The Trade and the Benefit of the Doubt

marc w · January 17, 2013 at 5:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I’m over the shock of the trade now, and I’ve had the chance to replace bile and dismissal with contemplation and discussions with smart people who like, er, ok, don’t mind this trade from the M’s perspective. The arguments still don’t convince me, but it might be helpful to step through why.

1: The M’s didn’t trade prospects, they made a simple 1-1 exchange for one of the most valuable commodities in baseball: power.

I think one of my biggest flaws as an analyst is that I tend to overrate prospects. Unlike Dave (and many of you), I thought the rumored deal for Justin Upton was too much for the M’s to give up. So believe me when I say that I’m not a “prospects mean nothing” or “prospects are just minor leaguers” type, and believe me when I say I’d rather have traded prospects. The Mariners goal for the past few seasons has been to upgrade their anemic offense. Their minor league system has enviable pitching depth. The Nationals wanted pitching. Instead, the Mariners traded away the guy who put up the best wOBA, wRC+, OPS, and even slugging percentage on the 2012 team.

2: The M’s had to rethink the move after the Nats signed Rafael Soriano – the Nationals needs changed 24 hours prior to this trade.

Again, that sounds plausible, but it isn’t completely exculpatory. The Nationals hung the “for sale” sign around Morse’s neck for weeks, and the M’s had plenty of relief depth to trade from. Maybe the Nats didn’t want a youngster like Stephen Pryor, but a package around Tom Wilhelmsen might have intrigued them (“proven closer”). And in the end, look at what the Nationals got back in return: RHP prospect AJ Cole, a hard-throwing kid who got blasted in the Cal League, but dominated the Midwest League after his demotion. No pitching prospects are exactly alike, but Brandon Maurer offers a better performance record at a higher level, and the gap in overall talent is lower than it once was (Maurer’s stock rose considerably last year). Not saying Maurer alone would’ve gotten it done, but I’m saying that the Nationals wanted pitching for Michael Morse, and they got it. The M’s seemed intent on moving Jaso, as they apparently didn’t see him as a catcher, so he was one of the myriad guys who may shuffle between 1B/DH/bench bat. In order to improve the team’s offense, the M’s seemed intent on moving one of their best offensive performers from 2012. Hmmm.

3: You can’t focus too much on 2012 stats. Morse was a beast in 2011, and Jaso was more or less replacement level. When Morse is healthy, he has upside that Jaso just doesn’t.

There are two things here, one of which is absolutely true, and one of which is almost certainly wrong. First, Morse had an amazing year at the plate, knocking 31 HRs in just shy of 150 games, and putting up a .390 wOBA. That same season, Jaso’s wOBA was .292. Both players have had career years and some, let’s say, challenging ones in the recent past. The problem is that when you combine defense and position into the equation, Jaso’s value looks pretty close to Morse’s upside value. That is, Jaso’s been worth 2.5 fWAR in 2010 and 2.7 fWAR in 2012, despite playing a lot less than Morse. Morse’s career year was worth 3.3 fWAR. Play Jaso anything approaching 130 games (even if not all are at catcher) and it’s easy to see him getting close to that 3.3 win figure. Given Morse’s age and injury history that Dave discussed yesterday and it’s harder to count on another 3 wins next year. The Fangraphs ‘fans’ projection (the average of fan estimates of what Morse would’ve done in DC) forecasts a big improvement in Morse’s skills in 2013 compared to 2012 – better power, fewer Ks, more walks – along with more games played. All of that only gets him to 2 WAR. That seems like a reasonable estimate not for a best case scenario but for a slightly optimistic one. To reiterate, Jaso put up 2.7 WAR last year and 2.5 WAR in 2010.

4: Morse consolidates value into one line-up and roster slot, instead of spreading the value across two in the case of platoon players like Jaso. Even at equivalent value, Morse allows you to do something with the extra roster spot.

Dave has mentioned why he doesn’t think Jaso needs to be typecast as a platoon player, and Matthew Carruth points to Jaso’s minor league numbers as more evidence that his usage is too restrictive. But let’s say you’ve dug in your heels and won’t hear of Jaso improving against lefties. If the goal is to improve the offense, or to field a line-up that has the potential to score more than 600 runs/year, you want Jaso on the club regardless. Regress his performance severely. Have him get fewer plate appearances. Cut his positional value if you disagree with Felix Hernandez and consider him worthless as a catcher. After all of that, Jaso still appears to add plenty of value to the line-up thanks to his approach. A guy who drew 55 unintentional walks to 51 Ks has value to the line-up even if he’s not knocking 30 HRs…especially to a team that posted the worst OBP in Major League Baseball. For the third consecutive season.

5: The Mariners can’t keep building low-cost, club-controlled but flawed teams. The Mariners needed to change course and really attempt to win. Getting a proven slugger to pair with growth from Seager/Ackley/Montero shows that the M’s aren’t content to compete in 2016, they are taking a run at 2013.

The Mariners have obviously had plenty of flaws, but once again, the M’s haven’t posted a team on base percentage above .300 since Jose Lopez was good (in 2009, they finished merely last in the AL, unlike the last three seasons when they’ve ignored the DH rule and posted worse OBPs than every team in the NL). Getting a slugger to protect Kyle Seager sounds great, but this gets back into the well-trod ground about “protection” or about how many HRs you need to be a successful team. This isn’t beating a dead horse, this is whipping protohippus fossils. I think this argument really stems from the idea that the M’s committed to building a team a certain way, and need to change the way their entire approach to player value. We’ve all seen so many losses that looking at the team and saying, “Whatever you’re doing, just do the opposite” seems logical as well as cathartic. The problem is that everyone has a slightly different idea of what they thought the M’s were trying to do. And no matter what your preferred ‘philosophy’ of team construction, the fact remains that John Jaso showed that he could potentially add some value to your club. A high-OBP guy, an up-the-middle defender (albeit not a pretty one), someone whose power seemed to make a large jump after reworking his swing – this seems like the kind of player you would accommodate. If you’re a power/offense-first type, you might limit him to a platoon, and limit his C innings. If you’re an on-base/Moneyball type, maybe you *increase* his playing time and keep him at C. If you want to squeeze value out of certain spots and bring in big-ticket free agents, you could do either one. But it’s pretty hard to see him as a problem, particularly if you’re focused on offense. There is perhaps no greater difference of opinion between the blogosphere and the M’s front office than how we value John Jaso and perhaps Casper Wells. In many cases, there may be more to it when we bash a move the FO makes – lots behind the scenes that, if we on the outside knew, might change or at least ameliorate our confusion/disagreement. I kind of doubt that’s the case here.

I’d love to win now; I’m really sick of following a last-place team. But that’s somewhat dangerous, for the reasons many talked about after the Wil Myers for James Shields deal. The M’s get Morse for one season (unless they negotiate an extension), and absolutely everything needs to break right in that season for the M’s to pass OAK/LAA/TEX. Not to say it can’t happen, but it’s fairly unlikely that everything goes right for Seattle and simultaneously many, many things go wrong elsewhere in the division. It’s possible that the need to “go for it” and change the culture is more important than we basement-dwelling bloggers know, but it’s scary to see how blurry the line between “going for it” and “desperation” is.

6: You just hate Mike Morse from his days as a slightly odd M’s prospect without much power and without a position.

Anyone who’s played parts of 2 seasons in Tacoma is OK in my book. Seriously. Whatever league Bobby Livingston is in, I hope he makes its all-star team. All things equal, I’d rather purchase insurance from TJ Bohn than somebody else. If Juan Thomas really is a police officer in Atlanta, then I need everyone in the ATL to mind their Ps and Qs. I hope Mike Morse hits 31 HRs again, and it’s pretty cool that he became a huge fan favorite in DC. I’ll be cheering for him. But I still don’t understand this move unless it really WAS an attempt to win now. I know many of you are sick of talking/arguing about this, so I won’t dwell on it. I’m glad Michael Morse is back, but I’m worried about what it says about this organization.

Comments

26 Responses to “The Trade and the Benefit of the Doubt”

  1. Westside guy on January 17th, 2013 6:28 pm

    If this really is part of attempt to win now, there needs to be some huge moves still to come. There’s no way this roster can realistically think of anything above 3rd place – and that’s if everything goes exactly right for them.

  2. gerrythek on January 17th, 2013 7:00 pm

    FWIW: Bill James projected Jaso with an OPS of .756 and Morse with a .843. That is a big differece.

  3. Westside guy on January 17th, 2013 7:31 pm

    You can’t just look at offensive production in a vacuum.

  4. philosofool on January 17th, 2013 8:36 pm

    I’m not really defending the move, but the reaction has been like the M’s are getting a guy who hits pretty well. By wOBA, Morse is the 23rd best hitter in baseball over the last three years. He doesn’t hit pretty well, he hits really well. He walks below average, he strikes out just a bit more than average (but not much more), but the power is big. He’s basically a .300/.350/.500 hitter in his career. The guy can really hit. Pointing out that his profile as a batter doesn’t include valuable skills like walking a lot is like pointing out that Brendan Ryan’s profile doesn’t include hitting well. There are many ways to be a good hitter, and just because Morse has a lot of what’s really sexy (homers) doesn’t mean we have to pretend like he isn’t actually a good hitter because what he’s good at is overrated. He’s a good hitter. Who should also be a DH or 1B.

  5. Marinersince77 on January 17th, 2013 8:56 pm

    Bay & Ibanez – yes
    Jaso – no

    Totally don’t get it. I’ve been a Mariner fan since day 1 (35 years ago). Used to be you had to be local to follow a team on radio or cable TV. Since it isn’t that way any more, and the front office seems to have no idea how to put a competitive team on the field, why should I keep following the Mariners?

  6. Marinersince77 on January 17th, 2013 9:13 pm

    I don’t have a problem with getting Morse. Jaso was just too high of a cost. Jaso and Morse (base runner followed by power) makes more sense than just power.

  7. Martin Blank on January 17th, 2013 9:28 pm

    One of the major issues the M’s have had is signing bats, particularly right-handed ones. They have now moved in the left-field fences but still have a hard time getting bites. Maybe we can just be cynical enough to guess that they hope Morse can hit 30 HRs and show future free agents that it can be done in Safeco.

  8. Thirteen on January 17th, 2013 9:32 pm

    Dancing around the point… You almost addressed it, but you just missed what I think is the only real sensible rationale for this deal.

    The secret is in your parentheticals: (albeit not a pretty one) and (unless they negotiate an extension).

    This article relies rather heavily on straight-up WAR to make the point that Jaso > Morse, but I would be extremely hesitant to trust WAR in such an argument. We know that there are parts of catcher defense, such as pitch framing, that WAR doesn’t account for. The data we have (Fast and Carruth’s pitch framing studies, reputation) indicate that Jaso is bad at these things. It’s entirely possible that defensive flaws not represented by WAR knock half a win to a win off of Jaso’s annual value. It’s a lot more plausible to me that Morse could outdo a 2 WAR C than a 3 WAR one.

    As for the second parenthetical: even if they’re close in value, trading three years for one year makes no sense. I have to believe that Z wouldn’t have pulled a win now move this extreme when at least ten wins away from the playoffs. The deal only makes sense to me if Z is certain that he can extend Morse. I’ve kinda gotten hints at this in the local media’s trade coverage. Morse seemed ecstatic to be returning to Seattle. When Z was asked what would be special about this spring training, he said “Morse will be a free agent at the end of the year (possibly), Morales will be a free agent at the end of the year, Bay…” Interesting that he clarified that Morse could be extended but not Morales.

    So, the rub. This trade makes sense if and only if:
    Jaso has significant negative defensive value.
    Jaso’s ISO will regress next year.
    Morse’s ISO will improve next year due to better health.
    The Mariners can extend Morse through 2015 at a fair price.
    Morse will decline no faster than Jaso will.

    All of these things seem like reasonable propositions — on their own. Taken in concert, the combined chances of everything panning out seem a little iffy to me… but the Mariners were apparently sure enough about each of these things to deal Jaso. If you squint REALLY hard, this trade could be seen as the Mariners consolidating value into one roster slot that isn’t in the way of their top position player prospect. Personally, I still think it’s a bit sketchy, but I can KINDA see it.

  9. sonichound on January 17th, 2013 10:45 pm

    I can’t help but think that Smoak’s time in Seattle is limited and he is going to be dealt before the season starts. Hopefully there is a team out there that remembers when he was a top prospect and figures they can “fix” whatever is wrong with him and he finally realizes his potential. Maybe moving the fences in will restore some of his confidence and he will blossom but with all the 1B/DH types currently on the roster I have to think something is in the works.

  10. Dobbs on January 17th, 2013 11:57 pm

    “It’s entirely possible that defensive flaws not represented by WAR knock half a win to a win off of Jaso’s annual value.”

    But that assumes replacement level catchers are .5 to 1 win better at it than Jaso is doesn’t it?

    Just because he’s flawed doesn’t necessarily decrease his value, it may simply increase the value of some catchers at the expense of the pitchers they’re catching (at least with regards to framing).

  11. Dobbs on January 18th, 2013 12:01 am

    If Morse and Morales do well, the benefit is that they can be used to get draft compensation next season. Extending both of them wouldn’t make a ton of sense unless we’re it’s short-term, cheap and they’re playing 1B/DH.

    Anyway, that’s the only upside I see… possible draft compensation.

  12. Dobbs on January 18th, 2013 12:09 am

    Ibanez seems like he’s getting paid to be more than a PH, so perhaps they’re thinking he’s the DH for our team. Montero keeps catching until Zunino is ready and then moves to full-time DH this season with a move to 1B next season?

    C – Montero
    1B – Morales
    2B – Ackley
    SS – Ryan
    3B – Seager
    LF – Morse
    CF – Guti/Saunders
    RF – Saunders/Wells
    DH – Ibanez

    It’s difficult to make sense of it all, but hey, SS isn’t the only position that now doesn’t have a shot at hitting 15+ homers.

  13. jwgrandsalami on January 18th, 2013 12:31 am

    It is a disappointment that when the Mariners finally acquire a couple of legitimate bats in Morales and Morse, those players both only have one year left before free agency (and one or both may only last four months into the 2013 season).

    Given the likelihood that 2013 will not be a season where the M’s contend for the postseason, my initial inclination was that these acquisitions were made in large part to help Jack Zduriencik keep his job for another season (by helping the team progress from 75 wins last year to somewhere in the 83-86 win range).

    But there’s another possibility — that the front office believes that while these two players might not necessarily be the right ones to spend the next 4-5 seasons in Mariner blue due to their ages, that moving in the fences and bringing in two legitimate hitters (while advancing the win total to a near-contention number) will help lure free agent hitters next winter and beyond. If Morales and Morse (and at least one of the group of existing hitters) can each hit 25-30 home runs, Zduriencik’s task of signing the next power hitter will be made much easier.

    Personally, I’d like to see the Mariners take a risk and offer Morales a three or four year extension at somewhere around $10-11 mil a year. Yes, he’s a Boras client, but given he’s never made even $3 million in a season, a deal like that sets him up for life and would probably be awfully tempting for a guy who could be one injury away from the end of his career. IF Zduriencik and Co;. believe in Morales, they should be making that offer now. If he performs at anything close to his 2009 performance once the season begins, an extension won’t be considered by Boras.

  14. The_Waco_Kid on January 18th, 2013 12:34 am

    I’m feeling less morose about this trade, but whether you see Morse or Jaso as the better player, it’s the big picture that concerns me. Having Bay, Ibanez, and Morse. Each move makes the previous one more confusing. I guess they may cut Bay and/or trade Smoak, but still, I’m nervous about how the roster may end up and how Wedge may use it.

  15. PackBob on January 18th, 2013 2:58 am

    This trade solved a couple of problems the Mariners felt they had: They got a “power” bat and they got rid of a catcher that Wedge didn’t support.

    Jack Z.: “One of the things we have seen since I have been here is our lack of raw power; in Michael we have got a guy who has got big-time power.”

    Jack Z seems on a mission this year. He got Morales. He tried for Hamilton and Upton. He added Ibanez and Bay, both on the downside of age, but both having slugged >.500 in the past, with Ibanez having done so at Safeco.

    It doesn’t really matter how Morse fits in – he’s a power bat in the eyes of Jack Z.

    If Olivo hadn’t gotten injured, Jaso may have spent most of 2012 on the bench. If Olivo hadn’t hit so awfully when he returned, Jaso would have likely gone back to third fiddle. It was unlikely that Jaso was going to see more playing time in 2013, possibly less with the off-season additions. No matter how well Jaso performs, he can only add value if he plays, and Wedge sure gave the impression that he didn’t really want to play Jaso.

    No more Jaso and no more problem of inserting him into the lineup.

    I don’t think it goes much deeper than resolving those two perceived problems.

  16. bookbook on January 18th, 2013 4:28 am

    Z’s greatest success came when he had Branyan in the line up. That wasn’t why the team was successful, of course…

  17. heyoka on January 18th, 2013 6:49 am

    It would be comical if Ryan Langerhans somehow ended up back in the Nationals’ system.

    Anyway, nice to see Morse back after his peak years. I’m guessing pulled hammy one month in.

  18. eponymous coward on January 18th, 2013 7:09 am

    Given the likelihood that 2013 will not be a season where the M’s contend for the postseason, my initial inclination was that these acquisitions were made in large part to help Jack Zduriencik keep his job for another season (by helping the team progress from 75 wins last year to somewhere in the 83-86 win range).

    A team that’s a mid-80′s win team, true talent, doesn’t need a lot of luck to contend for the postseason, given that sheer dumb luck can add 5-10 wins to a team’s true talent win total pretty easily (see: 2009 Mariners).

    The thing is if you look at this roster and you see a mid-80′s win team, true talent, as it exists right now, you are projecting the Montero/Seager/Ackley/Saunders/Smoak group ahead a few WAR, assuming that Morales and Morse are going to stay healthy and return to their peaks, that Gutierrez and Ibañez can stay healthy and productive, and that the kids in the rotation behind Felix and Iwakuma take a step forward.

    I’d say this is your basic spring training pipe dream- it’s possible the same way drawing to an inside straight is, but relying on that sort of luck makes you either a bad poker player or bad GM. The more realistic assessment is that Zduriencik has changed how the talent is configured from 2012 (Morales for Vargas, Morse for Jaso, Ibañez/Bay for Ichiro) towards more offense/less defense+baserunning+walks+pitching, but the 25 man roster talent base is pretty much where it was in 2012, with us having more indications now that Montero and Smoak will have rough rides to being good MLB players, and more confidence in Seager’s development.

    But there’s another possibility — that the front office believes that while these two players might not necessarily be the right ones to spend the next 4-5 seasons in Mariner blue due to their ages, that moving in the fences and bringing in two legitimate hitters (while advancing the win total to a near-contention number) will help lure free agent hitters next winter and beyond. If Morales and Morse (and at least one of the group of existing hitters) can each hit 25-30 home runs, Zduriencik’s task of signing the next power hitter will be made much easier.

    I think this is too clever by half. The most cost effective way to have power hitters is grow your own, and this has been the M’s problem. The last 1B to come through the M’s system and have any kind of extended career at the MLB level is Tino Martinez. Michael Saunders is the first OF to have any kind of career as a Mariner as a minor league product since Ibañez (who we dumped to KC first). If Jack Zduriencik thinks that the team needs power, why not actually try and draft players who hit the ball a long way, instead of signing the next Richie Sexson?

    I think the more realistic assessment is Jack has (some figure for his budget), he couldn’t get Upton and other players, so he’s spending it like this, and this is what we get. I also think this is going too far towards power and neglecting the other problems the team has (no clues about strike zone, devaluing defense, a couple of critical defensive players like Gutierrez and Ryan having injury problems, overestimating Montero’s abilities, overestimating “intangibles”)… but there we are.

  19. marinersfaninreno on January 18th, 2013 8:26 am

    Juan Thomas is living in Reno NV and working security for a local hospital. I bought my F250 from him last year, helluva nice guy.

  20. currcoug on January 18th, 2013 9:28 am

    I may be reading too much in to it, but Zduriencik’s fascinating comments on “Mariners Insider”, seemed to intimate that an extension for Morse might be a possibility.

  21. Gormogon on January 18th, 2013 11:29 am

    The more I think about it, the more I believe this is about “Swagger”. The M’s had no swagger last year. Good teams do. The younglings need to find their swagger, and maybe a Morse/Morales combo will help them to find it. Honestly, I think dingers do help to develop swagger. Gain just a bit, and suddenly you feel like you can figure out other things – like plate discipline perhaps?

    Of course, this is all subjective.

  22. shortbus on January 18th, 2013 12:08 pm

    I still think the plan might be to flip Morse at the deadline. Perhaps they attempt to extend him prior to the season first. Power being overvalued, there should be a buyer for Morse.

    The same may also be true of Morales.

    So I don’t necessarily need to believe this is a “win now” move. I think the team really values Morse over Jaso. Which, as you say, is troubling.

    If they do want to win many games, the team has one great need right now (besides catcher): a starting pitcher. The longer things go the more I believe Paxton is going to be genuinely competing for a job in spring training. Possibly Hultzen and Maurer as well. They can’t be planning for Noesi to start and probably would like for Beavan not to.

    The team now has three right-handed corner outfielders on the roster. I wonder if Wells won’t be traded for a back-end starter. I’d like to see it at this point since Wedge seems to just hate Wells.

  23. Badbadger on January 18th, 2013 12:25 pm

    I had a strong “Oh crap” reaction to this trade, but it was based mostly on wondering why in the heck we keep adding DHs.

    As far as age goes, Morse will be 31 in March and we’re only going to have him for a year. I don’t see age as much of a factor. Jaso isn’t a good defender and neither is Morse. Morse is probably a bit better of an offensive guy than Jaso. It’s true that we lost some years of team control in the trade, but overall it seems largely a lateral move to me. It doesn’t seem like it’s worth a lot of hand wringing to me.

    What I am most bitter about is the seeming lack of a coherent plan. Why didn’t we sign Swisher, who proved to be a lot more affordable than people thought? Sign Swisher, keep Wells as the fourth outfielder, and if you want to trade Jaso get a pitcher and/or maybe a reasonable AAA outfielder who could step in if Guti goes down.

    Swisher + Morales + advancement by the kids + fences moving in is probably a decent offense. Do that and sign a couple pitchers and you’re good to go.

  24. themojoworkin on January 18th, 2013 8:58 pm

    Might I propose that the master plan is

    1) Realistically they are not competing in 2013
    2) More financial flexibility in 2014 with the following coming off the books- Figgins ($8.9 million, Morse $7 million, Morales $5.3 million, Ibanez $2.75 million)
    3) 2013 to allow Guti, Saunders, Smoak, Montero, Ackley, Seager and the young pitchers declare themselves to some degree so that….
    4) With financial flexibility and a better idea of which of these guys are going to pan out and where the holes on the roster might be- an aggressive pursuit of a few free agents in 2014 with an eye to competing in 2014 and 2015 with one or two young pitchers, a handful of the above position players in #3 above panning out, and the roster holes augmented with a free agent or two?

    I’ve always been a conspiracy theorist…..

  25. eponymous coward on January 19th, 2013 12:22 am

    With financial flexibility and a better idea of which of these guys are going to pan out and where the holes on the roster might be- an aggressive pursuit of a few free agents in 2014 with an eye to competing in 2014 and 2015 with one or two young pitchers, a handful of the above position players in #3 above panning out, and the roster holes augmented with a free agent or two?

    I’ve heard many variations on this conspiracy theory for the last few years: “Oh, once (insert name of bad player with bad contract) is off the books, then we’ll REALLY see some moves!”

    At some point, doesn’t it make sense to just use Occam’s Razor here, that there is no deeper conspiracy, this is just what management thinks is best for the franchise right now?

  26. nathaniel dawson on January 20th, 2013 12:47 pm

    I’m not sure I see this move (or any other move the Mariners have made this winter) as a “win now” move…other than possibly a “win more than last year” move. I doubt the M’s see themselves as being in a situation this year of seriously competing for a playoff spot. Maybe if everything breaks right, certainly it could happen, but they’re probably not looking at it as a reasonable occurrence. Most likely, they feel the need to give their customers a more attractive product on the field, and that means improving run scoring at Safeco. They’re alienating their fanbase with their failings in recent years, and most of those fans identify lack of run scoring (specifically power) as the primary culprit. Get some home run hitters onto the field, maybe those fans will have more interest in watching games this year.

    @eponymous coward
    I think the more realistic assessment is Jack has (some figure for his budget), he couldn’t get Upton and other players, so he’s spending it like this, and this is what we get

    And that. He’s got money to spend, not many places he can spend it, and has to have something to show the fans and Front Office. He can’t go into the season with $10-20 MM dollars unspent and little (read: power hitters) to show for his efforts.

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