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Mariners deal for Michael Morse, get worse

The Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals made a three-team deal yesterday, with Michael Morse heading back to Seattle, A.J. Cole heading back to Washington, and John Jaso heading back to a team that really values on-base percentage.

Jamie Squire

The big baseball news on Wednesday was the three-team trade between the Seattle Mariners, the Oakland Athletics, and the Washington Nationals. The Mariners acquired 1B/LF Michael Morse, the Athletics acquired C/DH John Jaso, and the Washington Nationals added pitching prospects A.J. Cole, Blake Trenien, and a player to be named later.

Both the Mariners and Nationals re-acquired former players in this deal, while the Athletics acquired a catcher ... when they already had two decent ones on the 25-man roster. To really judge the value of this deal for each team, we'll have to break it down.

The Seattle Mariners perspective

First, let's look briefly at the off-season additions that the Mariners have made thus far:

  • Kendrys Morales -- 1B/DH
  • Jason Bay -- LF/DH
  • Raul Ibanez -- DH/LF
  • Michael Morse -- 1B/LF/DH

Do you see a pattern here? It appears that the team has added four players for three positions. This is a little weird, but one could see a world in which Bay and Ibanez platoon at DH or left field. By itself, this might even be a decent set of additions ... but the team already has Casper Wells (a fine platoon outfielder), Justin Smoak (ostensibly, a starting first baseman still) and Jesus Montero (ostensibly, a starting DH still).

So Mike Morse moves into a starting role somewhere (that's why you trade for him), but this creates a glut of players heading into the 1B / LF / DH positions. If you assume that Jesus Montero is moving back behind the dish (which will not give fans of defense anything to get excited about), the Mariners have Smoak, Morales, Bay, Ibanez, and Morse to play first, left, and only hit.

Let's quickly look at last season's wRC+ for each of those five players: Smoak (wRC+ 85), Morales (wRC+ 118), Bay (wRC+ 48), Ibanez (wRC+ 102), and Morse (wRC+ 113). Going by just offensive performance, you'd expect Morales and Morse to be no-brainers in the lineup at two positions. Ibanez may have had the best performance last season, but one would be wise to expect a decrease in performance as he enters his age-41 season. Smoak showed life at the end of the 2012 season, but is still (sort of) young. Bay is awful, and probably has no business on this team.

While Smoak is a switch-hitter, he was much more successful against left-handed pitchers (wRC+ 99) -- in an admittedly smaller sample. Ibanez only hits righties (wRC+ 115), so the two of them might actually be a reasonable platoon. So if the team runs Smoak (1B), Morse (LF), and Morales (DH) out against lefties ... and Morales (1B), Ibanez (LF), and Morse (DH) against righties, that might be okay.

The problem here is that, in a vacuum, Morse is not a better hitter than John Jaso, the player he was traded for. Jaso also plays a tougher position, though both Jaso and Morse are terrible defenders. Jaso is cheaper, and is under team control for longer. If Morse is used at DH at all, well, Jaso could do that, and probably better, except against lefties.

I don't see the point of this deal, or the Bay deal, or really the Ibanez deal for that matter, from a performance standpoint. It's pretty weird. Morse could very well hit worse than Jaso next year, and do it costing the team more, and playing a position they had already filled. And, by the way, they're really going to eat it on defense at more than a few positions. Yikes.

The Oakland Athletics perspective

Honestly, I *really* like this deal for the Athletics, even though the team ostensibly already has a long-term answer at catcher. Derek Norris was a major part of the Gio Gonzalez deal, and I think he's got a bright future behind the dish in Oakland. At the same time, the Athletics contended in 2013, and they must think they can contend again this season. And Norris, a strong catching prospect, probably can't compare to the potent bat (read: eye) of John Jaso.

Despite not receiving regular playing time until May, Jaso was one of the biggest values in baseball in 2012. Thanks to a spike in power (even playing in cavernous SafeCo Field), and the continued refinement of his sharp batting eye, Jaso posted a triple-slash line of .276/.394/.456, good for a massive 143 wRC+. Consider that for a moment -- Jaso hit 43% better than league average in his 361 plate appearances. That's a phenomenally high number.

While Mariners blogs and saber nerds went ballistic over Jaso's season, there are a few reasons to think that Jaso might not be a fit in the Mariners' long-term plans. The team already has two other catchers who are about ready to go (Mike Zunino and Jesus Montero), and Jaso profiles as a platoon-only bat (even though Matt at Lookout Landing may disagree).

So the Athletics had Norris and George Kottaras on the roster, and A's fans could probably see the makings of a pretty effective catcher tandem if they squinted. Norris didn't hit much in 2012 (wRC+ of 73), but has good-enough defensive chops and a history of hitting for power and walking in the minors. Kottaras is probably underrated by most, as he posted a 114 wRC+ last year and a 110 wRC+ the year before. But keep in mind that, not only were those small samples (combined, Kottaras has 332 plate appearances over both seasons), but in 2011 he had an extremely heavy split, and in 2012, his walk rate jumped to an unbelievable 17.7%. That's high even for a walk machine like Kottaras.

Basically, Jaso is an upgraded version of Kottaras for the Athletics, but he's a heck of an upgrade. Both players walk and hit for a little power, but Kottaras strikes out far more often, and has never played anywhere near the number of games Jaso has in the bigs, despite the two players being close in age. Neither player should be expected to prove as they hit 30, but Jaso provides more immediate value ... and is under team control for three more seasons, compared to Kottaras's two.

One last important thing: Kottaras was designated for assignment after this deal went through, which is a little odd, especially when Jesse Chavez is still on the 25-man roster. Kottaras should be able to bring back value in a trade (especially with the Yankees or White Sox), so if he winds up being released, I'd think this is a bit short-sighted by the Athletics.

Was all that catcher-adjustment worth giving up the pitching prospects the A's dealt? I'd say yes, especially given the window that's open in Oakland. The team thrived last year with its young pitching and solid performance from stars like Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick. Jaso can use his potent bat as the heavy side of a strong offensive catching platoon, or the team could use him as a DH if Norris proves he's an everyday player so early. As always, the Athletics have, in the absence of world-beating stars, acquired another "flawed" player who can contribute huge value if used properly. I expect Jaso to have another big year, and the Athletics contending again with the Rangers and Angels in the West.

If only they could deal Coco Crisp or Chris Young for someone to play on the left side of the infield, this team would be in very, very strong shape heading into the season.

The Washington Nationals perspective

I find it very, very hard to spin this deal as anything other than a win for the Nationals. The addition of two pitching prospects from the Athletics (A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen), plus a player to be named later, in exchange for a player with no role on this team? Please. It's a no brainer.

I'm not deep into the scouting reports on Cole and Treinen, but Cole is a very real starting pitching prospect. Though Cole struggled in High-A to start 2012 -- with an ERA near eight in just 38 innings -- he tore up Low-A (95+ innings, 27.1% strikeout rate, 2.07 ERA, and 2.74 FIP) on his return to the lower level. He'll get another crack at High-A, and maybe Double-A this season. Cole was rated by Marc Hulet of FanGraphs as the No. 3 prospect in the Nationals system before 2012, and now that he's back, he'll probably be somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Blake Treinen is a live arm, but that's about all at this point. Treinen spent time in both the rotation and the bullpen in 2012, throwing 103 innings at Stockton for the A's. Blake didn't have the world-beating numbers that you'd like to see from a top-tier pitching prospect (3.59 FIP, 4.37 ERA), but his peripherals show a solid skillset. He struck out 20.5% of batters faced, while walking just 5.1%. He out-performed Cole when both were in High-A, and should get a crack at Double-A next season. He could be a reliever or a back-end starter, if everything breaks right.

Meanwhile, Michael Morse had no place on this squad. With Jayson Werth or Bryce Harper manning left field, and Adam LaRoche returning to first base, he would have been a bench bat at best. So if the team could get anything substantive for him -- and I think they did -- then this has to grade out as a win, especially considering the team saved $6.75 million in 2013 salary as well.

The Nationals are also the only team in this deal not creating a logjam, and I think that says something positive about them. Instead, they're just trading a little present value for what could be some solid long-term value. Oh, and they're still my favorites to win the National League pennant this season. Not bad, gents.