Kendrys Morales, and Missed Opportunities

Kelvin Kuo-US PRESSWIRE

Did the Rays miss out on trading for Kendrys Morales?

The signing of Fausto Roberto Hernandez has returned the Rays to their coveted 8-man deep pitching rotation and allows flexibility to pursue a Designated Hitter through another team, as opposed to the limited, affordable, quality options in free agency.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to make a trade is significantly hindered by remaining free agents.

The Rays could request Mike Morse from the Nationals, but only if Washington re-signs Adam LaRoche - who has suitors in Texas and Baltimore, but is limited in free agency because he declined a qualifying offer from Washington, tying him to draft pick compensation. Pursuing other trade options (like Mike Olt in Texas) is highly dependent on where other players land that have declined their own qualifying offers, like LaRoche, Nick Swisher, or Michael Bourn. It's a long and arduous process to wait out the market, and one the Rays deal with every offseason.

To avoid this waiting game, a player who could easily have been acquired was Kendrys Morales, who was traded to Seattle for Jason Vargas yesterday afternoon. The availability of the switch-hitting slugger had drawn the attention of the baseball world, but now that he has been moved for a considerably low cost, it's easy to assume this was a missed opportunity.

Angels High On Hitters

Thanks to the Hamilton signing, the Angels had a logjam on their depth chart. Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales were all capable at first base, while Hamilton, Peter Bourjous, Mike Trout, Vernon Wells, and the aforementioned Trumbo were available in the outfield. In other words, seven players vying for five positions (OF, 1B, DH).

You can place Pujols, Hamilton, and Trout as mainstays in the batting order. From there, two players you can mark in pencil are Trumbo - who has the most value, thanks to his defensive flexibility, his slugging capabilities, and the fact he doesn't reach free agency until 2017 - and Peter Bourjous, a plus defender in a cavernous pitcher's park.

The Angels have plenty of offense, but still need security in their pitching rotation and bullpen. Assuming the Rays are not in the market to trade one of their better starting pitchers for Trumbo or Bourjous, this left Wells and Morales for their consideration.

Wells is attached to a monster contract that the Angels will have to absorb to move him anywhere. While Los Angeles could cut ties and let him walk (read: Jason Bay), there's potential for Wells to return value if the Angels pay the majority of his $42 mil over the next two seasons. I would expect a bullpen piece could net Wells for next to nothing, but the 34-year old former star has not been a productive player since 2010, so... pass. Heck, I'd wager he has less value in a pitcher's park than Sam Fuld.

Morales - a 1B/DH switch hitter with one year of arbitration remaining that excels against RHP, and a player the Rays have been connected to twice: last winter and last July - is now a Mariner. It was an easy move for the Angels, acquiring one year of an innings eater, while Seattle ships out a fly-ball pitcher for a slugger, before moving their fences in. But did Tampa Bay lose out on their best chance at DH? Few teams will prove so willing to move a quality slugger cheaply.

This next statement is somewhat dependent on Adam LaRoche returning to the Nationals for 2013, but may I submit that the boat has not yet sailed on trading for Michael Morse.

Morse vs. Morales

Compare Kendrys Morales to Michael Morse. Both players slot in at 1B or DH, have one year remaining at approximately $6MM, and have had very similar numbers since 2009 (h/t Sandy Kazmir, who beat me to the punch):

Player PA HR BA OBP SLG wOBA WAR
Morales 1355 67 0.290 0.340 0.516 0.364 6.5
Morse 1353 69 0.294 0.343 0.514 0.369 5.1

Overall, Morse has the slightest edge, except in WAR - but that difference can be easily explained by defense, and a first baseman being forced to play the outfield. After playing with some simple WAR calculators, it would appear that slotting Morse at 1B with average defense over that time period is worth 6+ WAR, matching Morales again.

To look at recent production, Morales and Morse even posted similar numbers in 2012:

Player PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Morales 522 5.90% 22.20% 0.194 0.315 0.273 0.320 0.467 0.339 118
Morse 430 3.70% 22.60% 0.180 0.339 0.291 0.321 0.470 0.340 113

Morse was battling injury last season, including wrist problems late in the year that limited his playing time, and Morales has not been the same player since his freak-accident leg injury in 2010, but neither player fell far from his potential.

Continuing the trend, Bill James's projections match the players again in 2013:

Player PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Morales 521 6.10% 18.60% 0.205 0.314 0.284 0.332 0.489 0.352
Morse 515 5.80% 20.40% 0.206 0.336 0.295 0.342 0.501 0.360

It is worth noting that Morse has spent the significant portion of his career in a neutral park with the Nationals, while Morales played 2009 in a neutral park similar to Washington's, and then recorded two seasons in a pitcher's park. At face value, Morales should produce similar numbers in the Trop than Morse would; however, Morse may still have the advantage when park factors are eliminated.

Consider OPS+, where Morales has averaged 129.7 OPS+ in three seasons since 2009, while Morse has averaged only 123.25. The difference is Morse's 101 OPS+ in 2009 when he played a small sample of only 52 AB's. Removing that year, Morse has averaged 130.7 OPS+ in his three most recent seasons, including the injury laden 2012 which produced only 112 OPS+.

Beyond that, Morse has a tick higher ISO to his name and the ability to play the outfield, but again, don't let that second item fool you. Morse's fielding was so poor in 2012 that his WAR was barely above replacement. Regardless, defense should be a wash. Both players are serviceable at first base, and would spend most of their time at DH on a Rays roster. If anything, Morse on a Rays roster would boost his WAR potential.

Either player is not without their injury concerns. Morse sustained a right lat injury that put him on the disabled list before last season, then late August wrist problems (two contusions on his right hand in the final two weeks of the season) and a torn cuff in his left wrist during the post-season side lined him during the Nats playoff run. If Morse is not recovering well, this may explain Washington's continued interest in LaRoche.

Should the elder first baseman re-sign with the Nationals, the Rays will have serious potential to trade with DC for next to nothing (a bullpen piece or a B-level prospect should do), and secure the Rays gaping hole at DH, assuming Morse's injury concerns are behind him. If so, Michael Morse seems to have an advantage over what "could have been" with Morales.

Other Considerations

If you are still upset the Rays passed on Morales, consider the price tag. Ken Rosenthal reported the Angels were in the market for an innings eater in exchange for Kendrys Morales. Tampa Bay had little to offer in this regard, with only two years of Jeff Niemann for Kendrys Morales being plausible, which may have been an even exchange of injury risk. The Big Nyquill lasted only 38 innings in 2012 and 135.1 innings in 2011, but he carried his share in the two years he was healthy, with 174.1 IP in 2010, and 180.2 IP in 2009. The contract differences between would not have made an even trade. The Rays could have asked for another piece in return, but the Angels seemed keen on an even swap to maintain their prospects.

However, losing out on two years of Niemann for a lotto ticket and one year of a recently injured slugger would not have been the Rays way, lest we forget Andrew Friedman's words on pitching depth:

"The one thing that we're very wary of is waking up one day and not being able to fill out a rotation in the American League East."

Meanwhile, Michael Morse is still a poor-man's Morales (poor in trade value, not contract status - which projects to differ by approx. $1MM). He may even out perform Morales in 2013. Watch the Adam LaRoche situation closely. The Rays may not have Morales, but they have not missed a beat on the DH market.

***

Side Note: If the Angels had been willing to trade Mark Trumbo, the Rays didn't stand a chance. There were no missed opportunities there.

Had the Rays entered the fray on Trumbo, the bidding would have escalated quickly. By my quick estimation, this means the Marlins (Ricky Nolasco), Orioles (Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton), Rockies (Jhoulys Chacin, Drew Pomeranz), and Braves (Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran) would each have their own offers for the slugging 26-year old.

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