Rethinking the Qualifying Offer for Kendrys Morales
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.
Here are Morales’ numbers from when I wrote that post, and then what he’s done since.
That “higher BABIP” that was referenced in the post has regressed by 40 points, and while his home run rate is similar, his doubles have been drastically reduced as well, leading to significantly lower power output. Over the last couple of months, Kendrys Morales just hasn’t been very good, and that post serves as a nifty reminder of the dangers of assuming that players have made significant improvements on the basis of 250 good at-bats. For the first two months of the season, Morales looked really good, and then ever since, he’s performed below his career norms. There were reasons to think that maybe Morales was getting better, but he’s basically taken the legs out of that argument since the beginning of June.
So, now, we’re left with Kendrys Morales looking an awful lot like Kendrys Morales. Over the whole season, his wRC+ is 120, almost exactly even with the 118 he put up last year, and right in line with his 118 career wRC+. His numbers look even more similar to his career totals when you break down the components.
The power is down a little bit and could be expected to tick upwards before the season ends, but that’s basically offset by the fact that his BABIP is still a little higher than usual. Overall, his numbers are almost exactly what you’d expect from a 30-year-old Kendrys Morales, and right in line with what the pre-season forecasts suggested he was likely to do this season. So, rather than having a new and improved Kendrys Morales, the Mariners look like they just have regular old Kendrys Morales, and regular old Kendrys Morales isn’t good enough to be worth the qualifying offer.
As noted in the post from a few months back, making a free agent a qualifying offer means that the team is committed to an offer equal to the average of the 125 highest salaries in baseball that year, which is expected to come out at around $14 million for 2014; it was $13.3 million this year, so it will go up a little bit. The offer doesn’t have to be accepted, but if the Mariners made Morales the qualifying offer, he’d have seven days to evaluate his options in the free agent market before deciding whether or not to take 1/14 instead of what he thinks he could get from another team. Another team that also would have to forfeit a draft pick in order to outbid the qualifying offer.
Put simply, that isn’t happening. In the quoted post, I compared Morales’ situation to Adam LaRoche a year ago, but Morales’ 2013 simply doesn’t measure up to LaRoche’s 2012. LaRoche is considered a terrific defensive first baseman, and he outhit Morales while also spending the entire year playing the field, meaning that his skills theoretically appealed to all 30 clubs. Morales proved, once again, that he’s strictly a DH and emergency first baseman, and he would only solicit offers from AL clubs. The fact that half the league wouldn’t even bother making a bid would significantly hurt his value, and that’s before we get into the draft pick issue.
So, if the Mariners make Kendrys Morales a qualifying offer, they have to do so with every expectation that he’d accept it. And realistically, there are better ways to spend $14 million of the 2014 budget.
For his career, Morales has been worth +1.7 WAR per 600 plate appearances, and that’s with a positive fielding rating from his time at first base. As a DH who provides no real defensive value, Morales is more of a +1 WAR player. I know some people think it’s sacrilege to suggest that a pretty good major league hitter isn’t actually all that valuable, but as the 2013 Mariners have fabulously demonstrated, there’s more to to winning games than assembling a line-up of guys who can swing the stick and suck at everything else. And let’s be clear: Morales is completely useless at every part of baseball that isn’t hitting.
Specifically, Morales’ baserunning is absolutely atrocious. This is the kind of thing that doesn’t get talked about much, because no one really expects much speed from their DH, but there’s still a minimum level of competency expected from a Major League player on the bases, and Morales fails to meet even that low standard.
For his career, Kendrys Morales has attempted 16 stolen bases; he’s been successful on just four of those 16 attempts. A 25% stolen base rate is hilariously bad, and thankfully, he’s stopped trying to steal, as he hasn’t run once this year. But baserunning is more than just stolen base attempts, and at FanGraphs, we track Ultimate Baserunning (or UBR for short), which evaluates a player in runs above or below average based on how often he does things like advancing from first to third on a single, scoring from second base on a base hit, tagging up on a fly ball to the outfield, etc…
By UBR, Morales has been the 5th worst baserunner in the game this year, producing 4.5 fewer runs on the bases than an average baserunner. The only players worse than Morales: Paul Konerko (old DH), Allan Craig (slow-footed 1B), Victor Martinez (old DH), and Jonathan LuCroy (catcher). Justin Smoak is 6th, by the way, right behind Morales. This is the domain of non-athletes who run about as well as the average fan attending the game, and this is one of the reasons why a team full of DHs won’t score as many runs as you might think just from looking at their batting lines.
And no, I’m not just picking on some flukey number that makes Morales look worse than he actually is. Since his rookie season of 2006, Morales’ -28.2 UBR is the 8th worst in baseball. But here’s the amazing thing: that stretch includes a ton of time on the disabled list, and everyone else in the top 10 has at least 4,000 plate appearances since 2006, while Morales has fewer than 2,300. Seriously, look at the list and note the PA discrepancy.
I’ve included a rate stat of UBR per 600 PAs as a comparison, and as you can see, no one is even really all that close to Morales in negative baserunning value per plate appearance. Even Jesus Montero, the guy who needed a running coach because he simply doesn’t know how to put one leg in front of the other, has posted a -6.6 UBR in 732 big league plate appearances. Montero was a better baserunner in his first year in the big leagues than Morales has been over his entire career.
And it’s not like he’s going to get any better at this as he gets older. He’s only going to get slower, and there’s not really much reason to believe that this could be mitigated in the future. Kendrys Morales is a terrible baserunner even relative to other DHs, and it takes away from his value as a player.
Toss in the lack of defensive value, and Morales is the epitome of a bat-only player. For a guy to create the entirety of his value at the plate and provide significant value, he has to really be a terrific hitter. Those guys exist, certainly, as David Ortiz and Prince Fielder have been very good big leaguers while also being terrible baserunners and providing nothing of use on defense. But Kendrys Morales is not David Ortiz or Prince Fielder. He has the same career wRC+ as Mike Carp. Mike Carp’s bat with even less defense and league-worst baserunning is not something you spend $14 million on, not even for just one year.
Morales isn’t without use, and I wouldn’t suggest that the Mariners just cut him loose without making an offer to re-sign him. But that offer shouldn’t be a $14 million offer. $14 million should buy you a lot more than a mediocre DH on the wrong side of 30. I think at this point, realistically, Morales is probably worth something like $8 or $9 million for one year, maybe with some kind of vesting option for a second year if he wants a chance to play his way into a guarantee for 2015. He’s a better player than Mark Reynolds, who got $6 million from the Indians last winter, and the lack of good hitters in free agency will serve to drive his price up closer to $10 million, especially if he agrees to settle on a one year deal.
But the qualifying offer should be off the table at this point. Morales isn’t a $14 million player, and they shouldn’t be interested in him at that price. No one else is giving him $14 million for 2014, and even if the Mariners really want him back, they should simply let him hit free agency and let the market tell Scott Boras what it thinks of aging DHs who can’t run. And if some team out there wants to give him a two or three year contract, let him walk. His skillset is not that hard to find, and there’s no reason to pay a premium to get it in a certain package.