Do The Mariners Need To Extend A First Baseman?

congrats, you don't totally suck - USA TODAY Sports

Do you know anything about the 2014-2015 market for first basemen? If not, consider yourself lucky, because it is the worst thing since the 2010 Mariners.

I wasn't going to write this article. I was going to write an article about the Mariners' plate discipline, or about Tom Wilhelmsen's strikeout issues, or about Dustin Ackley's legs. One of those things. In a way, I feel kind of guilty about that: I've had poor Stephen make me like nine different GIFs over the last five days, each of them intended for use in one of those other articles, and this post won't include any of them. Sorry, Stephen. Next week. I promise.

But sometimes I'm walking around, checking LL on my phone, and I notice that people are already beating all of my article ideas to death in the Game Threads. And sometimes I'm sitting at my laptop, and random inspiration strikes, and I just have to write something. And sometimes both of those things happen at once! And when that happens, I write an article about the Mariners' first base situation, because that gives me lots of joy.

Actually, no, it doesn't. The Mariners' first base situation blows chunks.

Here's the thing. Justin Smoak is probably not good enough to be the starting first baseman on a truly competitive major league baseball team. Some of the things that he's done this season have been encouraging - I dig the extra walks and the improved plate discipline overall, and a 101 wRC+ isn't bad - but in the long term, his skill set just doesn't portend success. Even with his improved walk rates, Smoak will never be even league average unless he suddenly starts hitting the ball harder than he ever has before (ISO over .200) or suddenly stops striking out (K% well under 20%). Right now, without any big ISO or K% improvement, his ceiling looks to be Lyle Overbay. That's not a happy place for a first baseman to be.

If the Mariners want to contend in 2014 and 2015, they probably can't put up with a first baseman whose ceiling is Lyle Overbay. Smoak is a mildly interesting depth piece, and there's a place for him in the major leagues, but this is not a guy who's part of the core long-term. This is a guy whom the Mariners should be looking to replace.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that that replacement will come from within the system. The Mariners' closest 1B prospect is AAA first baseman Rich Poythress, who is approaching 26 and doesn't appear to have much of any power. After that there are some very fringy guys like Dan Paolini and Vinnie Catricala. Ji-Man Choi is interesting, but he can't stay healthy. Taylor Ard and Patrick Kivlehan from the 2012 draft are multiple years away. So if the Mariners want to have a real first baseman in 2014 and 2015, they're going to have to go outside the org.

The problem - and the biggest reason why I disagree with those who reject the idea of a Morse extension out of hand - is that all of the available first basemen suck. You think I'm exaggerating? I'm not. Here are the 2014 free agents at first base, next to their wRC+es over the last calendar year:

Name wRC+ Comment
Corey Hart 127 on 60-day DL with knee injury, likely to re-sign with Milwaukee
Mike Napoli 114 has a degenerative hip condition
Kevin Youkilis 107 power (and walks) rapidly eroding
Justin Morneau 109 old, concussed, and bad
Paul Konerko 105 never leaving Chicago ever
Mark Reynolds 125 32.3% career strikeout rate, awful defense, lucky 2013 so far
Adam Lind 125 lefty platooner, Toronto has a team option if he's any good
Lyle Overbay 89 imagine Smoak, but older and worse
Carlos Pena 91 at least the strikeouts didn't decline?
James Loney 94 the Rays' latest single-season 1B mirage
Todd Helton 89 literally disintegrating from old age
Casey Kotchman 69 because this worked out so well last time
Xavier Nady 52 blocked by Eric Hosmer and Jeff Francouer
Eric Hinske 33 undead
Michael Morse 118 already on the team
Kendrys Morales 119 already on the team

Um. Well. Maybe the Mariners can make do with a stopgap for one year, and then sign someone in 2015?

Here's the 2015 class:

Name wRC+ Comment
Billy Butler 139 KC has a team option; if they don't use it I will eat my desk
Adam LaRoche 110 will be 35, has been good exactly once in last four years
Michael Cuddyer 117 will be 36, coming off injuries and playing in Coors
Ty Wigginton who cares seriously, come on

And it's not like there's anyone to trade for, either. Teams have cottoned on to the relative scarcity of first basemen and have been locking them up like there's no tomorrow. Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Allen Craig, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Nick Swisher, Albert Pujols, Edwin Encarnacion, Adrian Gonzalez, and Mark Teixeira are all locked up on fairly recently inked big contracts and are going nowhere.

After the big-contract guys, there's a mixed bag of other unavailable or unappetizing options. Brandon Belt, Mark Trumbo and Freddie Freeman are young, cheap, and pretty good players on ballclubs in "win now" mode - they aren't moving. Mitch Moreland, Chris Davis, and Brandon Moss are fringy guys who likely won't maintain their recent hot streaks. The Pirates' Garret Jones is still kinda interesting, but he's strictly a platoon player. Yonder Alonso of the Padres and Matt Adams of the Cardinals might possibly be available, but they're no great shakes.

Even the minor leagues don't offer any relief. Baseball America's Top 100 prospects contains two first basemen: Texas' Mike Olt, who is really a 3B, and Houston's untouchable Jonathan Singleton. SBNation's own John Sickels is a little more generous, adding Dan Vogelbach and Adams to his list, but both fall in the 100-150 range. So don't expect the Mariners to be able to get another Justin Smoak.

In short: there are no other options. In retrospect, it seems like one of the reasons the Mariners acquired Morales and Morse was that they knew they weren't going to get any other first base targets in 2014 and 2015. Extending at least one of these guys is going to be important to the team's success in the next two years, because while there are a lot of outfielders out there for the signing, the first base market is bone dry. And the Mariners can't really afford to keep running Smoak and Montero out there as the 1B/DH tandem. Not if they want to win now.

It doesn't need to be a big, long-term extension. This year's draft is fairly deep in good-hitting corner infielders, and the Mariners should be able to snag one with the 12th overall - maybe even Colin Moran, AAA lefty reliever Brian's brother from UNC. But none of this year's draftees are going to get to the major leagues in the next two years, and neither are any good free agents. The Mariners need to keep Morales or Morse around, because the alternative is pretty much just Smoak.

But which one to extend?

On Extending Michael Morse

The question with Michael Morse isn't whether or not he can be extended, it's whether or not he should be. Everyone seems to agree that Morse is amenable to staying in Seattle. He likes rain, and he likes proving himself in front of the audience that he first failed in front of. The issue, though, is his age. Morse is (EDIT 5/17/13: I can't count) 31, he'll be 32 next season, and he relies almost entirely on power to succeed. He is terrible at pretty much everything else. Here's the aging curve for ISO, courtesy of Fangraphs author Eno Sarris (via cdn.fangraphs.com):

Hitter_isoaging_medium

Morse is way on the wrong side of the peak. What happens to a guy whose game is built entirely around power, when his power starts to go? Do you remember Richie Sexson? Do you remember how old he was when he flamed out?

OK, perhaps that's unfair. After all, there've been other power-only players, huge guys with strength and little else on their side. Richie's not the only one. How have the others aged? To find out, I downloaded an enormous Fangraphs spreadsheet. I selected every player who'd consistently posted seasons with a walk rate below 8%, a strikeout rate between 20% and 25%, an ISO over .200, and negative baserunning value. Surprisingly, there were not very many.

Screen_shot_2013-05-17_at_6

That's twenty-one different guys. A few, like Kevin Reimer and Russ Davis, are sort of fringe cases who approached the cutoffs to qualify for the list only once. Using Sammy Sosa is kind of cheating, because Sammy Sosa was kind of cheating, but he didn't start taking walks until very late in his career so I don't feel it's too unjustified.

Here they are again at age 33:

Screen_shot_2013-05-17_at_6

At 34:

Screen_shot_2013-05-17_at_6

At 35:

Screen_shot_2013-05-17_at_6

Finally, at 36:

Screen_shot_2013-05-17_at_6

Basically, what we see is that those sluggers who managed to make it to age 32 without collapsing had a pretty good track record of staying productive. Of the 21 initial Morse-like hitters, 4 flamed out before age 32. Of the 17 who made it to the age Morse is now, 11 were still getting playing time in the majors at 33, and the group averaged a remarkably productive line, averaging a .219 ISO and a 110 wRC+. 6 of the 11 made it to age 34, and all of those six but one was still around at age 36.

So the precedent for Michael Morse isn't as disastrous as comparing him to Richie Sexson would have you believe. Morse has already done himself a favor by defying the ISO aging curve somewhat, posting his best full-season power numbers at age 29 and displaying some power so far this season at age 31. There's not no chance that he'll stick around as a productive hitter through age 35 or 36; in fact, I'd peg it at about one in three. But there's not much precedent for hitters like Morse in the majors, so a small sample size of comparisons doesn't really tell us much about Morse himself. Really, the Mariners are going to have to do some evaluating - scouting - and figure out how Morse will age. Then they'll make the call.

It's not a terrible idea. A lot depends on the money, of course (anything above 3/30 or so starts to be unpalatable), but it's not a terrible idea.

Can you tell I'm trying to talk myself into it?

On Extending Kendrys Morales

The question with Kendrys Morales isn't whether or not he should be extended, it's whether or not he can be. Morales' agent is Scott Boras, who traditionally takes all of his clients to free agency because he feels (almost always correctly) that there's more money there than there is in extensions. But I think there's reason to believe Boras might be changing his ways. The Kyle Lohse and Michael Bourn qualifying offer debacles this past year may have convinced Boras that free agency isn't always the best way any more, especially for fringe Qualifying Offer candidates. Carlos Gomez, for instance, just signed an extension with the Brewers.

If Morales doesn't extend during the regular season, the Mariners could give him a qualifying offer. It's probably still a bit of an overpay for him, but that's actually desirable in this case. If Morales were to decline the qualifying offer, with the loss of a draft pick attached to him few teams would be willing to offer him the kind of money Boras will be looking for, leaving the Mariners at the top of the market. If he were to accept... oh darn, the Mariners just overpaid by Raul Ibanez to sign one of the only two non-terrible non-injured first basemen on the market. What a drag.

In terms of performance, it's an interesting comparison. Morales' ankle issues render him a little more fragile than Morse, and managers have repeatedly shown a strong tendency to DH him for fear of aggravating his previous injuries. That's a mark against him, since the Mariners need a 1B more than they need a DH. And while Morales may be a year younger than Morse, and thus further left on that aging curve... from age 29 to 35, the curve is basically a straight line. And Morse is starting from a higher ISO. It's not like the curve thinks they'll decline at wildly different rates from here on in. On the other hand, he's better at several things, including plate discipline (his O-Swing% improvements this year are intriguing).

All else being equal, I think I'd rather have Morales. The age makes a big difference, it's nice that he doesn't strike out a quarter of the time, and his plate discipline changes interest me. But I wouldn't much rather have Morales.

Gun to my head, I'd say that the Mariners are going to extend Michael Morse pretty soon. They made a big show of his power and personality this spring, and he's wormed his way into the hearts of the fanbase with ten home runs already, and he seems more open to sticking around. Also, his agent doesn't drink smoothies made of money and baby seal meat. He'll get something that probably makes you slightly uncomfortable. 3/40, say.

But you shouldn't freak out when that happens, because there really isn't any good alternative. The paucity of good minor league first basemen and not-locked-up major league first basemen has created a market in which the two best options are the two already on the team, and there's some value in not letting them hit free agency and thus avoiding playing Justin Smoak Roulette. An overpaid bird in the hand is better than an underpaid but also terrible bird in the bush.

Or, if you prefer, a couplet:

It's OK to overpay

when the other option's Overbay.

...Shut up.

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