, Desmond Jennings, and Ryan Roberts, with Matthew Joyce as the DH.  If that's your best lineup, it will work against the Nippon Ham Fighters, not necessarily the Yankees and Blue Jays.  Loney, although slick with the glove, might be the worst-hitting first baseman in baseball, so Morse would provide insurance there, as well as pushing Joyce to the outfield and Fuld to the bench if he plays DH.  Morse's vast power would play well even in a pitcher's park such as Tampa Bay, to say nothing of their frequent road trips to Baltimore and Boston.  Niemann, meanwhile, is a very serviceable starter when healthy, a huge (6'9" and 285) former high draft pick who is expendable to the pitching-rich Rays, particularly as 2013 and 2014 are his final years of arbitration.  In exchange for paying an extra $3.5 million or so in salary this year, the Rays divest themselves of at least that much in 2014 while fulfilling a major need.  I thought about including lefty reliever Jake McGee in this scenario, but the chances of Tampa Bay shipping off a southpaw after losing J.P. Howell to free agency are very slim.

On second thought, the Marlins are clearly bent on screwing over their fans and would have no interest in taking on $6.75 million in salary in this or any year.  Next!

Nationals trade Morse to Yankees for RHP Joba Chamberlain and LHP Clay Rapada
I'm fairly certain that Chamberlain needs a change of scenery; I think the Yankees are ready to part ways with him, but he still has talent, and if he's your emergency starter, things could be a lot worse.  Rapada solves the need for another lefty in the 'pen without forcing the Yankees to give up their best southpaw reliever, Boone Logan.  As for New York's corner outfield/DH situation, they will currently be going into 2013 with the following: Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, and...Chris Dickerson?  Yikes.  Gardner is a terrific fielder and baserunner, but Ichiro is 39 and very unlikely to repeat the 114 OPS+ he put up after his trade from Seattle.  And then there's the fact that the team has no viable DH until and unless Alex Rodriguez comes back from hip surgery.

Nationals trade Morse to Orioles for LHP Brian Matusz and RHP Parker Bridwell
Like Chamberlain, Matusz could probably use a change of scenery, and escaping from both the Camden Yards bandbox and the AL East could benefit him hugely.  He can both serve as a 6th starter or be an additional lefty arm in the bullpen, performing both services for the Orioles in 2012.  Bridwell is a projectable  21-year-old who spent 2012 at single-A Delmarva and would essentially replace Alex Meyer, lost to the Twins in the Span trade.

Nationals trade Morse to Red Sox for LHP Andrew Miller, SS Jose Iglesias, and RHP Anthony Ranaudo
Boston, of course, has David Ortiz firmly entrenched at designated hitter, but here are their current options at the corner outfield spots and first base: Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, Ryan Kalish, and Mauro Gomez.  Um, if you can find a competent first baseman among that group, please let me know.  Given free rein to whack away at the Green Monster, Morse could probably approach 40 home runs in Boston, making up for his only adequate glove work at first.  In return, the Nats would get Miller, a former top prospect who has bounced from the Tigers to the Marlins to the Red Sox (he was a prime part of the bait in the Miguel Cabrera trade five years ago); he has starting experience, but last year worked entirely in relief (you may notice a running theme here).  Iglesias is a young, slick-fielding shortstop who can provide extra insurance in the middle infield, and in Boston he should soon be usurped by Xander Bogaerts anyway.  Ranaudo's inclusion might be a stretch, but due to health issues he has fallen a couple of rungs on the Red Sox prospect ladder, and would be worth exploring.

Nationals trade Morse and OF Eury Perez to Pirates for LHP Tony Watson, SS Chase d'Arnaud, and LHP Justin Wilson
The Pirates will be looking to improve upon last season's (initially strong) showing that fizzled out down the stretch, and to that end, they need bats to help Andrew McCutchen.  First base is up for grabs in Pittsburgh, so Morse would be able to slot in there.  In return, the Nats would get Watson for the bullpen, d'Arnaud (who in college had perhaps the worst walk-up music of all time - although I will need some help from my buddy James as to the name of the song) for infield insurance, and Wilson is an almost-ready-for-prime-time lefty who can start or relieve.

Nationals trade Morse to Rockies for LHP Tyler Anderson and C Will Swanner
Let's face it; Todd Helton ain't getting any younger, and was limited to 69 games in the 2012 season. Morse would make sense as at least a right-handed caddy for Helton at first, and obviously his power would play well at Coors Field. Anderson is closer to major league-ready than Swanner, perhaps available to provide help in either the rotation or bullpen in 2013.  He had a 2.47 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP in the Class-A Sally League in 2012, and is one of those prospects who "knows how to pitch."

Nationals keep Morse
Were the Nationals to keep Morse, the best move would probably be to keep him and Moore both on the 25-man roster, eliminating a bullpen spot by sending either Rodriguez (triple-digit velocity but single-digit command) or Garcia (minimal track record) to AAA, those being the most expendable relievers.  Storen is set to reclaim his job as closer, NLCS meltdown notwithstanding, pushing Clippard back to the set-up role that he has shined in over the past three years.  Stammen worked 88.1 innings across 59 appearances, serving as a very capable bridge when any starter got in trouble, and Mattheus also had an excellent year.  Duke would then be the token situational LOOGY.  Given the stamina that these pitchers have demonstrated, it would make far more sense to keep another bat on the bench than to over-staff the bullpen.  It would also give Washington the deepest and hardest-hitting bench in the majors, with a quality backup catcher in Suzuki (or Ramos), Morse, Moore, Tracy, Lombardozzi, and Bernadina.  Every single one of those guys has demonstrated that they can hit at the major league level, and all but Suzuki are versatile enough to be deployed at multiple positions, something Davey Johnson has valued on his best teams (you need look no further than Kevin Mitchell and Howard Johnson on the 1986 Mets for proof).

Whichever course the Nationals take, they have proven with their moves over the past couple of years (notably with LaRoche, Gonzalez, Harper, Ramos, Suzuki, and Haren) that they will be prudent, and get value out of Morse whether they keep him or trade him.