* Update: kind of. Though Morales will surely take opportunities from Hart, they may coexist on the active roster. It’s complicated, but it shouldn’t change too much about the analysis.
There was never any question that the Mariners liked Kendrys Morales. They traded for him in the first place, and he hit. They offered him a three-year contract. They kept in touch with him during the offseason. If the Mariners had had their druthers, they would’ve locked Morales up to return as the team’s DH. But Morales, see, didn’t really want to go back to Seattle:
“He knew it was going to be tough to look for another offer, or another job, but in his heart he just didn’t really want to come back here and be in the same spot … he was taking his chances to see if something was better.”
When a player is a free agent, he gets to decide where he ends up. When a player belongs to a team, however, he can’t control where he gets traded, barring a full or partial no-trade clause. The Mariners couldn’t sign Morales, so he waited and waited and signed with the Twins. The Twins fell quickly out of the race, and now they’ve traded Morales to the Mariners, for Stephen Pryor and salary relief. The Mariners got Morales the only way they knew how to, and now he’ll serve as the rusty DH, in replacement of a rusty DH.
The idea is a simple one. The Mariners are in contention and they need to get better. They haven’t had very good hitting, especially out of their designated hitters, and Morales cost them almost nothing but money. They’ve seen him perform well with Seattle, recently. It’s not a trade landscape that lends itself to many easy, meaningful additions, so Morales was something the Mariners could do today. It’s an attempted fix for what’s been something of a black hole.
The disappointment in Seattle has been Corey Hart, who owns a 78 wRC+. That’s the guy Morales will presumably replace. While Hart was a very good hitter the last time he was healthy, he missed all of 2013 due to surgery, and this year his timing’s been a bit off. He’s hit for neither average nor power, which is how he’s generated a WAR of -0.6. Increasingly, Hart has been a source of frustration on a team lacking much in the way of right-handed punch.
Hence Morales. Morales was a very good hitter the last time he was normal, but then he’s got his own thing: he didn’t play for a team until June. So his timing’s been a bit off, and he’s hit for neither average nor power, combining to yield a WAR of -0.9. Morales recently had a 12-game hitting streak, but during that streak he didn’t even bat .300, and his one dinger came a month ago.
It makes sense that Morales would have some rust. He joined the Twins immediately and never really had a spring training, so in a sense he used part of the regular season as his spring training, trying to catch up to pitchers well ahead of him. The Mariners aren’t thinking about what Morales has been the last two months; they’re thinking about what he will be for the following two months, and he’s been a consistent producer before. His career wRC+ is 114. In the Mariners’ estimation, Morales is just about back to regular speed, so then he should be helpful.
But it makes sense that Hart would also have some rust. Maybe more, since he didn’t play in 2013 at all. And not long ago he was activated after spending a month and a half on the DL, and he’s been a consistent producer before, to the tune of a career wRC+ of 115. Overall, Hart and Morales have been basically identical hitters. During this regular season, Hart’s actually been better, and over the past month, they’ve been identical again. The Mariners are replacing a struggling hitter with a struggling hitter. Their belief must therefore be that Morales is closer to normal than Hart is. In their defense, they’ve had the closest view of Hart possible. But the counter to that is they haven’t had so close a view of Morales.
Going forward, ZiPS projects Morales to be a few runs better. Steamer projects them to be the same. Hart’s lost season doesn’t do his projections any favors. The Mariners must disagree slightly — they must think Morales projects considerably better than Hart, in order to take on more than $4 million in salary. That’s not a light investment for a team that’s been said to be limited, and that’s the real cost here. There’s a player going to Minnesota, but the cost of this potentially lateral move is money, which is why it’s not exactly a harmless attempt. This will presumably affect what else the Mariners might be able to do.
From the Twins’ side, this all could’ve gone better. It was obvious that one of the upsides of the signing was that the team could turn around and flip Morales for longer-term talent. They were never likely to hang around in the race and, sure enough, they’ve dropped out. But what they’ve done is pay Morales a few millions of dollars, and now all they have left to show for him is Stephen Pryor. Pryor used to be a reliever prospect with a big fastball, but then he underwent unusual surgery to repair a torn lat, and his fastball hasn’t yet returned. So far in the minors he has 21 walks and 30 strikeouts. He never had a dominant secondary pitch. Relief prospects have limited value even when they aren’t missing the thing that made them relief prospects. Maybe down the road Pryor gets back up to 95-96, but more than anything else, the Twins dealt Kendrys Morales to save on the rest of his contract. They lost, because Morales used Minnesota as spring training, and he didn’t perform. Morales didn’t have much of a market when he was thought of as dependable.
The Mariners have decided there’s not much left in Corey Hart’s tank. For the cost of some money, they’re rolling the dice on an also-underperforming Kendrys Morales. It’s a low-downside move, but it’s also a low-upside move, if the numbers are to be at all believed. And this serves to step a little bit on Jesus Montero, who owns a .392 wOBA in Triple-A Tacoma. There shouldn’t be much concern that Morales will be unhappy back in Seattle; he’ll be motivated by playing for a new contract. But he’s been motivated by that since he signed with the Twins. He’s been worth a win below replacement. Just about everything you could say about replacing Corey Hart with Kendrys Morales, you could say about replacing Kendrys Morales with Corey Hart. That’s what makes this an interesting gamble.
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