Vargas/Morales Trade Fills Needs For Both Teams

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Friday, January.04,  2013

Kendrys Morales had a breakout year with the Angels in 2009, where he he hit .306 with 34 HRs and 108 RBI.  He also clubbed 43 Doubles and carried an OPS of .924 for the year which propelled him to a top 5 AL MVP Finish.

Kendrys Morales had a breakout year with the Angels in 2009, where he he hit .306 with 34 HRs and 108 RBI. He also clubbed 43 Doubles and carried an OPS of .924 for the year which propelled him to a top 5 AL MVP Finish. In 2010, he suffered an ankle injury celebrating a Walk-Off Grand Slam in Angels Stadium.  His OPS was .778  in 2012,  can he regain his previous form in Seattle?

Nicholas Rossoletti (MLB Trade Correspondent):

It is rare in baseball that division rivals complete trades.  Most of the time when it does happen, it is a lower end deal involving pieces that neither team is particularly worried will come back to haunt them.  This is what makes the Jason Vargas for Kendrys Morales trade so interesting.  It is a trade that makes incredible sense for all parties involved, but there is at least some likelihood that either or both players could make their former club regret the move in the short term.  Let’s take a closer look at the players involved in the deal and why each club wanted to make this move.

On the Angels side, the team was in dire need of innings they could count on.  After acquiring Tommy Hanson and his questionable shoulder as well as losing Zack Greinke to their cross-town rivals, the Dodgers, the Angels needed to find a starter who could give them guaranteed innings.  Enter Jason Vargas.  Vargas has been good for 190 plus innings over the last three season including over 200 Innings Pitched in 2011 and 2012. Vargas is a back-end of the rotation starter who has one terrific pitch in his arsenal, which is his change-up. Vargas’ change-up is an elite pitch.  To help characterize how elite a pitch it can be, we can look to some statistical measures.  Per 100 pitches, Vargas saved 2.25 runs over the course of 2012 with his change-up. To understand in comparison, Justin Verlander‘s curveball, what many would consider his “put-away” pitch saved 2.04 runs per 100 pitches in 2012.  Now clearly, no one in their right mind is going to positively compare Vargas to Verlander, but in terms of Vargas’ change-up, I think it is important for everyone to understand that he does do something as well if not better than any other pitcher in the Major Leagues.  

The Brutal Kendrys Morales injury after a Grand Slam Walk-Off HR:

Jason Vargas will be one of the best end of the rotation pitchers in the AL this year.  He made 4.85 Million Dollars in 2012 and will receive a considerable raise based on his 14 win campaign in 2012

Jason Vargas will be one of the best end of the rotation pitchers in the AL this year. He made 4.85 Million Dollars in 2012 and will receive a considerable raise based on his 14 win campaign in 2012.

As I have discussed with friends, I happen to believe over the long-term that Vargas’ elite pitch makes him a better candidate for a bullpen role (traditionally, pitchers with one unbelievable pitch and a very questionable secondary arsenal have been successful in high leverage bullpen roles).  That being said, there is absolutely no way that Vargas ends up in the bullpen this season unless there are some very strange developments for the Angels. The Angels have acquired back-end bullpen help for 2013 in Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett so even though I believe Vargas to be a better fit in the pen long-term that’s not where he fits on the 2013 Angels roster.  We can expect to see him participate in perhaps the less effective but probably more valuable role that he has filled the last three seasons of inning-eating starting pitcher.

The reason I say less effective role is that after that elite change-up, Vargas lives on very middling secondary stuff including a
fastball that sits at 87-89 Miles Per Hour.  His peripheral statistics show a K/9 of 5.87 and 5.84 over the last two seasons (well below league average), and in 2012, Vargas gave up 1.45 HR/9 IP, which was above the league average for Home Runs allowed and an increase from his previous season.  This trait of the increasing Home Run ball is a bit disturbing especially considering that Vargas played his home games in one of the more pitcher friendly environments in the Major Leagues during the 2012 season.  Last season, Vargas was worth .8 wins above replacement, and clearly, the Angels are hoping for a slight improvement on that.  If they could get the 200 plus innings of 2 wins above replacement ball that Vargas carried in 2011, I believe the Angels would be fairly excited with the short-term results of their end of this deal.

On the other end of the deal, the Mariners were willing to deal Vargas as they have several talented high-end pitching prospects who could be big time contributors to the M’s in 2013.  Taijuan Walker, the Mariners 2010 first round draft pick, is ranked the number two prospect in their system by Baseball America after catcher Mike Zunino. Walker is a potential front of the rotation pitcher, whose stuff is electric. Walker has put up elite level K/9 numbers, but his ERA did not translate during the 2012 season as his walk rate was a little high.

I would tell Seattle fans to ignore that ERA for now and concentrate on the unbelievable upside.  This is a guy that scouting services were considering a top-10 to 15 type prospect in the middle of last season and has been compared to other top Right-Handed pitching prospects. Walker is only 20 Years Old, and we should expect him to start in Double-A this season, but he could be with the major league team as early as June or July if he can continue to progress at the level expected.  additionally, the M’s have Left-Hander Danny Hultzen at their disposal.  Hultzen is another top pitching prospect, whose ceiling is probably lower than Walker’s ceiling. The good news about Hultzen is he is closer to the majors after completing the 2012 season at the Triple-A Level and he is a Lefty. 

James+Paxton+2011+XM+Star+Futures+Game+dCeFUDFPMMol

The bad news is that his control at Triple-A was disturbingly bad.  He pitched to a 7.95 BB/Per 9 IP during his stint in Triple-A, which is insanely high for someone who may need to be relied on as a 2013 starter. The M’s will expect to see him get those numbers back down to reasonable levels, and I believe he will be able do just that.  Along with Walker and Hultzen, the Mariners also have another Left-Hander, James Paxton down on the farm.  Our own Sam Evans wrote a very in-depth look at Paxton, which can be found here.  I won’t waste time re-inventing the wheel on Paxton when Sam did such a good job, and I highly recommend those interested in the young lefty to make the jump and read Sam’s piece. These three pitchers are the Baseball America ranked No. 2 through 4 prospects in the Mariners system and provide the depth that allowed for the M’s to trade Vargas even to a division rival.

So Seattle dealt from a position of depth and acquired Kendry Morales.  Morales may be best known for his gruesome ankle injuries, which have become a cautionary tale for walk-off celebrations everywhere. Morales is a 29, soon to be 30-Year-Old First Basemen/Designated hitter, who was worth 1.8 WAR for the Angels last year.  Morales completed the 2012 season with a slash line of .273/.320/.467.  He is an interesting fifth or sixth hitter for the Mariners, who comes with his own fair share of question marks.  His peripheral statistics are a little off-putting upon first review.  His BB rate of 5.9% is below league average and his K rate of 22.2% is above league average, which explain the .320 OBP.  This On-Base is significantly lower than his 2009 or 2010 numbers (NOTE: Morales did not play in 2011).  His ISO (isolated power) of .194 is similar to his 2010 ISO of .197.  Both of these numbers is about 65-70 points lower than his 2009 ISO of .263.  Essentially, Morales has not been able to regain the elite form that he showed in 2009 when he was a 3.4 WAR player who hit 34 Home Runs with a .924 OPS. 

One of the greatest concerns we see from Morales right now is his Strike Zone recognition and control.  Morales’ swinging strike rate is up more than three percentage points from 8.9 to 12.1 and he is swinging on more than 5 percent more pitches outside of the Strike Zone (30.8 to 35.9) than he did in 2010.   When we see these kind of trends in a hitter, we have to question how he is seeing the baseball and whether or not age/injury has effected his bat speed.  The bat speed questions also arise when we consider that Morales contact rate on all pitches is down about 4 percent from his 2010 numbers. There is legitimate concern whether Morales will ever regain his prior form as he ages or whether we must reclassify Morales based on these new peripherals. Clearly, we need to see an up-tick in trends regarding patience as it will be tougher for Morales to take advantage of mistake pitches in Seattle’s cavernous home park of Safeco Field (Yes, even with them moving in the fences slightly).

t will be a make or break season for Justin Smoak with Morales  Mike Carp all John Jaso all looking for DH time. nwssportsbeat.com

It will be a make or break season for Justin Smoak with Morales Mike Carp all John Jaso all looking for DH time. nwssportsbeat.com

With all these potential negatives, I still think the Mariners made the right move by acquiring an extra bat.  Morales suffered from a devastating injury and 2012 was his first year back.  It may very well be that the rust from his injury lay-off can be blamed for the erosion of his plate patience as he attempted to get back into the swing of things at the big league level this season.  There was a jump in power post-All-Star Break last year, which may support an argument that Morales was began to feel more comfortable at the plate later in the season (although he struck out the exact same number of times as the first half of the season in fewer plate appearances and his OBP actually decreased so I’m not sure that argument will hold water for very long).  Our one positive peripheral stat is his weighted on-base percentage or wOBA which was .339 in 2012. As a rule of thumb, this is a decent number for a hitter although again even that number is in sharp decline from 2009 to 2012. More than anything, I think the Mariners clearly needed any positive offensive force and are willing to roll the dice on Morales in hopes that his second season back from injury will provide better results.  However, by adding Morales, Seattle may have indirectly admitted failure on the development of Justin Smoak, and if so, then the entire Cliff Lee debacle of 2010 has to be considered a monumental waste of time and money for the organization.

The acquisition of Morales provides the Mariners an average to above average power bat for the heart of their lineup but also calls into question the future of Justin Smoak, who at 26 years old should be entering the prime of his career. Morales’ primary positions, first base and designated hitter, are the positions that should be manned by Smoak and Jesus Montero, the uber-prospect turned ordinary regular acquired by the Mariners in the Michael Pineda deal last season. When Seattle acquired Smoak in the Cliff Lee  trade during the 2010 season, they thought they were acquiring a middle of the lineup monster.  All his statistics in the Minor Leagues pointed to him being a can’t miss run producer.  Instead, he has been a massive
disappointment.  However, Smoak finished 2012 with perhaps the best month of his major league career, but the Morales trade does not bode well for the club’s long-term hopes for Smoak.  With John Jaso requiring At-Bats at Catcher, Montero requiring at-bats at catcher anddesignated hitter, Morales requiring at-bats at first base and Designated Hitter, Smoak will have limited opportunities to build upon that fantastic finish.  

This could be the biggest effect of the Morales trade.  As a side note: If I were running a team in a hitter friendly ball park in need of a first baseman, I would certainly be calling the Mariners to inquire about the cost associated with Smoak. He could be a low-cost, potentially high reward player if Seattle really is cutting his at-bats, and I can’t see how they aren’t with the Morales acquisition. Again, as with the Vargas end of the deal, the Angels were willing to trade Morales as they had created depth in the middle of their order with the monumental signing of superstar outfielder, Josh Hamilton.

After signing Hamilton, there was speculation that the Angels would attempt to trade center fielder Peter Bourjos.  The Angels decided to keep Bourjos and Mike Trout together to man one of the best defensive outfields in the major leagues.  Instead, the Angels looked to the  depth created at the first base/designated hitter spot with Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Morales as the place to trade.  I believe this is exactly where they should have looked.  Bourjos and Trout provide the Angels a defensive advantage and help protect the Angels at times suspect starting rotation with their spectacular glove work. Meanwhile, Morales is easily replaced by Mark Trumbo.  Trumbo’s Strike Out and walk rates are incredibly similar to Morales, however his plate discipline is probably worse than Morales, and Morales is assuredly the better defender.  With all that being said, Trumbo is two and a half years younger than Morales and has one big advantage right now on the field.  For two years straight, Trumbo’s ISO has sat at .223 and.222 respectively.  Trumbo offers consistent power that has translated to 29 and 32 Home Runs during the last 2 seasons.

Mark Trumbo will be a beneficiary of the recent trading of Morales.   There is no excuse not to play him with his raw power

Mark Trumbo will be a beneficiary of the recent trading of Morales. There is no excuse not to play him with his raw power

Additionally, Trumbo offers advantages off the field as well.  Trumbo is still on his entry-level MLB contract making $50o K this year with three more years of team control as he is Arbitration Eligible from 2014-2016.  Morales made $2.975 Million last season, should probably receive an arbitration raise and will be an unrestricted free agent going into 2014.  In the end, by trading Morales, the Angels kept together perhaps the premier defensive outfield in the game, created more at-bats for a power hitting asset and made a solid financial move (which for a team that is spending at the rate the Angels have been is very important).

In the end, both the Mariners and the Angels got what they wanted in this trade.  There may be unintended consequences for both sides and certainly different stories will spin-off the ramifications of this trade, but that could be said for just about any trade in baseball. In my mind this is probably a win/win, but if forced to pick a winner, I would have to go with the Angels.  They obtained valuable innings and added a piece that they didn’t have before the trade.  The Mariners added a useful bat, but as discussed that bat has some early warning signs of age/injury and has created a log-jam for at-bats. Perhaps Morales will provide more quality at-bats than Smoak this season, but if he does, the Mariners are left asking is Blake Beavan really the best piece we got for Cliff Lee?

100709_cliff_lee

*** The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of mlbreports.com and their partners***

A big thank-you goes out to Our ‘Trade Correspondent’ Nicholas Rossoletti for preparing today’s featured article. Nicholas is a young professional living in downtown Miami.  He is a lifelong baseball fan and an avid Yankee supporter.  Having grown up during the last two decades, he counts Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera as his favorite ball players of all time.  He believes in sabermetrics and that new stats have already changed the way the baseball industry sees players.  He was for Trout over Cabrera, he thinks RBIs tell you a lot more about a team than a player and that defense and pitching, ultimately, win championships.  Rational thought and introspective analysis over the narrative is how we come to understand the game we love.  The narrative is just a way to keep those who don’t really love the game watching.   Feel free to follow Nicholas on twitter and talk the game of baseball

 “There are three things in my life which I really love: God, my family, and baseball. The only problem – once baseball season starts, I change the order around a bit.” ~Al Gallagher, 1971

a    nicholas rossoletti

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Posted on January 4, 2013, in MLB Teams: Articles and Analysis, The Rest: Everything Baseball and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Considering Cliff Lee was a rental, wouldn’t it be best to remove him from the equation and evaluate who you traded to get him and who you got in return for him? Obviously, yes.

    The Mariners traded JC Ramirez, Tyson Gillies, Phillipe Aumont for Lee
    They traded him away for Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, Matthew Lawson.

    So we traded 3 players to the Phillies, I believe only one has made the major leagues, as an early inning reliever (Aumont).

    Lueke we flipped straight across for Jaso after the trade, so we have Smoak, Jaso, Beavan to show in return for Ramirez, Gillies, Aumont. Cliff Lee isn’t part of the equation as he was a short term rental. It’s what you gave up in prospects vs. what you got back, when talking a trade about a rental.

    You realize that’s a more accurate comparison right?

    • First, thank you for reading. I respectfully disagree that the purchase price for Lee needs to be taken into account here. The Mariners were trying to compete in 2010 based on the pitching-defense model. Lee was a rental when it became evident that their plan was flawed. Portraying him as a “rental” from the jump assumes that if Seattle’s plan had worked that they would not have competitively bid on him. I think that’s a flawed perception.

      At the point the M’s realized he would bring more back in a trade, all that matters is what the Mariners get for a top 10-15 pitcher. Concentrating on the success or failure of the assets dealt for Lee is a way to justify the return on investment in hindsight. The Mariners fleeced the Phillies, got slightly less fleeced by the Rangers and therefore, trading Cliff Lee was a net benefit. The problem with that reasoning is that it assumes that a marginal return on investment for a pitcher who has been worth 5 or more WAR over te last three years is adequate return. That can’t be how we judge successful trades. I, also, don’t believe the story is written that the Mariners did get fleeced because I don’t believe the Justin Smoak story is finished being written. The point of my piece is that the Morales move eliminates plate appearances from the key asset in that deal. If Smoak is a failure or if the organization quits on him before he becomes what he could be, then I believe the Lee trade is a failure. Regardless of what the franchise paid six months earlier. Buying a Ferrari for 10,000 and selling it for 15,000 when it’s worth 100,000 doesn’t make the seller a good business man, it just makes him slightly better then the guy who he got the Ferrari from.

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