Earlier this off-season I wrote this article on the back of one, strong belief. The Seattle Mariners would trade from their stockpile of arms to acquire bats for the 2013 season. While Jason Vargas was not the player I had in mind when I fabricated that thought, his name has been on the ‘chopping block’ since the revised fence dimensions were announced following the 2012 season.
On Wednesday the Seattle Mariners surprised few when it was announced that starting pitcher Jason Vargas had been dealt to the Los Angeles Angels for viable 29-year-old slugger Kendrys Morales.
Vargas should be applauded for his efforts in Seattle. Dating back to the 2010 season the left hander is 23rd overall in innings pitched (611); sandwiched between Cy-Young winner Tim Lincecum (615.1) and Red Sox ace Jon Lester (605). Let’s have one last ‘Viva La Vargas’ moment….
Viva La Vargas
And move on to the next chapter in Seattle Mariners baseball, with an offense anchored by a re-vamped Morales, returning from a leg injury that cost him part of 2010 and his 2011 season.
On May 29, 2010 Morales had just blasted his 56th hit of the early season, it just so happened to be a walk-off grand slam at none other than Safeco Field. He projected to be on his way to a second consecutive 30+ home run season but it would be his last professional at-bat until April 6, 2012. The Angels slugger would suffer a fractured left leg upon touching home plate, injuring his lower leg during walk-off celebrations.
Into September, as Morales missed his 100th game, the team stayed positive of his progress. Manager Mike Scioscia said of his eventual presence back on the diamond, ““That’s like signing as big of a free agent there is.”
It was not until Morales failed to take the field in Spring Training to open the 2011 season that the situation went from worrisome to potentially career altering. Despite being listed as “day-to-day” by Angels General Manager Tony Reagins and MRIs revealing no structural damage, there was clearly something holding the Cuban slugger back. It would come to light that the first baseman was dealing with an ample amount of swelling in his left foot, setting back his progress indefinitely. Unable to participate in higher intensity rehabilitation drills the club could not clearly evaluate the severity of the injury in relation to baseball.
The 2011 season would pass with Morales making as little as a minor league appearance as he continued to battle his injuries. The message during the following off-season was much of the same from the Angels front office. Manager Mike Scioscia relaying the following, “"Last year, we had such a confidence that he was coming back that I think we want to just tread lightly on this one and make sure that he's along before you start to get excited about it.”
Morales did pull through and opened the 2012 season at DH, taking the field for the first-time alongside teammate and first baseman Albert Pujols. With his left leg under the microscopic watch of Major League baseball, he did little in April to cement his leg was ready to support his powerful swing, sending just one home run into the stands. Morales would tally just eight home runs entering All-Star weekend. While his .289 batting average was a sign that baseball still lived inside the 6-foot-1 first baseman, undoubtedly his largest value comes via his ability to hit the long ball.
Suffering a power outage, knocking just one extra base hit in his prior 67 plate appearances, the former Los Angeles home run king decided to return to a familiar plate approach, “"I've done it in the past, and it worked," Morales said through an interpreter. "I get a better feeling of tightening my hands. I get a better grip on the bat.”
That approach, losing his batting gloves. The results were immediate.
Morales would slug two home runs that night (July 30) and finish the season with 13 additional long balls, nine coming in August. In his initial 312 plate appearances the Top-5 MVP finisher (2009) would hit a home run every 34.6 times to the plate. In his final 210 trips that number would surge to 16.1, placing him near the league leaders in power output.
His final tally of 22 home runs in 134 games equaled the output of a handful of baseball players; including Carlos Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, and Cody Ross.
Fast forward to 2013, Morales is a member of the Seattle Mariners, what should you expect? I would advocate, even in the confines of Safeco Field, you can expect more of the same.
Safeco Field statistics
Morales is amongst the top tier of American League West competitors to find success on the road in Seattle. If you combine his 2009, 2010, and 2012 seasons into two seasons, per the amount of games played (337), his bat has produced 7.5 WAR – or 3.75 per season. Over the past two years (2011-2012) that WAR places him 45th in baseball; tied with B.J. Upton and Adam Jones. The echoing difference behind those numbers being the salary differences within that trio.
While Jones is set to make $8.5 million in 2013 and Upton is upwards of $12 million, Morales is entering his second season of arbitration – slated to make $4.5 million in negotiations. More over, his ability to earn arbitration in Seattle allows the Mariners the flexibility to potentially flip him for a compensation pick or re-sign the slugger if he produces.
The discrepancy between those numbers cannot be described in a glance, the addition of double digit production at a single digit price allows the organization the ability to do what it does best, get creative.
What happens next?
The belief is that the presence of Morales in Seattle further legitimizes the offense Seattle is putting together. An offense that players want to be a part of and pitchers want to throw behind. With that in mind, let's take a look at what is still available this off-season.
It’s no secret the Seattle Mariners are looking to replace Vargas with a capable mid-rotation starter. With the Pirates signing Francisco Liriano at $7 million annually, Seattle could potentially pluck Marcum off the market between $8-10 per season – combined with Morales, equaling the eventual salary Nick Swisher could command as the off-season grows shorter.
Andre Ethier is among the players on the trading block this off-season. While SeattleClubhouse made this tie in early November it was recently made official that the Mariners had been in contact with the Dodgers regarding the right fielder. The hang up following trade rumors for the two-time consecutive All-Star is his guaranteed salary, totaling $82 million through 2017 with a 2018 team option increasing that total to $99.5 million. While it’s been engrained that the Dodgers will have to eat some of that contract in negotiations – the Seattle Mariners, with Morales in tow, could afford to take a larger portion of Ethier’s contract if they choose to go in that direction.
Morales joins powerful Seattle duo, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak -- creating the potential for an RBI threesome Seattle has not had in recent seasons. The production output of this group may be hinging on one thing, a legitimate lead-off threat. If the Mariners trot into 2013 with Dustin Ackley hitting lead-off, their ability to drive in runs could be reduced. The young second baseman hit .233 in 440 plate appearances there in 2012, posting an on-base percentage of .296. Seattle has spent a majority of the off-season tied to former Atlanta Braves outfielder Michael Bourn who is a natural lead-off hitter. The name of current Boston Red Sox lead-off hitter and fellow center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury, has surfaced this off-season as being available. The addition of Morales financially and offensively could draw both speedy players towards Seattle as more pieces begin to fall into place.
Morales is a right-handed pitchers worst nightmare. The damage he has done is best summed up in his .512 career slugging percentage, carrying a .860 OPS through 342 games played. While the American League West has an abundance of young left-handed talent, the majority of arms the Mariners will face in 2013 will come from the right side of the mound.
His plus ability to hit ahead in the count puts more pressure on a pitcher to deliver their offerings without error. Morales is a .328 hitter when ahead in the count, capped by a 1.074 OPS through 606 plate appearances. With 71 extra base hits and 230 overall he has reached first base via hit every 2.63 plate appearance and second base every 8.5 over his career. Throw in 116 walks and when ahead in the count he has reached base every 1.75 plate appearances over his career against right-handers.
The above is a set of statistics that plays directly into our next topic, batting order protection. Lineup protection is a belief that hitting Player A and Player B back-to-back will make Player A more productive. This is because pitchers know that avoiding Player A will lead to Player B, an equally capable if not superior batter to face. An alternative description, that I prefer, is that lineup protection is about putting the on-deck hitter into the pitcher’s head. The player you do not want to face with runners on-base, I.E. Kendrys Morales.
According to Rick Randall of SeattleClubhouse it is likely Seattle could hit Morales behind Kyle Seager, who had a breakout season in 2012. In the protection theory this will increase the quality of pitches seen in favor of Seager; or Player A in this scenario.
One of lineup protection’s biggest proponents is Joe Maddon, skipper of the Tampa Bay Rays. Of putting the on-deck batter into the mind of the pitcher, he says, “"Absolutely -- or even the manager's head, or even the pitching coach's head or even whomever's head," Maddon said.
Much of the argument against protection comes via modern day statistics. Opponents argue that pitchers have available so much data and media that pitch sequences are fabricated prior to an at-bat taking place. Speaking on this topic, Maddon said, "Everyone talks about the data and how wonderful it is, and I'm truly a believer, but there's also the buy-in component also. Unless you have total buy-in from everybody involved, it doesn't necessarily have the same impact."
If Joe Maddon is behind it, can you really argue?
With any acquisition there will be question marks. Will Morales shirk his batting gloves in 2013? Is his leg healed? Can he hit 35+ home runs in Safeco Field? All valid questions in which I would defer to answering positively, if asked.
But know that the Seattle Mariners added a player who will benefit from the fence adjustments, giving in return a player that would've stood to regress from them.
Looking for more Mariners prospect player interviews, news and articles? Want to keep up with which prospects are hot and cold for the M's? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse Contributing Writer Josh Dobner on Twitter at @JPDobner and site Editor Rick Randall at @randallball.