Mike Morse (Photo/Churchill)
Of all the problems the Mariners have had in recent years, and all they questions they will have to address over the offseason, figuring out what to do with Mike Morse wasn't supposed to be one of them. Not this soon, at least. Morse, who started 2005 in Tacoma, figured to need at least a year of seasoning in Triple-A before being called up to the majors.
Instead, the lanky shortstop spent half the season in Seattle playing shortstop and left field, and now the question is, "What do the M's with Mike Morse?"
Morse's half-season stay in the big leagues this season was as improbable as it was unexpected. Some may have believed it was possible for the 23-year-old to find his way to Safeco Field by season's end, but few - if any - could have forecasted that he'd start 50 games at shortstop, and another six in left field.
Heading into the season, that looked nearly impossible. The Mariners had signed Pokey Reese over the winter to shore up the six-hole in '05, and behind him there were players like Ramon Santiago and Jose Lopez with major league experience at the position.
But when Reese went down in spring training with a shoulder injury - which he never returned from - the Mariners were left scrambling. The club signed Wilson Valdez as a last minute replacement for Reese, inserted him in the starting lineup and put up with his offensive struggles for two months before they had had seen enough. Out of contention by the end of May, they made a move that surprised many and called up Morse, considered the third most important member of the three-for-two Freddy Garcia trade with the Chicago White Sox in June 2004, from Triple-A Tacoma.
Morse, at the time, was hitting just .253 with four home runs in 49 games with the Rainiers, causing many to scratch their heads at such a move. That is, until Morse did the unthinkable and immediately caught fire upon the promotion.
We all remember the torrid stretch Morse had in mid-summer. Clutch hits. Three-hit games. It seemed like it would never end. But eventually, the rookie shortstop cooled off and his number gradually fell back to more human-like levels. Not just offensively, but defensively as well. Morse committed 12 errors in 50 starts at shortstop, prompting the Mariners to continue their search for the club's shortstop of the future, calling up Yuniesky Betancourt from Tacoma.
Betancourt, who drew rave reviews while at San Antonio and Tacoma for his flashy defense, wasted little time making the same impression at the major league level. His defense, considered among the best in the game at shortstop, caused the Mariners to entertain the thought of moving Morse, a 6-foot-5 athlete who'd always played shortstop, to left field. So before games, Morse worked out at his new position, shagging fly balls to improve his outfield instincts. Eventually, the Mariners plugged him into left, where Morse started for six games as a rookie. Visibly nervous, the Florida native never looked comfortable in the outfield, but it may be a position in which he'll need to become adequate to have a future in Seattle.
With a very respectable .282 batting average in 227 at-bats heading into the final series of the season on Friday, Morse showed he could hit at the major league level. He didn't knock anyone's socks off with his extra-base ability - clubbing only three home runs and 14 total extra-base hits on the season - but he did swing it better than anyone expected.
But with Betancourt entrenched at shortstop, seemingly with a stranglehold on the position for years to come, Morse likely will never have another shot at being an every day shortstop in Seattle. Other infield positions that would suit his abilities like third and first base are blocked by big name, big salary players in Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. His offense, while solid, wasn't the kind of production a team like Seattle would want out of its designated hitter, and the fact that he's a right-handed hitter doesn't help either.
Left field, as new and uncharted as it was to Morse in '05, may very well be the only position he even has a chance to play as a regular in the organization. Problem is, there are a number of other players, such as Chris Snelling and Shin-soo Choo, who are better suited and with higher ceilings and more experience at the position. As a result, the hard truth is Morse may not have a future with the M's at all.
Unless the Mariners view Morse as a useful bench player for the future, the team may be better of dangling the 23-year-old in possible trades over the offseason. His skillset could very well suit another club better than it does the Mariners, and his offensive showing as a rookie makes him a tradable commodity this winter. If he stays for another season and proves that '05 was an aberration, he'll no longer be attractive to prospective traders.
What the Mariners have to decide over the winter is whether they want to chance keeping Morse as a reserve in 2006, banking that he will build on his standout rookie campaign, or trade the young prospect for a player that will better suit the organization for the long haul.