Michael Morse originally came up and was drafted as a shortstop. In his rookie season, in 2005, he started 50 games for the Mariners at the position. Think about that. At a listed 6’5″ and 245 lbs, Morse hardly fits the profile of a lithe, graceful shortstop. For anyone who has watched him clomp around left field and fight losing battles to fly balls in the gap, it seems unfathomable that he was once considered a reasonable option at one of the hardest positions on the baseball diamond.
Another fun fact: Morse was one of the three prospects, along with Jeremy Reed and Miguel Olivo, that Seattle netted from the White Sox for Freddy Garcia back at the 2004 trade deadline. Reed, somewhat famously, ended up as an utter flameout who couldn’t come close to matching the gaudy batting averages he put up in the minors. Olivo has had his uses as a power-hitting catcher on bad teams, but he’s been more famous as a running joke in saber-circles for his knack for ending up with more home runs than walks in entire seasons.
Morse, on the other hand, would go on to big success, namely hitting 31 home runs in 2011. None of this would happen with Seattle, though. Morse’s early career sputtered and stopped, and the Mariners essentially gave up on him. The Nationals decided to take a gamble on him for the low, low price of Ryan Langerhans, and it paid off. From 2010-2012 with Washington, Morse slashed .296/.345/.516 and bashed 64 home runs in 346 games.
Another fun fact: Morse was a steroid guy, a fact that baseball scribes these days seem to like to gloss over. In 2005, Morse received a 10-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancers. He hasn’t failed a test since and is clean as a whistle until he demonstrates otherwise, but his example demonstrates why the sports media can be damned ridiculous at times. When Jose Bautista had his power spike in 2009, baseball writers couldn’t hang him on the cross fast enough, despite Bautista never having a positive test. When Morse was raking through his 31-homer season at age 29, I don’t really remember anybody pointing a finger at him calling him a cheat. If that seems like a goofy double-standard, it’s probably because it is. I’m not saying Morse was (or is) back on the juice (I don’t think he is and I frankly don’t care); I’m saying that the steroid “debate” that continues to roll on in baseball is mostly just asinine.
What was the point of all this? Oh yeah, the Giants signed Michael Morse yesterday. They inked him to a one-year deal worth $6 million, ostensibly to be their starting left fielder. Brian Sabean stated after the season that the team was looking to add power to left field (the team received a collective .337 slugging percentage from their left fielders in 2013), and the Giants apparently got their man for the price they were looking for.
The Giants were able to get Morse so cheaply because he was awful last year. Traded to the Mariners before the season, Morse hit a brutal .226/.283/.410 with Seattle, and added the worst strikeout rate of his career. The Mariners shipped him off to Baltimore for a song at the playoff roster deadline, and Morse’s line in 30 plate appearances with the Orioles is made of nightmares.
So he’s a bit of a reclamation project. Luckily for the Giants, there’s evidence that Morse’s struggles were the product of injuries. Morse spent over a month in the summer on the DL, and dealt with a bum wrist for the last half of the season. After the Orioles got knocked out of playoff contention, Morse had surgery on the wrist and figures to be all better by Spring.
As you would expect, Morse’s pre-injury numbers were more or less in line with his career norms. In April, he slashed .245/.288/.510; in May, he finished at .267/.360/.413. Not great numbers, per se, but not a disaster, and the power was still there. Once the injury bug bit him, his numbers started to slide and ended up in the gutter. After missing most of July, Morse was basically useless in the season’s final two months, slashing .143/.182/.238. So there is ample evidence that Morse lost his ability to hit because he was hurt. Guys don’t just develop this kind of inability to make contact unless something is very wrong (or in case their name is B.J Upton).
I give this signing a favorable review. On a one-year deal, Morse is low-risk with a potentially very high upside. If his wrist is healthy and he can launch 20-some-odd home runs, the Giants have themselves the makings of quite a lineup. Rumors were in full force all week that a Morse signing was impending, and I was terrified (and almost resigned to the fact) that the Giants were going to go nuclear on teams like the Astros and blow Morse away with a three-year offer.
However, they were able to get Morse to agree to one year, perhaps with the promise of playing for a contender, and as such this is a terrific gamble. Even if Morse isn’t productive, well, the next one-year contract that completely shackles a team will be the first. If he is healthy and hitting, he’s a power-hitting asset, and AT&T Park’s home run-squelching ways are much more forgiving toward right-handed hitters.
The signing also has the ripple effect of putting Gregor Blanco in a role much more accomodating of his talents, that of the fourth outfielder. Blanco is a terrific player who gets on base and plays good defense at all three outfield spots, but he’s no one’s idea of a player who should be getting 550 plate appearances.
Since Morse apparently is to left field defense what Carrie Underwood is to a Julie Andrews role, Blanco (and Juan Perez, for that matter) figures to get a lot of play as a late-inning defensive replacement. For those worried about Morse’s allergy to catching fly balls, just remember that the Giants had Pat Burrell standing out there for six innings a game in 2010 and they did just fine.
Morse comes with ample warning signs, obviously. There is the poor defense, the injury-proneness, and the fact that he’s 31 and has never been one to exhibit much patience at the plate. Players with these traits don’t last too long past their 30’s.
At the price, though, the Giants would have been idiots to pass on Morse. It beats trading a pitching prospect or two for Brett Gardner. It beats shelling out too much money and too many years for Shin-Soo Choo. It beats holding our noses through 200 shitty at-bats from Roger Kieschnick. While other teams are handing out highly questionable multi-year deals to free agents this offseason (coughmarinerstwinscough), the Giants are improving the team with low-risk signings like Morse and Tim Hudson. The moves may not turn them into World Champions again, but they sure as hell beat having an albatross hung over the team, Zito-style, for half a dozen years.