Friday, January 18, 2013

Examining the Morse - Jaso - Cole deal

The A's, Mariners and Nationals completed a three-way deal yesterday. The most famous player in the deal, first baseman/corner outfielder/slugger Mike Morse is headed from Washington, DC to Washington state, catcher John Jaso heads south on I-5 from Seattle to Oakland, and minor league pitchers A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen. To clear a spot for Jaso, the Athletics also designated catcher George Kottaras for assignment. The Mariners and GM Jack Zduriencik are catching a lot of flak from the trade. Jeff Sullivan at Lookout Landing and Dave Cameron at USS Mariner (both of who also contribute at FanGraphs) both pilloried the deal. Cameron even ventured to call the trade "Bavasi-esque" which is a pretty powerful slur in Marinerland.

I think it's a bit of an overreaction, but I'll get into that a couple paragraphs down. I want to start with the observation that Mike Rizzo and the Nationals made an absolute KILLING in this exchange. They dealt a first-baseman who they didn't need after Adam LaRoche was resigned, and in exchange got Cole, who Baseball America rated the #1 prospect in the Oakland system last year. Cole struggled mightily in the California League last year, but that comes with the caveat that the California League is probably the worst place to pitch in professional baseball. The entire league averaged 5.4 runs per game. That doesn't excuse Cole for allowing more than a run per inning, giving up 40 (33 earned) in 38.0 innings pitched. But given his age - he turned 21 two weeks ago - that's little reason to give up on him. Particularly since he's been fantastic at his other professional levels. In 19 appearances this year with Burlington* of the Midwest League, he had a 2.07 ERA and a K/BB ratio over 5.0. His home run rate in the California League screams small sample size variation - he allowed 7 in 38 innings, after allowing onlu 13 in 185 innings at his other professional stops. His scouting profile pegs him as having the stuff of a potential #1. He's a high-risk player, for sure, but the Nationals made a low-risk move to get him. If he doesn't pan out, they really didn't lose out at all.

*Note: The Oakland A's have teams in both Burlington, Iowa AND Burlington, Vermont. There should be some kind of rule against this.

The fact they were able to get Treinen thrown in as well seems like an impossible bonus. Treinen is more of a fringe prospect, but he was taken in the 7th round in 2011. His 4.37 ERA in 2012 doesn't impress, until you realize, once again... the California League! His ERA was actually above average there. He also had a K/BB ratio of 4.0. Perhaps he shouldn't be stuck in the California League as a 24-year old, but he's a throw in as part of a deal the Nationals already would be the winners of on paper.

Now, on to the Mariners. They gave up Jaso, a catcher who had excellent OBPs in 2010 and 2012, but was terrible in 2011. His .394 OBP in 2012 would have placed him fourth in the American League, had he enough plate appearances to qualify. Jaso is 29, and has a career .255/.359/.395 line, meaning he fits the Oakland profile perfectly. He is generally seen as a below average, though adequate, defender.

Morse is a better hitter than Jaso. He lacks Jaso's patience, but his power is real. He has a .492 career slugging percentage, and an even more impressive .516 since 2011. On the other hand, his walk rate cratered in 2012, falling from around 7% in 2010 and 2011 to just above 3% in 2013. This, of course, makes him a perfect fit for Seattle, which had a team OBP of .296, 13 points lower than the next worst-AL team. Morse is also a versatile player, at least nominally. As forum poster Joshv02 accurately described him, "Morse's versatility is the ability to stand in multiple places and not get to the baseball." Morse definitely would win the Dmitri Young Award for the Player Least Likely to Have Reached to the Major Leagues as a Shortstop, But Actually Did. Still, the ability to stand at multiple positions on the field and not kill the team is useful, and it increases Morse's versatility.

To me, this trade needs to be analyzed at two levels. first as an exchange in a vacuum, and the second in context. It is at that second level, I think, that the Mariners are receiving such derision.

First, in a vacuum. All else being equal, receiving Mike Morse for John Jaso is a sensible deal to me. A case can be made that Morse is the better player. He has excellent power, great line drive rates, and can play multiple positions. He doesn't cost much, and as a pending free agent, could probably be resigned at reasonable money. Jaso is one of the better catchers in the league at getting on base, was a better player than Morse in 2012, is a year younger, and is under team control two years longer. As a straight-up deal, Morse would fit a lot of teams better than Jaso would.

Unfortunately, Seattle is NOT one of those teams, and this is why context is important. Less than a month ago, they traded Jason Vargas, a useful starting pitcher, in exchange for Kendrys Morales, a player with a very similar profile to Morse. Morales is a switch hitter while Morse is a righty, but they are both free-swinging, plus-power, mediocre defenders. Both are moving to Safeco Field, the which suppresses power more than any other stadium in the American League. 

It's likely that one will be the first baseman and the other the designated hitter. Where does that leave Jesus Montero? Back at catcher, it appears. I know I sound like a broken record on this, but I don't think Montero is a catcher, and I think we've reached the point where the Yankees' and Mariners' attempts to make him a catcher has had a negative effect on his offensive skills, which are still vast. The Carlos Delgado comparison still stands. With an overloaded 1B/DH spot and no other major league catcher, though, Montero seems destined for the spot. It's not just my amateurish scouting that is down on Montero, too. He was the worst catcher in the American League in Total Zone Total Fielding Runs at -8. Back over at Lookout Landing, this study showed that Montero is a terrible receiver, costing his pitchers 1.43 strikes per game. He might not be the offensive player that Morales and Morse are yet, but he has a much higher upside, a legit .300 hitter/35 home run threat at his peak. He needs at bats, and not at bats while taking the wear and tear of being a catcher. 

*Note: Mike Piazza screwed up everyones perceptions here. He could hit like he did while being an adequate catcher. Now, whenever a hit-first catcher comes up, it seems Piazza is referenced as a comparison. There's a huge difference between being a below-average catcher and being out of position there. Most people cannot catch at the major league level, and nobody has been able to do it while hitting like Mike Piazza.

To me, a team of Morales at first, Montero at DH and Jaso at catcher sounds better than Morales, Morse and Montero. Morse is a better hitter than Jaso, but does he make up for the downgrade defensively, AND for how much worse Montero is likely to hit under the stress of catching full time? 

That's difficult to quantify, of course. I'd disagree, but if someone wants to answer "yes" to that question, I wouldn't think less of him. Beyond that, though, is where the Mariners are as an organization. As mentioned above, Morse has one year left on his contract. He's not likely to be prohibitively expensive, but he will be MORE expensive, and he'll also be likely to decline if the Mariners do extend him. The Mariners also finished last in 2013. Granted, they went 75-87, making them by far baseball's best last place team. (Look at this roster - that team won six more games than the Red Sox? I'm a little sick right now). It's hard to picture them competing with the Angels and Rangers in 2013, even if you squint. This team is being built for 2014 forward, and they're amassing a pretty imprssive far system. Mike Zunino, the catcher taken #3 pick in the 2012 draft, had what I consider the most impressive pro debut from that class (apologies to Kevin Gausman), raking his way to Double-A. It's the pitching in the system that has everyone so impressed, though. Righty Taijuan Walker, and lefties Danny Hultzen and James Paxton form the best trio of minor league arms in the possession of any organization. 

This begs the question - if the A's were willing to trade Cole and Treinen for Jaso, why didn't the Mariners take Cole and Treinen? This lack of a blueprint is what has Mariners fans so upset. Given the choice between another pair of quality young arms, the Mariners, a last place team, chose the middling first baseman with one year left on his deal. Thinking Jaso was at the height of his value and dealing him was absolutely defensible - in normal circumstances, I'd give Zduriencik credit for recognizing that. And if we didn't know that the A's were willing to deal Cole and Treinen for Jaso, I don't think he'd be catching nearly as much flak. In a vacuum, Jaso for Morse is a reasonable deal. Given the context, given everything else going on, it looks like a mistake.

Another thought here regarding perception. Zduriencik is getting slammed here, but Billy Beane is getting off easy. That's fair- Beane has earned the benefit of the double, while Zduriencik has earned the ire of Mariner fans and a spot on the hot seat. But I don't think Beane did very well here. Jaso is an obvious Oakland A's-type player, with an excellent approach and good on-base skills. Still, to trade the package he did for a 29-year-old catcher coming off a career best season? The upgrade from Kottaras to Jaso is not worth Cole and Treinen, unless Beane thinks something is seriously wrong with Cole. Even so, it seems like he could've gotten a better package from someone for Cole, or gotten away with a small package as a direct exchange for Jaso.

Still, Billy Beane has earned the benefit of the doubt. He's made some unorthodox deals, and clearly knows what he's doing more than I do. Jack Zduriencik has not earned the same privilege, which is why he's the one being killed for this deal.

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