Mariners sell low, buy low in Morrison trade

triple! - Mike Stobe

The Mariners have traded flamethrowing reliever Carter Capps to Miami for pedigree'd first baseman Logan Morrison. Depending on how the rest of the offseason shakes out, this could be a nifty little move.

On the face of it, the Logan Morrison / Carter Capps trade is unbelievably Mariners. Selling low on a right-handed reliever with home run problems? Check. Acquiring one too many designated hitters, thereby forcing an incompetent and fragile defender into the outfield? Check. Giving a roster spot to a first baseman with the Justin Smoak high-BB mid-ISO low-BABIP skillset? Check.

But as much as it feels like we've seen this trade before (lookin' at you, Delabar / Thames), I honestly can't get all that worked up against it. For one thing, the offseason's not over, and there's no guarantee that the team will still have this many designated hitters when the Mariners Train pulls into Seattle Station next March. For two thing, Carter Capps doesn't exactly thrill me. For three thing, Logan Morrison's a good deal more interesting than your average scrap heap 1B. In fact, he compares pretty favorably to the Mariners' incumbent: Justin Smoak.

The comparison between the two is pretty obvious. Both were highly touted first base prospects, but both have struggled to hit for enough power to succeed in the major leagues. They're both first-year arbitration candidates with career WAR figures close to zero. They have similar plate discipline profiles and histories of minor injuries. But given the choice, I'd take Morrison every day of the week.

Before I start singing his praises, I should make something clear: I don't believe that Logan Morrison has the potential to turn into a true slugger. His average home run / fly ball distance is only 285.9 feet, eerily similar to one Justin Smoak's 286.6. My rough ISO estimator takes that figure and spits out a .175 xISO - conveniently, just below Morrison's career .178 line. Does he have power potential? Yes. Last year, Morrison hit a home run 465 feet and another one 445; Smoak didn't crack 425 all season and has only beaten the 430 mark once in his career. But he's not necessarily a guarantee to turn that potential into results any time soon. I wouldn't bet on him to eclipse his career home run rate in Safeco.

No, Morrison's interesting for another reason: his platoon splits. Unlike Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison actually has more than one season of competence against right-handed pitching. And unlike Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison has a chance at running a reasonable BABIP.

Player BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+
Smoak vR 12% 23.7% .169 .268 101
Smoak vL 9.1% 18.4% .138 .250 82
Morrison vR 11.7% 16.0% .195 .274 113
Morrison vL 9.6% 22.9% .134 .302 95

Yes, as has been noted before, Smoak's 2013 vR was a lot better than his other seasons, but (as has also been noted before) the improvement was all due to BABIP and HR/FB that looked to be based on no real spike in batted ball distance. Morrison, on the other hand, actually has better plate discipline against right-handed pitchers, and the combination of that and his higher ISO makes him a much more appealing platoon candidate.

Furthermore, Morrison's low career BABIP as a lefty doesn't seem as sustainable as Smoak's. Since 2010, Smoak has been baseball's ninth-worst baserunner. Morrison, on the other hand, has produced only very slightly negative value with his legs. Morrison has 16 career triples; Smoak has none. The difference in batted ball profile is likewise striking: Smoak's 12% career IFFB rate seriously outpaces Morrison's 9.9%, and Morrison keeps the ball on the ground much more often. Justin Smoak is exactly the kind of player you'd expect to run a terrible rate of hits on balls in play, but Logan Morrison's .274 lefty BABIP looks like a prime candidate for positive regression.

If properly handled by new manager Lloyd McClendon, Logan Morrison could be a perfectly capable platoon first baseman in the mold of Lucas Duda or Garrett JonesWe've been clamoring for the team to replace Smoak with a platooner all winter long, so this is a move with legitimate upside for the M's.

It helps that the piece they gave up to bring in Morrison was nothing more than reliever Carter Capps. Capps has serious upside, for sure, but he's also got some platoon splits of his own, and they're not the good kind. Is it possible that he figures out an offspeed pitch he can throw to lefties and turns into Steve Delabar? You bet. It's also possible that he Shawn Kelleys all over the place and keeps giving up dingers, or that he blows out his arm a la Stephen Pryor. He's an interesting reliever, but so far he hasn't been a good reliever, which is an important distinction.

Now, a lot is going to depend on how the Mariners' opening day roster shakes out. If Morrison's playing the outfield, that's going to shoot some of his value and expose him to additional injury risk. The Mariners tried this questionable-defensive-outfield thing last year, and it was a disaster. They shouldn't do it again. If Justin Smoak and Logan Morrison are both on the team in April, that's a problem.

But they don't have to be. The offseason isn't over, and first basemen are in high demand. The Mariners just nabbed Corey Hart from Milwaukee, who might now be looking to buy low. Tampa Bay is similarly bargain-hunting - and are reported to want a first baseman in a David Price trade. Given the state of the market, the Mariners should be able to turn Justin Smoak into something niftier than Carter Capps, perhaps even moving him as part of a package for a legitimate star. If they can pull that off, and avoid having three first basemen on their opening day roster, the Mariners will have done quite well in getting Logan Morrison for Carter Capps.

Also, they added a Logan. That's always nice.

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