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Youth Movement: Mike Morse

It's funny how Morse has become sort of the "forgotten" young Mariner position player, given that, when compared to Reed, Lopez, and Betancourt, he put up the best numbers at the plate by a fairly comfortable margin in 2005. A four-month sample of offense doesn't count for everything, though, and Morse will be the only one of the four scrambling for playing time this year (and beyond). When it comes to determining his future role, 2006 will be an important season for the positionless 24 year old, as anything short of two big steps forward (one with the bat, one with the glove) could result in his being labeled a bench bat for life, like Greg Dobbs the moment Justin Leone showed how much better he is. It's tough to put a guy as young as Morse in that kind of situation, but don't for one second believe that the pressure is on the organization. Mike's the one who has to prove he belongs.

Background: Ranked as the #7 shortstop prospect in Florida as a high school senior, Morse was a third round draft pick by the White Sox in 2000, but he didn't really pay immediate dividends - through 2003, he hit just .248 with 82 walks, all at or below high-A ball. Chicago kept on advancing him through the system, though, and their confidence finally paid off in 2004, when Morse slugged .536 with AA Birmingham before getting sent to Seattle as part of the Freddy Garcia trade. The transition to San Antonio didn't do anything to slow him down, as Morse continued to hit - although he had some problems with the big park, his OPS on the road in the Texas League (.845) was slightly higher than where it was in the Southern League (.835). The Mariners were pleased with his offense, but bad defense and a pair of suspensions lessened his status as a prospect. Nevertheless, Morse began 2005 in Tacoma and finished it in Seattle, where he was able to work around a third suspension in putting himself under consideration for a big league bench spot in 2006. He doesn't have a position and his power is conspicuously absent, but he hit enough line drives to look like he could help out a little bit, which is more than you can say for most of the other bench bats we've seen over the past few years.

Offense: Mike Morse's offensive value is almost entirely dependent on his power. He's not going to hit for a great average, he's never walked much, and there's nothing in his history to suggest that last year's 8 HBP's over a half season in the Majors were anything more than a fluke, so without his power, Morse has nothing. This much we can say with a high degree of certainty. What we can't say is that Morse's reputation as a power hitter comes from a few months of hot hitting in Birmingham. Observe:

Winstom-Salem, 2003: 39.6% of hits for extra bases
Birmingham, 2004: 41.7%
San Antonio, 2004: 39.5%
Tacoma, 2005: 39.1%

Although he did peak in the Southern League, that's still a pretty consistent percentage at four consecutive stops. The difference is that 44% of his extra-base hits went for homers in Birmingham, as opposed to 26% in the other three places (24% for his career). And that's the thing that screams "anomaly" to me. There's no indication in the rest of his statistical record that what he did over those two months represents his true level of ability. The fact that he carried over some of his gains into San Antonio suggests that it wasn't all luck and good bounces, but even then he was just splitting the middle. It's unlikely that Morse has as much power as you'd think by looking at his Birmingham line alone.

That's not as bad as it sounds, though, because knocking ~40% of your hits for extra bases is still pretty good (similar to Jose Lopez's rate), and the fact that Morse doesn't turn 24 until the end of Spring Training hints at the possibility of further power development. The potential is there for a few .270/.450 (BA/SLG) seasons in his prime, provided Safeco doesn't kill him, which is pretty useful.

What'll probably keep him from becoming a legitimate everyday member of the lineup, though, is that he's not that disciplined of a hitter. The best BB/K he's ever put up above Rookie Ball is 0.44, which would've ranked him 109th out of 148 qualified players in the Majors last year. His 0.36 figure in Seattle would've put him 128th. It's not that he sucks at making contact, either; while his strikeouts could stand to come down a bit, the real issue is that he's just not much of a walker. He's not a hacker like Betancourt, but he likes to swing, meaning that he's not putting the ball in play on driveable pitches as often as you'd like. It's the way he's been for his entire career and it's the way he's probably going to be for the rest of it, albeit with the expectation that he improves a little bit with experience. We're looking at a career OBP that's probably going to top out around 60 points higher than his BA, if that.

The thing that had a lot of us baffled last summer was the complete and total absence of Morse's power after getting promoted. It's not that he wasn't hitting homers - it's that he wasn't hitting doubles or triples, either. Nearly 80% of his hits were singles. He was making solid contact - his line drive rate was above the league average - but both line drive and singles rates are extremely volatile statistics, and that didn't bode well for Morse's sustained productivity as that kind of hitter. Sure enough, his numbers tanked after his first few weeks in Seattle. If I had to guess what the problem was, one possibility is that Morse just wasn't ready for the Show. His numbers in Tacoma were hardly noteworthy, so when he got bumped up another level, he might've started going to the plate with a different approach, just looking to make contact and get comfortable against ML pitching instead of trying to beat the crap out of everything. And it worked for a little while, until the pitchers started to figure out ways to beat him.

Another possibility (that's somewhat related to the first) is that Morse just wasn't seeing the same pitches with the Mariners as he was with the Rainiers. In AAA, pitchers aren't as good at working to specific parts of the strike zone as their ML counterparts, so even though Morse had his problems against them, he was still able to flash his power on balls left over the plate. Chances are he didn't see nearly as many of those in the Majors, where pitchers realized that he couldn't do too much damage on, say, balls on the black. It's the difference between being a complete hitter and being a mistake hitter - the former can smash anything, whereas the latter survives by destroying 3-1 fastballs and tends to struggle terribly against good pitching. Realizing that he wasn't going to get too many balls over the plate, Morse might've then changed his approach to become more of a line drive hitter instead.

These are just guesses. I can't say for sure why Morse turned into a singles hitter when he arrived in Seattle. However, that's in the past, and I'm pretty comfortable in saying that it's unlikely to continue much longer. Very rarely do guys with power profiles in the minors turn into completely different hitters in the big leagues, and there's no real reason to believe that Morse will be an exception. Whether it's just a matter of getting comfortable, gaining experience, or something else, Morse will hit for some power if given the opportunity.

So we have a guy who stands a reasonable chance of being a .760-.780 OPS hitter in his prime. How come he get so little attention when it comes to talking about future Mariner teams?

I'll tell you why.

Defense: Shield your eyes. Mike Morse has been a bad shortstop for a long time. Drafted by the White Sox with nine other shortstops, Morse is the one who remained at the position the longest, but don't let that fool you. His arm is strong and accurate and he can look fluid on easy plays, but his hands are only okay, and his range sucks. As a little evidence, let's see what the publicly available metrics have to say about his defense with the Mariners last year:

Prospectus FRAA: -24.5 runs/150 games
David Gassko's Range: -21.8 runs/150 games
David Pinto's PMR: -24.2 runs/150 games

(No UZR available.)

That's positively Jeter-esque. And don't think the organization doesn't know it, either - there's a reason he's started taking fly balls in the outfield. When someone moves 4-5 spots leftward on the defensive spectrum before his 24th birthday, you know you're talking about a guy who's less than gifted with the glove. There's just no evidence that Morse is anything better than a totally awful shortstop.

I don't want it to sound like I'm blaming Morse for this, because it's really not his fault that he sucks as a shortstop. According to pretty much everything I've ever read, he's worked hard to improve his glove his entire career, but even if he got to the point where he could catch everything hit in his direction, he still wouldn't be very good, because he isn't able to get to too many balls on either side. You can't develop range. The kid's 6'4, for chrissakes, and according to Mike Hargrove he's even bigger now than he was in September. Morse just wasn't born to be a Gold Glove infielder.

So by now you see the problem. Morse doesn't have the ability to play a premium position without killing the team in the field, but his bat probably won't be good enough to carry him in an outfield corner, especially since he's not likely to become an asset with the glove in LF or RF, either. Classic tweener. If Morse wants to become anything more than a utility player off the bench, he's going to need his bat to take off.

Other Stuff: Did you know that Mike Morse has been suspended? Three times? Me too. That kind of record is obviously a little less than becoming, but I don't think it's really that big of a deal - Morse isn't the only guy in the league (or the organization) who's ever taken steroids, he was just dumb enough to get caught (a few times). He responded to his most recent suspension very well, so I'm not particularly concerned going forward. And hey, if popping pills and taking shots gets him back to where he was in Birmingham, then by all means, Mike, shoot up.

There's really not much more to mention in this section. Morse is a former quarterback and a good athlete, so while he's not much of a threat on the basepaths, and while his lateral motion may be subpar, he should be able to keep himself in shape and avoid going on the DL with avoidable injuries. Just look at the recent reports about how he's come out of the winter looking leaner and meaner for proof. It's also worth mentioning that only one of Morse's PECOTA comps pegs him to be a consistently productive hitter (Joe Adcock) throughout his career. The more likely ceiling would be someone like Jermaine Dye, who's #4 on the list, although I highly doubt that Morse ever has a season anywhere close to Dye's 2000.

("Brief") Summary: It's hard to believe that Morse doesn't turn 24 for another month. I'm not sure why that is, exactly, but it probably has something to do with the fact that so many people hardly consider him much of a prospect anymore, even though he's still young enough to make substantial gains before reaching his prime. And that seems a little unfair, but then when you think about it, how good of a prospect can a guy really be when he doesn't play well at any position when he's already essentially 24 years old? Morse had better make those substantial gains, because he isn't going to get any help from his glove, and right now his bat doesn't look good enough to make him the kind of player you'd like to see get 400-500 AB's.

That said, I like the pop in Morse's bat that he showed in the minors, and assuming that it does eventually make the transition into the big leagues, that alone should make him a reasonably useful player, even if he doesn't start. Certainly a hell of a lot more useful than Greg Dobbs, anyway. A .260/.310/.420 bat on the bench capable of offering emergency depth at a few different positions is something every team could find room for - at least as long as they avoid the friggin' seven-man bullpen - and I think that's well within Morse's grasp, in that I'd be surprised if he never got there. He might not be there yet, as I'm not convinced that he was ready for the Majors last summer, but he should be soon, and at 24, there's still enough upside to make Morse an interesting player to watch.