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Morse Power and the Prince

A few years ago, Michael Morse looked like another marginal major-league guy who once had a brief hot streak. After reportedly having the last two seasons of his arbitration eligibility bought out by the Washington Nationals this weekend, Morse is now a millionaire many times over. (The reported amount is $10.5 million.) It has been a long path to relevance for the 29-year-old. Of more relevance right now is his current true-talent level — and how he fits in with the Nationals’ plans, considering the on-and-off Prince Fielder talk.

As a defensively questionable shortstop in the Mariners’ organization, Morse showed signs of offensive promise during 258 major-league plate appearances in 2005. But questions about his defense — and a suspension for a positive PED test — put him on the back-burner, despite hitting well in a very small 2006 sample.

In 2009, Morse was traded to Washington for Ryan Langerhans. At the time, the deal appeared to be a clear win for Seattle. How things change. It’d be glib to simply dismiss how things  turned out as 20/20 hindsight. After all, even if the Nationals made the trade primarily as a favor to Langerhans, the team obviously saw something in Morse. The deal, obviously, has  paid off for Washington.

Morse got an extended opportunity with the Nationals in 2010, and he hit for surprising power. Given Morse’s history, though, that might understandably have been viewed as a small-sample blip. Given that his 2010 wOBA was also bolstered by a high BABIP, the earlier impression tended to stand out. But then he did it again in 2011. And he hit for even more power. His BABIP was still high, so there’s still room for regression, but perhaps not as much as you’d think.

The big concern with Morse’s hitting is that — to a certain extent — he has to rely on balls in play to propel his on-base percentage. Morse has never had much plate discipline — he sports a below-average walk rate. And with an above-average strikeout rate, it’s not as if he makes up for his poor plate discipline with plenty of contact. Few walks and low contact is a bad combination for most hitters, but Morse makes up for it with his biggest skill: power.

In less that a full season of playing time in 2011, Morse hit 31 home runs. While Hit Tracker  indicates that a large number of those dingers squeaked over the fence, a third of those home runs were classified   as “No Doubts.” The average distance and bat speed of Morse’s 2011 home runs in were well above league average. Morse’s plate discipline is far from ideal, and at his age — he’ll be 30 in March — it’s unlikely that his skill will change much. But excellent power can make up for lots of problems. Morse’s 2012 Oliver projection is .292/.349/.505 — with a .369 wOBA. Over roughly a full season, that is about 25 runs above average, and that number will play anywhere.

But where will he play? The former shortstop is — to say the least — not a middle infielder any more. He spent 2011 in left field and, after Adam LaRoche‘s injury, landed at first base. UZR wasn’t overly impressed with his fielding, but even the most fervent defender of advanced fielding metrics would strongly warn against taking too much from a partial-season’s sample. Even if Morse is a true-talent -10 fielder in left — or -5 at first base — his projected bat would still make him roughly a 2.5 win player in about 150 games. That’s above average. So, even if you think his defense is really poor, Morse still projects a tick above average, overall.

Obviously, on the free agent market, a two-year, $10.5 million deal for a player like that is a steal. But Morse still had two arbitration seasons left. Matt Swartz’s arbitration projections had Morse getting around $4 million, a bit lower than the midpoint between his and the team’s proposal. One would expect that — with even a decent year — the figure would go up to at least $6 million after 2011. The Oliver projection has Morse putting up enough power numbers that he’d probably get more than $7 million in arbitration after this coming season. This is not an exact science, but I’d say the deal is fair, overall: Morse gets some security; the team avoids the potential for a bigger payday. And both can happily avoid the unhappiness of an arbitration hearing.

Some might assume that the deal is the end of the Nationals’ pursuit of Prince Fielder. But that’s not necessarily the case. Morse was going to be a National in 2012, regardless. And remember that the Nationals started Morse in left field last season, so why wouldn’t they do the same this year? If there’s an obstacle to Fielder signing with the Nats — and it is hard to see how Adam “Solid B Average” LaRoche really poses an obstacle — it’s not Morse’s new contract.

That’s not to say that a defense with Morse in left, Jayson Werth in center and Prince Fielder at first might not have a surplus entertainment value. Even so, whatever happens in the field — and whoever else is hitting in the lineup — Morse should provide at least a partial homer fix for Nationals fans. That is, pending Bryce Harper’s arrival.