The Washington Nationals have been relatively quiet this offseason. They did trade for Denard Span and did sign Dan Haren, but, unlike the past few winters, they weren’t connected with any big name free agents. In retrospect, that was precisely the way Mike Rizzo and the Nationals should’ve handled this winter. The Nationals are coming off of a 98 win season and will now have their ace for a full season. With Bryce Harper entering his second season and the young Nationals having a year of playoff experience, all Rizzo needed to do was fill some holes and keep his core together. He’s almost done, but the remainder of the work will put the focus on back on the Nationals for a bit as he looks to find a new home for a player he acquired quite cheaply just four years ago.
For the next week or so, the most popular name of the hot stove will be Michael Morse, the 30 year old first baseman/outfielder for the Washington Nationals. Morse isn’t the most talented player in the game and he isn’t a player to build a team around. But, he is one of the more unheralded power hitters in the sport and could fill a power void for a contending team. That seems implausible to say considering that the Nationals acquired him in a June 2009 trade in exchange for Ryan Langerhans. Since then, Morse has found a regular role for the rebuilding Nationals. Now that the Nationals are a full blown contender, Morse is expendable because of their great offensive depth.
Until yesterday, Morse was penciled in as the Nationals’ starting first baseman for the 2013 season. He likely would’ve hit cleanup for a club that will be a heavy favorite to get to the World Series. But, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo completed his offseason shopping list by giving Manager Davey Johnson his one winter wish: Adam LaRoche re-signed as the first baseman. LaRoche, one the Nationals best offensive players of 2012, signed a two year, $24 million deal to return. Because the Nationals acquired center fielder Denard Span, they no longer have an opening for Morse in the outfield. Rather than pay approximately $7 million salary for a bench player, the Nationals will look move Morse to perhaps fill one last spot in the bullpen.
The market for Morse is quite big. He is the type of cost effective hitter who could fill a spot for the Rays, Yankees, and Orioles. The Mariners should have interest and perhaps the Indians have one more move in the them, considering their bullpen depth. There are even some National League clubs that could benefit from the right handed power hitter, but at this point, despite Morse’s preference, he is more of a designated hitter/first baseman. His defense in the outfield is quite poor, taking away quite a bit of value if he had to play regularly.
Morse’s value comes strictly from his ability to hit for power. He finally broke out in 2010 when he appeared in 92 games for the Nationals. He hit .289/.352/.519 with 12 doubles, 2 triples, and 15 home runs in 262 at bats. He earned a starting job in 2011 and delivered the best year of his career, hitting .303/.360/.550 with 36 doubles and 31 home runs in 522 at bats. Last season, he battled injuries and was limited to just 102 games. He did hit .291/.321/.470 with 17 doubles and 18 home runs. With the majority of his statistics compiled over the past three years, Morse’s eight year career has resulted in a slash line of .295/.347/.492.
The power is real. His ISO over the past three seasons have read .229, .247, and .180. His wOBA has read .377, .390, and .340. But, that power does come with some flaws. He isn’t a patient hitter. He’s never posted a walk rate over 7.5%. That walk rate has declined for three consecutive seasons. He’s also a high strikeout player as he has posted strikeout rates over 21.8% in each of the past three season. And, of course, there is the matter of defense, which by all metrics is well below average, especially in the outfield.
Even with the flaws, Morse would be a positive addition to a club. He’s a lifetime .303/.357/.503 hitter against left handed pitchers. While he doesn’t have a great split differential, he does provide a team with an above average power bat against southpaws. Although he is a hitter who’s on base percentage is dependent on his BABIP, his power makes up for the lack of patience.
The idea of trading Morse is somewhat risky for the Nationals, a team that was quite dependent on its bench. But, if Jayson Werth can remain healthy, there aren’t any regular at bats for Morse. LaRoche has proven durable over the course of his career as has Span and, if taking out last year, Werth. With the rotation set and the bullpen quite deep, especially from the right side, the Nationals are likely looking at either adding a left handed reliever and/or prospect. With only Zach Duke in the bullpen from the left side, a lefty reliever would be the most practical.
That makes the Orioles one of the most compatible teams with lefty relievers like Troy Patton and Brian Matusz on the Major League roster. The Rays are deep when it comes to any kind of pitching and they have a real need for Morse’s power. Even the Yankees could piece together a deal to add Morse as a DH and poor defending, right handed outfielder considering their starting outfield is all left handed. And, that’s just one division.
Rizzo will have to make sure he just isn’t giving Morse away. He must extract value from any deal that will improve the 2013 club. Anything short of that, he should keep Morse around. If he can turn Morse into a quality reliever through a trade, the Nationals are better with Adam LaRoche and a reliever rather than Morse and extra cash. Because of that, Rizzo is dealing from a strength and is in position to make his roster one of the most complete in the sport. He has an asset that so many teams could use: cheap power.
It’s why Michael Morse will be the most popular man in Major League Baseball for the next week or so.