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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

December 19, 2012 at 3:14 PM

Morales-Vargas trade is a win-win

This video shows the classic home-run stroke of newest Mariner Kendrys Morales in hitting a game-winning grand slam against the Mariners in 2010. Unfortunately, it also shows the ugly ankle injury that resulted during the celebration and wiped out the next year and a half for Morales. But that seems to be behind him now, and Morales is a good fit with the Mariners.

It’s hard, in fact, to come up with reasons not to like the Mariners’ trade today, which sent Jason Vargas to the Angels for Morales. I’d say it’s the classic trade that helps both teams, which is never a bad thing.

Do you like the trade of M’s Jason Vargas for Kendrys Morales?

Yeah, you can nit-pick about improving your competition, but I’d counter that the Angels have done the same thing. The Angels, with the acquisition of Josh Hamilton, have enough bats to cover the loss of 20-plus homers in Morales, and the Mariners are strong enough organizationally in pitching to find a rotation replacement for Vargas. You’re now looking at a rotation of Felix, Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, and then it’s wide open, with the Big Three and Brandon Maurer trying to show in spring training they are ready to crack the rotation. Jack Zduriencik just said in a conference call that “all options are on the table” when it comes to replacing Vargas’s rotation spot, whether it be free agency, trade or elevating someone from within.

Let’s face it — realistically, Vargas’s value to the Mariners went down when the fences went in, so this was a logical time to trade him. Vargas is a free agent after the season, but so is Morales, so that’s a wash. If Morales performs well, the Mariners would probably think about locking him up, and if not, they can ensure they get a compensatory draft pick by making him a qualifying offer after next season, when he becomes a free agent. This year, such offers were set at $13 million, which would be a reasonable risk (because the player can always accept it, rather than try free agency) if Morales has a strong year.

The Mariners actually catch a break on contracts with this trade, because Vargas is projected to make $7.4 million in 2013, while Morales is projected for $4.8 million. That’s about $2.5 million the Mariners can throw at a free agent like, say, hmmm, Michael Bourn. I wrote yesterday about a Bourn-Mike Morse combo as the way to go to make the team better offensively and defensively.

I like Morales in that equation as much as Morse (who is also a free agent after the season). He’s a switch-hitter, he’s just 29, he’s raked at Safeco Field (a career .904 OPS in that ballpark; yeah, I know, small sample size, but it beats the alternative). I think there’s a real chance that Morales has more upside than might be apparent. Remember, he missed most of 2010 and all of 2011 after that terrible ankle injury as a result of jumping onto home plate after the game-winning grand slam against the Mariners (his new team; yes, life works in mysterious ways sometimes). In a transitional comeback year, Morales stayed healthy in 2012 and hit 22 homers with a .787 OPS. Granted, he had the benefit of being theoretically “protected” in the Angels’ power-packed lineup of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Torii Hunter, Mark Trumbo, et al, but the whole protection theory has been disputed by the sabermetric crowd. My main point is that it’s reasonable to think that, with a full year back under his belt, Morales will continue to get better and approach his old, pre-injury form.

Will he ever again be the player he was in 2010, when he hit 34 homers, drove in 108, and went .306/.355/.569 while finishing fifth in the American League MVP voting? Maybe not, but I think he can keep moving in that direction. If so, the Mariners will really have something. Even if he remains the player he was last year, the Seattle lineup has one more legitimate hitter. It will be intersting to see how it all shakes out among Morales, Jesus Montero, John Jaso and Justin Smoak, particularly after Mike Zunino arrives to take over the full-time catching duties. It seems like something will have to give, but I don’t think a little more depth, a lot more competition, and some more options for Jack Zduriencik will be a bad thing.

This is a trade that helps the Mariners get better, and that’s what this winter needs to be about.

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