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Jaso, Morse Move Around In Three-Team Deal

When the Nationals acquired Denard Span, it essentially meant they’d have to choose between Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse. When they re-signed LaRoche to a multi-year contract, it essentially meant Morse would have to be traded. One might have thought this would have reduced the Nationals’ negotiating leverage, but a three-team trade on Wednesday saw the Nationals still manage to turn Morse into legitimate value.

The overall summary, in case you haven’t seen it:

To Seattle, from Washington: Michael Morse
To Oakland, from Seattle: John Jaso
To Washington, from Oakland: A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen, PTBNL

We can tackle this in three sections, and we might as well address the Nationals first. In Morse, the Nationals had a power-hitting pseudo-outfielder with one year left before free agency. He had nowhere to play regularly, so he was available on the market, but he drew enough interest to ultimately bring quality back. Previously, the Nationals explored trading Morse for a big-league reliever. The signing of Rafael Soriano made that less of a priority, and gave the Nationals additional flexibility in what they could seek. What they got back from Oakland for Morse is somewhat substantial, and that’s ignoring the mysterious PTBNL. I’ll assume, for the time being, that the PTBNL will end up a minor leaguer of little baseballing consequence.

Cole is familiar, because Cole used to be Nationals property until the Gio Gonzalez trade. He’s newly 21, he’s right-handed, he gets his fastball into the mid-90s, and before last season Baseball America ranked him the #57 overall prospect. He hasn’t yet advanced to double-A, and in eight starts in advanced-A last year, he allowed 40 runs. But he dominated following a demotion down to single-A, and he remains a quality starting-pitcher prospect. It’s just that his stock is down a little bit, and he could take longer than expected.

Treinen is 24 and right-handed and less of a starting-pitcher prospect. He spent all of last year in advanced-A, running an ERA north of 4. Given just that information, he might seem like a non-prospect, but he has the gift of powerful stuff, and he was drafted out of South Dakota State. Thus, he was drafted with a little less high-level experience, and the A’s treated him cautiously. It’s easy to see how Treinen could end up as a late-inning reliever, and it’s easy to see how that could happen before long if starting doesn’t work out.

The Nationals didn’t turn Morse into immediate help or a top-level prospect, but they turned him into a good prospect and an interesting prospect, and also another guy, too. Organizationally, the Nationals’ pitching depth below the majors wasn’t in great shape. Now it’s in better shape, and the Nationals didn’t lose anything they were going to use. I don’t know how much better they could’ve expected in exchange for a year of Michael Morse.

We turn now to the A’s, and I don’t need to tell you what the A’s got, because Dave already did that a little while ago. Jaso is not a great defensive catcher, he hasn’t proven that he can hit lefties, and he isn’t too terribly young. What John Jaso isn’t is a strong everyday backstop. What he is is a really useful part-time backstop, with three more years of team control. His bat is good enough that it might even carry him at another position, as he’s just torn righties to shreds. He fits on the A’s in George Kottaras‘ spot, as Kottaras was subsequently designated for assignment after the deal. Jaso’s better than Kottaras, and he doesn’t even need to be as good as he was in 2012 to be a valuable player.

Because the Nationals got interesting prospects, and because all those prospects came from the A’s, that means the A’s lost interesting prospects. But the A’s are deep in young arms, and neither Cole nor Treinen has yet had great success in advanced-A, let alone double-A. Based on probability, Cole and Treinen can be expected to be less valuable than John Jaso. If Cole starts developing quickly, or if Treinen sticks in the rotation, this could look worse, but even the best pitching prospects on the planet are tremendously risky. These guys aren’t the best pitching prospects on the planet. There are a lot of hurdles in front of them.

Now we’re left with the Mariners, and for the Mariners, this is puzzling. The Mariners are more likely to be good in 2014 or 2015 than they are in 2013. In 2013, they project to be worse than the Rangers, the Angels, and the A’s. None of that is certain, of course, and teams definitely surprise, but you’d think the Mariners would be looking to move short-term value for longer-term value. Instead, the Mariners gave up three years of Jaso for one year of Morse. The Mariners have been looking for a power bat, and they were recently turned down by Justin Upton, so that’s what they see in Morse, but the overall-value picture isn’t an encouraging one.

At first base and DH, the Mariners are already overbooked. In the outfield, Morse isn’t much of a defender, and I’m wearing my generous pants. He doesn’t walk, he doesn’t run, and he doesn’t play much defense, so his value depends on his bat, and his bat is good without being fantastic. Morse is also coming up on his 31st birthday, and there are hints that he’s becoming more injury-prone. Then, again, there’s the one-year thing. Trading for Kendrys Morales made some sense, because the Mariners gave up a year of Jason Vargas. The Mariners went beyond 2013 in swinging this deal.

The Mariners were never high on Jaso, despite his offensive numbers, and with Mike Zunino on the way, something was probably going to happen. But there’s a difference between moving Jaso and moving Jaso for one year of Michael Morse, especially now, before Zunino has proven that he’s ready for the highest level. The Mariners are now in need of a catcher, and they weren’t in need of a player like Morse. They can say they needed his power, but they didn’t need a player of his overall value.

Unless Morse is at his absolute best, he isn’t markedly better than Casper Wells. Wells has the worse bat, but he’s better at all the other things. The Mariners already had Wells, and now Wells is trapped. Morse might instead get time at DH/1B, time that would’ve gone to Justin Smoak, but what’s most important here is that regardless of position, Morse is something like a league-average player. That’s not a real short-term upgrade, and there is no long-term outlook, with his impending free agency.

Two things: Morse, absolutely, could bring back value in a midseason trade. The Mariners could end up with a prospect or two here in the end. And one can’t forget that the Rays dealt Jaso for Josh Lueke. Jaso has seemingly been dealt for too little twice, at least once by an organization people love, so his value within the industry might be lower than it seems like it ought to be from the outside. For all I know, the Mariners didn’t have the option of trading John Jaso for much.

But they didn’t need to trade him now, and they didn’t need to trade him for one year of an average player with an interesting bat. I’ve listened to the Mariners’ explanations for the deal, and I remain unconvinced and unmoved. What we know about John Jaso is better than what we know about Michael Morse, especially given their contract situations. There would have to be a whole lot we don’t know for this to look good. I’m not sold.

For zero of the three teams is this a brilliant move or a disastrous move. The magnitude simply isn’t big enough. The Nationals seem to have done pretty well. The A’s seem to have done pretty well. The Mariners seem to have balanced the equation.