Late Wednesday afternoon news broke that the Seattle Mariners were close to reuniting with 1B/OF Michael Morse. It didn't take long before it was revealed that the Mariners' export was catcher John Jaso, sent to the rival Oakland Athletics as part of the three-team trade.
The move raised some eyebrows from Mariners observers.
For one, Morse was brought in to bolster the offense but Jaso was the Mariners' best batter in 2012 and also outpaced Morse by producing a far better on-base percentage and the exact same isolated power (ISO).
Two, Morse is 31 years old and a free agent following the 2013 season while Jaso is 29 and under club control through 2015. The Mariners aren't expected to contend for at least a couple more years considering that they share the A.L. West with a team that has been to the World Series in two of the past three seasons as well as a team with Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout in the same lineup; never mind the 2012 division winners who just upgraded at catcher.
Three, Morse figures to be used as at least a part-time outfielder or even a full-time outfielder, yet he is an atrocious defender out there. The numbers more than back it up, but all you have to do is remember his last play as a Mariner, where a routine popup to right field led to a meandering route, an awkward dive, and a separated shoulder. The defense could kill Morse's overall value.
Four, the move left the Mariners with one catcher on the 40-man roster in Jesus Montero, someone who many believe should instead be considered a full-time DH.
Among other objections. It was undoubtedly a puzzling move that caught many Mariner fans off guard and led to some gnashing of teeth, perhaps most notably from saber-hero Dave Cameron.
John Jaso for Mike Morse, straight up, might be Jack's worst trade since taking over as a GM.— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) January 16, 2013
I'm not even sure Bill Bavasi would have traded John Jaso for Mike Morse.— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) January 16, 2013
Jaso was a producer and cult hero so it's a shame to see him go. And it's frustrating that this is (probably) the Mariners' "big move" after an offseason full of big-name rumors. But a lot of the uproar out there seems misplaced, although criticism of GM Jack Zduriencik's process for this particular trade is certainly warranted (and where Cameron is coming from).
In the end, it's not that bad. This maneuver isn't moving the needle much for better or worse, and it's not as if good things can't come out of it. Here are a few angles to consider:
Jaso looks like a much better value than Morse when comparing their production, positions and contracts. It's easy to make the case that Zduriencik is being distracted by Morse's home run tallies and making a Bavasi-esque blunder in the process. But it wasn't that long ago that the Tampa Bay Rays -- a forward-thinking, by-the-numbers franchise if there ever was one -- traded Jaso for a good-not-great relief pitching prospect and, more importantly, a walking public relations disaster in Josh Lueke. Jaso's value is a little different now given his breakout 360 plate appearances, but the Mariners were universally praised for the move and were expected to make Jaso their featured catcher. Why did the Rays give up Jaso for nothing and instead go with a non-hitting crew led by defensive specialist Jose Molina? Why are the Mariners believed to be pursuing the same type of player to replace Jaso?
Jaso has always been known as a poor defender, so we might hypothesize that these teams don't believe Jaso's bat -- despite being at a position fielding few offensive contributors, particularly from the left side -- is enough to make up for what he does behind the plate. A catcher's defensive responsibilities are complicated and attempts to put a number value on them will be forever ongoing. Oftentimes teams use information identical to what is available to the public. For catcher defense, that's almost certainly not the case.
ZDURIENCIK'S CONTRACT AND BETTING ON UPSIDE
Bad things start to happen when general managers begin scrambling to save their jobs. Bill Bavasi, for example, unloaded Adam Jones, Shin Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera for Erik Bedard, Ben Broussard, and Eduardo Perez while fighting for his. We've been given the impression that Zduriencik has been granted the leeway to orchestrate a proper rebuild, but the fact is that he's in the last year of his contract and must be under some pressure to add to the win column. Zduriencik is one of the oldest GMs in the game and is probably hoping he's done submitting resumes.
Swapping Jaso for Morse is not nearly as risky as Bavasi's moves, but there is still a chance at a payoff. Morse struggled with hand/wrist injuries last season, dropping his batting line to .291/.321/.470. That looks great by Mariner standards but was well short of his 2011 result: .303/.360/.550 with 33 home runs.
Few expect Jaso to repeat his 2012 breakout season; fewer expect him to best it. A somewhat-healthy Morse could easily outproduce Jaso at the plate. There's more upside there. This could turn out OK in 2013 as long as the Mariners don't let Morse give all his value back on defense and are able to do a half-decent job patching up the hole left by Jaso.
WHERE THE PIECES FIT
One of the reoccurring bits post-trade had to do with the Mariners' "seven DHs" slated for the 25-man active roster-- Mike Morse, Jesus Montero, Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, Jason Bay and Mike Carp. It's not ideal, but it's really not that much worse with Jaso in the mix and there are scenarios in which the pieces come together fairly well, assuming that Montero will catch a larger share of games (they've "had him in agility and quickness and conditioning camps all offseason") and Morales is healthy enough to play first base.
It gets easier if we eliminate Carp and Smoak, which seems within the realm of possibility given that Carp is out of options, didn't make a case for himself last season, and doesn't fit well on this squad, and Smoak has an option year remaining.
Against right-handed starting pitchers we might expect Montero to catch, Morales to play first, Ibanez to DH and, by default, Morse to play left field. But Morse will have opportunities to escape the outfield. Just about any time a lefty is starting we might expect Morse to be penciled in at first base or DH as Morales and Ibanez both own large platoon splits. Morales' leg injury could be a concern, meaning more days off than normal. Ibanez isn't a great bet to hold on to regular at bats all season. It wouldn't be tough for the Mariners to use Morse as the first baseman or DH roughly half the time. The situation is manageable.
Sample lineup against RHP:
2B: Dustin Ackley (L)
3B: Kyle Seager (L)
RF: Mike Morse (R)
1B: Kendrys Morales (L)
DH: Raul Ibanez (L)
C: Jesus Montero (R)
LF: Michael Saunders (L)
CF: Franklin Gutierrez (R)
SS: Brendan Ryan (R)
The Ibanez signing was a controversial move as well but it happened, and once it happened there wasn't much room for Jaso on the day-to-day.
MORSE'S FUTURE TRADE VALUE
Morse wasn't acquired just to be traded, but if the Mariners fall out of the race and Zduriencik doesn't believe that he has to try and eek out as many wins as possible to keep his job, Morse could bring back a little value come July. It's not a focus now, but there could be a silver lining down the road.
I'm not on "Team Z" here. I don't love this trade and can't defend his supposed reasoning. But neither do I believe that this is Zduriencik's worst trade as Mariner GM. The comparisons to Bavasi seem silly. Barring some unexpected leap for Jaso, fans won't be talking about this trade for years to come like they do the Erik Bedard, Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez deals. As far as desperation moves go, I find this one pretty easy to swallow.