In their biggest move of the off-season, the Mariners today traded Jason Vargas to the Angels in exchange for Kendrys Morales. Morales is a DH/first baseman entering his final year of arbitration, meaning he’ll be a free agent after the season. Back in 2009, he was one of the best bats in the league, and was on the same pace through 50 games in 2010 before badly breaking his ankle. Ironically, he did so as he celebrated hitting a game-winning grand slam against the Mariners. Morales missed the rest of 2010 and all of 2011 before returning last year to play 134 games.
Morales’ 2012 wasn’t up to his previous level of production, but it was pretty good for a guy who had missed a year and a half. He hit .273/.320/.467 with 22 home runs and 26 doubles. His OPS+ (on-base % and slugging % in comparison to everyone else) was 121. 100 is league average. On the Mariners, John Jaso was at 144, but the next highest were Saunders and Seager at 110, so Morales is clearly a big add for the offense. He’s a switch hitter, better from the left. Even if he got back to his 2009 level, he’s not an absolute elite bat, but he’s on that next level down. I’d consider him the best power bat the Mariners have had since Russell Branyan had that one good year.
Losing Vargas leaves a bit of a hole in the rotation, but I’m not terribly concerned. It should be easier to obtain a Vargas-level pitcher than a Morales-level hitter. There are a number of good free agent pitchers still available, and the Mariners have a bevy of prospects capable of stepping into the rotation soon. If they don’t add a starter before the season, I’ll be concerned, but there’s plenty of time to do that.
Everyone is wondering what this means for Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero, since Morales plays their primary positions. I’m not worried. Smoak is as likely to be in Tacoma as he is to be deserving of major playing time in Seattle. Montero will have plenty of opportunities between, catcher, DH and potentially first. If he hits he’ll play. Jaso will likely be the primary catcher against right-handers and can fill in at DH as well. There are plenty of at-bats to go around, and if all four players hit well enough to deserve major innings, that’ll be a good thing. I think this works out well, as it gives the Mariners wiggle room to see if Smoak can do anything and to see what Montero and catching prospect Mike Zunino can become. If by some chance everyone goes crazy this year, they can let Morales walk after the season. If not, they can try to resign him. He’s an excellent stopgap with potential to be a longterm solution if needed.
I love the trade. Morales doesn’t make the Mariners a contender overnight, but he gets them a lot closer. Coming into the off-season, I hoped the Mariners would find two solid bats and a good starting pitcher. I don’t know if they’ll get all the way there, but this was a good start. It has minor risk and improves the team without sacrificing the future in any fashion.
I’ll have more on the Mariners sometime before the year’s over. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another move or two in that time. There are only a handful of major free agents left, and most of them should sign in that time, which should also key some trades. Or not. Who knows? This off-season is nothing if not unpredictable. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!