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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.

January 16, 2013 at 6:46 PM

Mariners go for right-handed power in Jaso-for-Morse trade

morseichi.jpg

(Michael Morse and Ichiro during spring training of 2009. Associated Press photo)

Big thanks to Bob Condotta for posting<a href="” this story and this blog post on today’s three-way trade that brought Mike Morse back to Seattle and sent John Jaso to Oakland.

I was a victim of really bad timing — right when the trade was was announced, I had just begun a long doctor’s appointment (nothing serious), and there was simply no way out. Compounding matters, there was no internet reception in the office, so I couldn’t even tweet anything. Then I had to battle Bellevue rush-hour traffic, which I’d rate about as bad as any big city in America. So here I am, very late to the party.

What do you think of the Mariners’ trade to get Mike Morse?

In a way, Jaso is victim of bad timing as well. In this profile I did last year, he talked about how much he loved Seattle and playing for the Mariners. The story was written in mid-August, right after he had caught Felix Hernandez’s perfect game, a great achievement for any catcher. Here’s what Jaso said:

“I like playing here. I like living here. I like the guys I’m surrounded by. It’s just a good feeling.”

And this: “I would really like to hopefully have a career here. I like it that much. I’d be happy being here for multiple number of years.”

Well, it’s not happening. Jaso is moving on to his third team in three years. I know a lot of people don’t seem to like the deal, Dave Cameron most vehemently and eloquently.

I don’t have a huge problem with the trade, for a couple of reasons. One, while this leaves the Mariners in a temporary bind behind the plate — I’d guess Jesus Montero will be the regular, with a stop-gap backup brought in to start this season — we’ve known all along that Mike Zunino is on the fast track. I believe this just hastens his arrival in Seattle. Unless he completely tanks in Tacoma (where I’d expect he’ll start the season), Zunino should be up by mid-June, when the Super Two arbitration issues are past. Or perhaps sooner. And by all signs, Zunino will turn that position into a huge positive — maybe not instantly, but he sure seems to be an first-rate catcher in the making.

So at the point Zunino arrives, Montero presumably slides more into the DH mix, and maybe eventually even the first-base mix, which is obviously getting a little crowded. I honestly don’t know where all this leaves Justin Smoak — perhaps trade bait, or perhaps down in the minors with his last remaining option. Or maybe a bench player and spot starter. And Mike Carp simply doesn’t seem to have any role at all anymore with the Mariners. You’ll have a mix of Smoak, Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Montero to hold down those spots, with Morse and Ibanez obviously candidates to play corner outfield as well. Jaso was a very nice bat against right-handed pitching– at least he was last year, and in 2010. In 2011, Jaso hit .224/.298/.354, and the Rays, one of the most astute sabermetric teams in the major leagues, saw fit to trade him to Seattle for an erratic reliever with a sordid past, Josh Lueke.

I’m not here, however, to demean Jaso, whom I liked personally and as a ballplayer. But I do believe that the Mariners had a huge need for power, particularly right-handed power, and as we’ve already discussed previously, weren’t able to fill it through free agency or through the aborted Justin Upton trade. So maybe they had to do something a little distasteful to get someone like Morse, who if he stays healthy — no guarantee, because he’s had his share of injury problems, dating back to a broken collarbone with Seattle in 2007 — gives them a guy who, for all his defensive faults, can flat-out slug. The world learned that when the Mariners gave him up in an unfortunate 2009 trade with Washington for Ryan Langerhans. In three-plus seasons with the Nationals, Morse had a .857 OPS, including a monster season in 2011 (.303/.360/.550, with 31 homers and 95 RBIs). Morse’s career slugging percentage is .492, and he’s been over .500 twice in years of substantial playing time. The Mariners haven’t had anyone slug over .500 since Russ Branyan in 2009, their last winning season.

Morse is 30, a year and a half older than Jaso. He’s a free agent after the season, while Jaso has three years of team control left before hitting free agency. Morse will make $6.75 million next year, Jaso is projected to make about $1.7 million via arbitration. Those are all points for Jaso. Like Morales, Morse could conceivably become trade bait if the season falls apart (and I don’t think anyone sees this as a contending year for Seattle, with or without Jaso). If Morse produces, they can explore a one-year extension. Or they can give him a qualifying offer next winter and get a sandwich-round draft pick if he signs elsewhere.

Jaso had a 3.3 WAR last year via Baseball Reference, after putting up a 0.4 the year before. Morse was at 0.6 last year, when he was bothered for most of the year by a lat strain he says is completely healed. In 2011, when healthy for 146 games. Morse put up a 3.1 WAR despite negative defensive numbers. So I guess a lot of your evaluation of the trade depends on who you think is likeliest to regain their peak numbers, and whether you trust Eric Wedge to artfully find a way to deploy all the disparate pieces he has at his disposal, including possibly Jason Bay (who could be cut loose if he doesn’t show quickly that last year’s plunge was a fluke) and Casper Wells. It’s a daunting challenge, and one that may very well reveal a poorly conceived roster.

Call me naive, or sabermetrically unsophisticated, but I like the idea of having two potential 30-homer guys in Morse and Morales (three if Montero blossoms) after all those years of suffering through a Mariners’ lineup that inspired absolutely no fear whatsoever from opposing pitchers. I see a solid, professional hitter in Jaso, but one who won’t play against lefties, and who may have had the season of his life last year. The less Mike Morse has to play outfield, the more I’ll like the trade. This isn’t a deal that puts the Mariners over the top or anything like that, but I don’t hate it. And unlike Dave, I don’t expect it to haunt them.

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