Will Morse be a Horse? - Dilip Vishwanat
You probably assumed this already.
The most likely path for that to occur is for a mid-season trade to take place. If the Mariners aren't in a position to challenge for a playoff spot come July and Morse is hitting well, he could be an attractive trade target for other teams and might even result in a return value exceeding that of John Jaso.
Another opportunity could come about next winter should Morse hit free agency. Before that happens, the Mariners will have the opportunity to offer Morse a contract that qualifies them for draft pick compensation if he were to not accept.
It's way too early to speculate on whether the Mariners will or should do that. The answers to those questions depend hugely on how Morse performs in 2013. It is not too early however to establish the framework from which those decisions will be evaluated.
From the Mariners' perspective, I see it as a two-step decision tree. The first question to consider is whether Morse will accept such an offer. I'm operating under the assumption that a qualifying offer next winter will be in the range of $14 million per year. If the Mariners determine that Morse is unwilling to accept that offer, through any combination of factors, then they should offer it to him because they have nothing to lose and a valuable draft pick to gain.
It gets more complicated if they, realistically, figure that Morse might accept. Then they should proceed to the second question, is Morse accepting that offer a big enough risk to warrant not offering it?
That's not a straight up "is Morse worth it" question unless they think that Morse will accept the offer 100% of the time. Say the Mariners determine that Morse projects to be worth $13 million in 2014. Since the Mariners will have to, under this post's assumption, offer at least $14 million for 2014, they shouldn't offer that if they near enough knew that Morse would accept. But if there's a 50/50 chance he could decline, then it might be worth risking $1 million in negative value for the chance that he declines and nets them a draft pick worth more than that.
There's a chance that these end up easily answered questions by year's end. If Morse hits like 2011 again, then he'll almost certainly get a much more lucrative offer and his odds of accepting the offers are near 0%. If Morse gets injured again and misses significant time, then we can all be reasonably confident that Morse would accept any such offer and also that he wouldn't be worth it.
More likely is that it falls into that murky area where Morse might accept and might be worth it. I decided to find out about what level Morse would need to perform at in 2013 to make him worth having back on a qualifying offer contract in 2014.
I'm pegging the market rate at $5 million per win, so a $14 million contract needs about 28 runs in value to break even. I'm going to assume that if Morse misses any significant time in 2013 then this whole discussion is moot so the only way to get this far is if Morse gets north of 500 plate appearances. Therefore, I'm going to give him 18 runs for playing time.
Morse's baserunning is consistently bad and he rates below average by a couple runs per year, so I'm going to knock him three runs for that. I expect him to play some combination of LF, 1B and DH, all of which carry negative values for position scarcity. I'm dinging him another nine runs for that. Morse is now down to positive six runs.
The big demerit comes from the fielding. Not only does Morse play positions on the easiest side of the difficulty spectrum, but he plays them poorly to boot. Over the past three seasons, UZR/150 grades Morse at a whopping 15 runs below average. The Fans Scouting Report is less harsh, around 6.5 runs below (prorated out to a full season) and Sean Smith's system mostly agrees, coming in at 7.5 runs below average. I'm going to average all three systems and declare Morse about 10 runs worse than average at fielding.
That leaves Morse at negative four runs counting all but his bat. This is why Morse comes with big expectations for his batting skills. He offers almost nothing else of value to a baseball team and easily could be a below replacement level players if he doesn't hit well above average.
In this case, well above average requires about 30 runs of hitting value. That's a very high bar to clear. It is almost exactly what Morse did in 2011 in his wildly out of line career year. His park-adjusted wOBA is going to have to be in the .390 range. He's going to have to be the best-hitting Mariner since 2005 Richie Sexson.
You could theorize that he doesn't need to hit quite as well given that offense is still over valued by the league at large and that Morse's defensive short comings might not be well considered by Morse himself when it comes down to evaluating his own worth to the baseball market. If he puts up a .375 wOBA but with 25+ HRs, it wouldn't be outrageous for him to think he could beat a 1Y/$14M offer from the Mariners, even if his performance didn't support such a notion.
Before I ran through the numbers, I thought that Morse would have to hit well but not necessarily extraordinary well to be worth taking the risk on a qualifying offer for next year. I underestimated how much his poor base running and defense costs him. And don't forget that gets hurt frequently as well.
Only 20 or so hitters in all of baseball last year produced enough with their bat to get Morse, assuming the above, to the level of being worth a qualifying offer. I don't like the odds of it happening in 2013.