Sometimes the easiest posts to write turn out to be the most challenging. Earlier Thursday, the Giants signed Michael Morse for a year and a base salary around $6 million, and the plan is for Morse to be the team’s regular left fielder. This is the kind of post I could write in three or four sentences if I wanted to, a classic bloggy kind of post where I imply that the Giants are stupid. We know the Giants aren’t stupid, though, and this is a move that should be explored, not unlike any other move. The challenge here is to talk about the transaction without being insulting and dismissive.
Here’s one place we can start. The other day, there was talk that the Astros were interested in Morse, and apparently Bo Porter was pushing pretty hard. I don’t know the extent to which that’s all truthful, but the Astros are supposed to be a brilliant organization now, and they were said to be interested in the same player the Giants just picked up. If we figure the Astros have a clue, and if the Astros had interest in Morse, it follows that there’s reason for some optimism.
But there is one important difference. And it’s not that the Giants paid enough to bring Morse in.
Morse’s strength is his strength. He’s a pure power hitter, and he’s huge, so he looks the part. His weaknesses include defense and staying on the field. Morse has been fragile in the past, and there’s reason to believe he’ll remain fragile down the road as he only gets older. Playing hurt a year ago, Morse struggled after a hot start, but in 2011 he was a beast. Over a partial season in 2010, he was a beast. There’s a lot of offensive upside if a team can keep Morse’s body intact.
That’s why Morse had a market. A healthy Morse is one of baseball’s better power hitters. But the Astros could’ve put Morse at DH, with the occasional time spent at first. The only people in his way would be Chris Carter and Brett Wallace. The Giants are planning to put Morse in the outfield, often, and they don’t have a DH, and they have Brandon Belt at first. So there are two problems. One, Morse doesn’t defend well enough to play in the outfield. Two, as an outfielder, Morse will be more likely to get himself hurt. Oh, and I forgot, three, Morse sure seems like he’s worse than fourth outfielder Gregor Blanco. Maybe we’ll get to that later.
Morse is 31, and when he wasn’t 31, he was bad in the outfield by the numbers we have available. The last four years, Morse ranks third-worst in baseball among outfielders in UZR per 1,000 innings. He ranks 14th-worst in DRS per 1,000 innings, out of 155 guys. The last two years, he ranks third-worst in baseball among outfielders in UZR per 1,000 innings. He ranks fourth-worst in DRS per 1,000 innings, out of 103 guys. Over four years, he’s spent nearly 2,300 innings in the outfield. Over two years, he’s spent nearly 1,400. Now he’s older and he’s been more hurt. Everybody knows that Morse is a defensive liability out there, and over a full season he’s likely to cost something like 15 or 20 runs, in the hypothetical he were to stay healthy.
You know what the positional adjustment is between left field and DH? Ten runs. That is, if you’re a left fielder, and your defensive true talent is worse than ten runs below average, you’d probably be better off as a DH, depending on how your bat would adjust. Morse, presumably, should be a DH. He’d be more valuable as a DH. He could’ve DH’d with the Astros, but with the Giants he won’t have that option outside of interleague play. He’s going to have to run around, and he’s bad at that.
And there are the injuries. Absolutely, there are lots of ways for a guy to get hurt, and being a first baseman or a designated hitter doesn’t by any means eliminate that risk. Last year Morse got hurt by a hit-by-pitch. He also wound up needing wrist surgery, and he probably didn’t develop a bone spur in the outfield. He strained his quad running the bases. Nick Johnson got hurt all the time as a 1B/DH. But I think it’s reasonable to suggest that playing the outfield is harder on a body than not playing the outfield. Having to run that much increases the injury risk, and that can mean either extended missed time, occasional bits of missed time, or reduced productivity from playing through pain. Morse has played through pain for stretches at least the last two years and he’s done less as a result. As a matter of fact, by WAR, over the last two years, Morse has been among the least valuable players in baseball. Injuries haven’t helped.
And taking a seat behind Morse will be Blanco, whose WAR the last two years is higher by almost seven wins. The last two years, the WAR difference between Gregor Blanco and Michael Morse has been Freddie Freeman, and Blanco’s younger by more than a year and a half. Now Blanco’s the fourth outfielder, and while he should play often, Morse is the designated starter. It helps that Blanco is available as a late-inning defensive replacement, because that should limit Morse’s exposure in higher-leverage innings, but this situation isn’t necessary to begin with.
Brian Sabean wanted right-handed power. Just like how Kevin Towers wanted right-handed power, before swinging the Mark Trumbo trade. Morse is right-handed and powerful, so, that’s that. Blanco’s left-handed and the owner of ten career dingers. He’s good on the bases, he’s good in the outfield, he’s good at drawing walks, and he’s good at making contact. There’s one thing that Blanco doesn’t do well. There’s one thing that Morse does do well, when he’s healthy. The Giants seem to prefer what Morse can do, and if they’re right about that, then we simply don’t have the information to say so. If Morse is truly the better bet for the Giants this year, then there are a lot of things we’re getting wrong.
I’m sure we are getting a lot of things wrong, but not that much. It’s fine to make Blanco a fourth outfielder, because most teams need at least four outfielders, and Blanco is super useful. It’s important to have depth, and there’s nothing wrong with Brian Sabean looking to make an upgrade. But now he’s in a situation where, if his third outfielder gets hurt, his team is probably better off overall. If the Giants end up in a place where they need to swap Blanco for Morse, that shouldn’t hurt them, and what that tells you is they probably didn’t find an upgrade at all. They upgraded their right-handed power, but last year the team with the most right-handed home runs was the Brewers. It sure seems like there are a lot of better ways the Giants could’ve gone, and as much as Morse might bounce back offensively, he’s a poor fit for the roster and the league.
Kevin Towers set his sights on right-handed power and overpaid in assets. Brian Sabean set his sights on right-handed power and seems to be overpaying in playing time. Morse is not going to cost much, and there is no long-term commitment. But he’s probably not really going to help the team win. He’s a bounce-back offensive candidate committed to the wrong opportunity.
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