A Mike Morse Trade Never Made Sense for the Rays
By Robbie Knopf
With the date for pitchers and catchers to report a little under a month away, baseball fans are anxious for some things to happen. They were able to satisfy a little bit of their hunger for news on Wednesday when they heard about the 3-team trade sending Mike Morse to the Seattle Mariners. Here was the trade.
Washington Nationals trade OF/1B Mike Morse to the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Mariners trade C/DH John Jaso to the Oakland Athletics, and Oakland Athletics trade RHP’s A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen and a player to be named later to the Washington Nationals.
It wasn’t one of the coolest 3-team trades you’ll ever see as there wasn’t a single team that gave away or received players from the other two teams, but it still was a trade of note as the Nationals traded Morse, who slammed 31 homers in 2011 to the Mariners, the M’s gave the A’s Jaso, the ex-Ray who’s coming off a tremendous season as a platoon player, and the Nats received one pitching prospect with topflight starter potential in Cole, a solid relief prospect in Treinen, and a thus far mysterious player to be named later. Unlike some other 3-team trades, it’s hard to divide this trade into a series of conventional trades. I would want to say that the A’s traded Cole for Morse and Treinen and the PTBNL for Jaso, but then how did Morse end up in Seattle? I guess you have to say that the A’s traded the two prospects plus the PTBNL for Jaso than swapped them to the Nationals for Morse, but are we really saying that John Jaso’s trade value was as high as Morse’s? I think we are.
Last offseason, the Rays traded Jaso to the Mariners in exchange for RHP Josh Lueke. It’s too early to give a definitive winner on that trade but… it’s clear that the Mariners were runaway winners for 2012. Lueke has great stuff but managed just an 18.90 ERA in 3 appearances while Jaso was awesome for Seattle, managing a .276/.394/.456 line (144 OPS+) with 19 doubles, 10 homers, 50 RBI, 5 of 5 stolen bases, and 56 walks compared to 51 strikeouts in 108 games and 361 plate appearances, making 43 appearances at catcher and 48 at DH. This is the same John Jaso that managed a .245/.340/.365 line (98 OPS+) in 687 plate appearances for the Rays from 2008 to 2010, managing an 84-77 walk to strikeout ratio but managing the same number of home runs, 10, in nearly double the number of plate appearances. Where in the world did Jaso’s huge 2012 come from? At first glance, your first inclination has to be that Jaso’s year was for real. His BAbip was nothing out of the ordinary at .298, his HR/FB went up but not by a crazy amount, and apparently his great plate discipline finally helped him hit for some power. The A’s must think that Jaso’s improvement was real considering how much they traded for him. There are several reasons, though,to think that Jaso could be in trouble next season (and help the Rays save some face on the Jaso for Lueke swap).
A lefty batter, Jaso batted with the platoon advantage 85% of the time in 2012, which is much higher than the 56% AL average from 2012 and was the fifth-highest mark among AL non-switch hitters minimum 200 plate appearances, but it was right in line was the 86% mark he managed during his time with the Rays. What was the difference than previously? He was actually worse than his career averages in his limited time (53 plate appearances) versus lefties, managing just a .393 OPS compared to his .532 career mark. But against righties, he was awesome, managing a .302/.419/.508 line, a .927 OPS that was 14th in baseball minimum 300 plate appearances and was 6th behind only Robinson Cano, Joey Votto, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder when adjusting for ballpark. His career mark is only .270/.368/.432, which is good, but certainly not anyone near as great as his 2012 numbers. How did he get so much better? One thing to note is that his BAbip against righties was .325 compared to his .287 career average. His BAbip on the season was only so low because of his complete ineptitude versus lefties- against righties, he apparently got lucky. Was the difference in Jaso’s BAbip against righties significant enough to conclude that he really made some breakthrough that will allow him to hit them at a level anywhere near his 2012 numbers moving forward? The answer is no. Using a test for the mean of proportion, the probability that Jaso’s .325 BAbip occurred if his true BAbip should have been .287 was .115, which is relatively low but not statistically significant. The odds of it occurring were a 8.7 to 1, which is pretty rare but nothing too crazy. Even if Jaso’s 2012 was an outlier, Jaso should still be an above-average hitter against right-handed pitching, but as his luck returns to his normal levels, his performance will certainly drop and even his walk rate will go down quite a bit as right-handed pitchers aren’t as scared to attack the zone against him. As a platoon player who’s best at DH because he’s a well below-average defensive catcher, Jaso will be a solid role player assuming he returns to earth but nothing too special at all. If there was any team that was going to acquire Jaso and his incredible plate discipline, though, it had to be the Oakland A’s with their emphasis on on-base percentage that may not be as extreme as it was in the height of their Moneyball days in the early 2000’s but still certainly exists.
Jaso was considered an equivalent player to Morse, which is ironic because in a way he’s the exact opposite type of player. In 2012 managed a .291/.321/.370 line (112 OPS+) with 17 doubles, 18 homers, 62 RBI, and a 97-16 strikeout to walk ratio in 102 games and 430 plate appearances 2012, missing until June with a shoulder injury. That was one year after a 2011 season that saw him manage a .303/.360/.550 line (147 OPS+) with 36 doubles, 31 homers, 95 RBI, and a 126-36 strikeout to walk ratio in 146 games and 575 PA’s. While Jaso walks like crazy, Morse doesn’t walk at all. In terms of strikeout to walk ratio, Jaso was 7th-best minimum 300 plate appearances while Morse was 2nd-worst. But what Morse brings to the table is outstanding raw power and virtually no platoon split as a right-handed batter, managing an .830 career OPS versus righties and an .860 career OPS against lefties. Like Jaso, you have to be concerned that he won’t be able to put up anything resembling his 2011 numbers again because it’s awfully hard to hit 30 home runs in the major leagues without good plate discipline, but at least it’s something that you know is firmly within the range of his abilities. Even as we compare Jaso to Morse, we have to realize that their abilities aren’t the only consideration. It’s important to note that Jaso has three years left under team control, and that’s a major reason why their values were considered to be equal.
The value of Morse and Jaso was considered to be right-handers A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen plus the unknown PTBNL. By that standard, both were valued pretty highly. Cole, who just turned 21, got killed in 8 High-A starts in 2012, managing just a 7.82 ERA, but after getting sent back down to Low-A, he picked up right where he left off in 2011, going 6-3 with a 2.07 ERA, a 9.6 K/9, a 1.8 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 19 starts and 95.2 IP. His struggles at High-A have to be concerning, but he’s still very young and his stuff is absolutely electric- he throws a fastball in the mid-90’s, a sharp curveball, and a changeup that shows promise. His major issues are command- his control is unbelievable, but he leaves way too many pitches up in the zone- and the fact that he’s such a strike-throwing machine that he doesn’t really understand that he needs to throw more pitches off the plate to get hitters to chase. But Cole showed improvement in both of those regards in 2012 and could be on the verge of breaking out as he gives High-A a second try in 2013. If all goes well, Cole has a chance to profile as a number two starter.
Treinen, 24, is not nearly the prospect Cole is, but impresses with a low-to-mid-90’s fastball with heavy sink and a mid-80’s slider with late, tight break, especially while working out of the bullpen. His ERA in 2012 was just 4.37 in 15 starts and 9 relief appearances, but it was 4.70 as a starter compared to 2.08 in relief. Treinen will begin 2013 at Double-A, and if he’s converted to relief full-time, he could be in the major leagues by September or at least some point in 2014.
Before this trade was announced, plenty of teams were trying to trade for Morse, and the Rays had to be one of the teams weighing whether to give the Nationals an offer for him. Now that we’ve seen that Morse was considered to be worth prospects the caliber of Cole and Treinen, was the cost for Morse too high for the Rays to pursue him harder? From the Rays’ perspective, giving up prospects the caliber of Cole and Treinen for a player with one year left on his contract in Morse is not something that made sense for them to do. We heard rumors over the past few weeks that the Nationals were looking for a lefty reliever Morse, but the Rays never looked like a fit for the Rays with Jake McGee being incredible in 2012 and having the stuff to close down the line and Cesar Ramos and Alex Torres not being regarded highly enough, so a trade that would have sent Morse to the Rays was going to revolve around prospects, but there never a really chance that would come together. The Rays have been willing to deal prospects for big league players (Tyler Bortnick for Ryan Roberts, Derek Dietrich for Yunel Escobar), but they almost never give up players with significant upside, and the A’s did just that as part of this trade. Trading a player like Cole and risking that you’ll look foolish if he lives up to his potential is not necessarily a bad move, but it’s a move that only a team in win-now mode would make. That’s not a situation that you’ll even see the Rays go into in the near future. The Rays have never really gone into win-now mode since they began contending in 2008 because the only way for them to win for an extended period of time with their limited resources is to build through their minor league system. Using a prospect with considerable potential for a one-year rental in Morse with risk of his own never made any sense for the Rays, and although the Rays were contending to Morse multiple times, that’s the reason a deal never came together and was never particularly close.