The Mariners Don’t Need To Extend Kendrys Morales
I’ve been planning on writing this post for a week or two now, as Kendrys Morales caught fire in May and is establishing himself as a bright spot in an otherwise miserable season, but then Shannon Drayer went and beat me to the punch. In an article entitled “Morales, Mariners a great fit; time to lock him up“, Drayer is active in her encouragement of the Mariners to engage Scott Boras in negotiations now and try to sign Morales before he hits free agency this winter. An excerpt:
Morales very well may be the guy to build around. At the very least, he could be an important building block. Don’t you have to take a run at that? Boras client or not?
Get him signed and put him on a banner alongside Felix’s in front of the gates to Safeco Field. This is the hitter they have been trying to find for a long time.
Morales has been excellent for the Mariners this year, no question. He has a 140 wRC+, a mark that would represent a career best if he could keep it up all year long. Other players who have been similarly productive hitters this year: Evan Longoria (144 wRC+), Jose Bautista (141 wRC+), and Prince Fielder (140 wRC+). Yeah, it’s driven a bit by a higher BABIP, and he probably won’t keep hitting at this level over the long haul, but he’s a good hitter who has shown marked improvement from the right side of the plate, which was a real concern heading into the year.
If Morales’ improvements against LHPs are part of a real trend — and Jeff gave us reasons to think that they might be, even before he stated crushing them this year — than it isn’t inconceivable to think that he might very well be headed towards a new, higher level of production. Maybe he’s not a 140 wRC+ guy, but 125-130 doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility given his contact rates, power, and development as a real switch-hitter.
So, yes, the Mariners should be interested in keeping Kendrys Morales. They don’t have enough good players, he fills a need, and it’s nice that he apparently has some interest in returning. However, I don’t think the Mariners need to be too aggressive in pursuing an in-season extension, because thanks to the way free agency works, the Mariners are going to have all the leverage in the world this winter.
Assuming Morales stays healthy and keeps hitting all year, the Mariners can make Kendrys Morales a “qualifying offer” equal to the average of the top 125 salaries in MLB, which will be approximately $14 million for 2014. By making Morales that offer, draft pick compensation will attach, and Morales’ stock as a free agent will take a very large hit. In fact, Morales is exactly the kind of player that this system penalizes the most.
For a recent example, simply look at what Washington did with Adam LaRoche last year. LaRoche and Morales are very similar players, and LaRoche was a star for Washington last year, putting up the best numbers of his career (including a 127 wRC+ and +3.4 WAR) while helping carry the Nationals to the playoffs. However, he was also a non-elite first baseman on the wrong side of 30 with a bit of spotty track record and some recent health issues. Sound like anyone else you know?
Morales has been a slightly better hitter than LaRoche throughout his career, but most of that is just park adjustments, which teams aren’t notoriously great at factoring in. From a raw numbers perspective, their career lines are almost identical:
Morales: .283/.335/.491, .353 wOBA
LaRoche: .267/.333/.481, .350 wOBA
Morales is a couple of years younger, but he’s also spent a lot more time on the DL and has the continuing ankle issues that will almost certainly scare any NL team away from a multi-year contract. LaRoche’s ability to play the field everyday cancels out any advantage you want to give Morales in terms of age or offensive ability. Morales is going to be viewed, as a free agent, in a very similar manner to how LaRoche was viewed.
And LaRoche was basically ignored once Washington made him the qualifying offer. Like Morales, he was advised by Scott Boras, and Boras took LaRoche to free agency looking for a three year deal, reportedly with a $36 million asking price attached. Because teams viewed LaRoche as a good-not-great player, they simply weren’t willing to give up a first round pick in order to sign him, especially not to a three year deal. The Nationals offered LaRoche 2/24 — because they wouldn’t have to give up a pick to re-sign him — and refused to budge all winter. Finally, Mike Rizzo just told him to take it or leave it.
“I think we both were getting tired of the process,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We had a lot of conversations back and forth with his representative. Adam and I had a few private conversations. … I made it clear to Adam that it’s time to get this thing done. Make a decision. Our offer is what it is. It’s been on the table for a while. It’s time to think of your options and pull the trigger if you want to be here.”
LaRoche took it because he had no other choice. There just wasn’t a market for his services once draft pick compensation was attached. And it wasn’t just LaRoche either. Nick Swisher — another similar offensive player, just with more defensive value — basically got stonewalled by teams who didn’t want to give up a first round pick to sign him, and eventually landed in Cleveland for a significant discount. Michael Bourn, a significantly better player than Morales, also ended up in Cleveland after no one wanted to pony up a first round pick to sign him. Kyle Lohse sat around until after opening day before finally settling for a modest deal with the Brewers.
Major League teams showed, en masse, that they weren’t giving up their first round pick for the right to sign guys who are slightly above average players. And, for as well as Morales is hitting right now, that’s what he is. He’s a good-not-great hitter who can’t run and who has to sign with an AL team in case his ankle flares up. He might be able to pitch himself as a part-time first baseman, but he’s still an AL only player at this point in his career. Combine that with draft pick compensation, and you have all the makings of a guy who just isn’t going to be a hot commodity this winter once the Mariners make him that qualifying offer.
He can probably do better than $14 million for one year, but the Mariners probably don’t need to do better than a two year deal at something in that AAV range in order to get him signed. If they decided to offer a third year, you can probably knock the AAV down closer to $10 or $11 million per year.
The M’s should want to re-sign Morales, but they should also know that they’ll probably be able to get him back for something like 2/25 or 3/33 if they let him reach free agency, and there’s no reason to give him that kind of money now when they can just wait until the end of the season and make sure he stays healthy before they make the commitment. If he wants the guaranteed money now, you get a discount for taking on the additional risk, so maybe the Mariners should be willing to re-sign Morales now for something like 2/20. If he was up for that, I’m in. Sign me up for 2/20 or 3/27 or something in that range right now.
Want some history to support that kind of offer? The Blue Jays signed Edwin Encarnacion to a 3/29 extension last July in the midst of his break-out year, and like Morales, Encarnacion is a DH who plays the field occasionally. He was also 29-years-old last year, so he even had a slight age advantage. His career line? .264/.344/.473. His first half wRC+ last year? 156. This is what the market has established as the price for this kind of player.
If he wants more than that, though, there’s no rush. The Mariners can simply keep him for the rest of the year, make him the qualifying offer, and then let him see what the market for his kind of player really is once draft pick compensation attaches. Boras loves to shoot for the moon and prefers to take his players to market, so trying to re-sign him now is unlikely to lead to any kind of discount, especially with Morales hitting as well as he has been lately. So, there shouldn’t be any sense of urgency here. Let him prove he can play first base regularly over the rest of the season. Let him show that his improvement against LHPs can be sustained over a full year. Let him stay healthy for an entire season.
The price isn’t going to go up that dramatically, because the Mariners have the hammer here. This is no longer a situation where the M’s have to re-sign him now or trade him away at the deadline before they “lose him for nothing”. Now, with the new free agent system, keeping a player you intend to make a qualifying offer to is a significant benefit, and the Mariners should be happy to take advantage of the leverage that offer will bring them.