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Toronto overpaid for Kendrys Morales

The early years of the Blue Jays’ front office have mostly gone well, but giving Morales a big contract in an offseason where power came cheap was a misstep.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Since the regime change in Toronto sometime late 2015, the Shatkins duo (Mark Shapiro, team president, and Ross Atkins, GM) have mostly done a commendable job of trying to extend the team’s current competitive window while simultaneously restocking the minor league system. To do so, they made some smart moves, including hiring Ben Cherington and Gil Kim to oversee their draft and player development side.

In the two subsequent drafts, the front office has added some players who have the potential to impact the big league club down the road. The crown jewel of the two drafts is shortstop Bo Bichette, who has been putting up video game numbers in his first full season as a professional. Other notable draftees include T.J. Zeuch (2016), Logan Warmoth (2017) and Nate Pearson (2017). Additionally, they’ve been active on the international market, signing Eric Pardinho. Of course, not all of these prospects will pan out, and even if they do, they won’t impact the big league club for some time. However, by all accounts, the team led by Shatkins has done a good job of juggling the need to restock its farm with the desire to win now at the major league level.

On the free agent side, things have also gone fairly well under the new front office. The first major transaction was re-signing Marco Estrada to a 2-year, $26-million deal, followed by the extremely shrewd J.A. Happ deal for 3 years and $36 million at a time when David Price was inking a 7-year, and $217-million contract with the rival Boston Red Sox. Of course, Happ is no Price, but it has made for a much smarter signing — Happ has produced 6.0 bWAR since then — allowing the team to spread its cash across several other useful players. Cheap deals like the one with Happ enabled some of the moves from this past offseason, like the re-signing of Jose Bautista and the contract with veteran relief pitcher Joe Smith.

But there’s one transaction of significance from last offseason that sticks out, and not for a good reason: the signing of Kendrys Morales. In a year where power came cheap, the Blue Jays badly misread the market and signed Morales to a three-year, $33-million contract just weeks after the 2016 World Series. It started to look bad even before the season began, when the Cleveland Indians signed Edwin Encarnacion for three years and $60 million with a team option for a fourth year. Although Encarnacion was always going to cost more than Morales, the value he promised was much greater as well: from 2014–16, Encarnacion had 12 WAR to Morales’s 3. During a private talk at a university in Toronto, Mark Shaprio mentioned that in free agency, you’re essentially buying wins. By that logic, and using their past performance as a rough estimate, Toronto paid 11 million per year for less than a win per year while Cleveland is paying Encarnacion somewhere between 6-7 million per win.

Nor has Morales taken some giant leap forward that might justify his contract. This year, he’s batting .258/.311/.464 with 17 home runs. His wOBA thus far is .328, which translates to a 103 wRC+ (i.e., three percent better than a league-average hitter). This is what one would expect Morales to be, more or less. Compare his numbers to Jose Bautista’s, who by all accounts is having an off year with a .327 wOBA and 102 wRC+. Bautista in an off year is worth as much as Morales in any given year.

And again, as became clear later in the offseason, the Blue Jays could’ve had Morales (or a similar lumbering slugger) for much, much less than what they actually paid. Here’s a list of some of the players who hit at least 20 home runs in 2016 and signed free agent contract last off season:

Free Agent Contracts signed in 2017-2018 off season (20+ HR)

Name G PA HR BB% K% wOBA wRC+ WAR Contract Years AAV (millions) Option
Name G PA HR BB% K% wOBA wRC+ WAR Contract Years AAV (millions) Option
Justin Turner 151 622 27 7.70% 17.20% 0.353 124 5.6 4 16
Edwin Encarnacion 160 702 42 12.40% 19.70% 0.373 134 3.9 3 20 Team
Ian Desmond 156 677 22 6.50% 23.60% 0.336 106 3.3 5 14 Club
Yoenis Cespedes 132 543 31 9.40% 19.90% 0.369 134 3.2 4 27.5
Carlos Beltran 151 593 29 5.90% 17.00% 0.358 124 2.3 1 16
Mark Trumbo 159 667 47 7.60% 25.50% 0.358 123 2.2 3 12.5
Michael Saunders 140 558 24 10.60% 28.10% 0.348 117 1.4 1 9
Jose Bautista 116 517 22 16.80% 19.90% 0.355 122 1.4 1 18.5 Mutual
Mike Napoli 150 645 34 12.10% 30.10% 0.343 113 1 1 8.5 Club
Chris Carter 160 644 41 11.80% 32.00% 0.346 112 0.9 1 3.5
Kendrys Morales 154 618 30 7.80% 19.40% 0.339 110 0.7 3 33
Mitch Moreland 147 503 22 7.00% 23.50% 0.307 87 0.4 1 5.5

As you can see, Morales ranked second to last on this list in WAR, he has no positional flexibility, and can really only play designated hitter (where his league-average batting line is unimpressive). The player son the list are either much better than Morales, or offer similar value but signed shorter deals for less money.

Of course, this is a simplistic assessment. There are other considerations front offices need to take into account when making a contract offer. What other needs does the roster have? Where else does the team need to allocate money? What are the payroll parameters?

However, my dislike of the Morales signing is not about money. After all, it’s only three years and 33 million; probably an albatross of a contract in hockey, but not baseball. More importantly, signing Morales restricts the Blue Jays’ flexibility, as he permanently occupies the DH spot on a team where four of its eight position players are on the wrong side of 30.

The ripple effect of Morales playing DH everyday means Steve Pearce has to play left field. When the season began, the assumption was that Pearce would platoon with Justin Smoak, but with Smoak having a breakout year and Pearce’s bat giving the team some much-needed production, they’ve both played, at the expense of Toronto’s outfield defense. With Bautista, the Jays now have two below-average outfielders manning the corners, no doubt a factor in the pitching staff’s inconsistencies.

Going forward, Toronto will have to make up its mind about Morales or Pearce. They should explore a trade for one of them. I would argue its more important to move Morales, thus freeing up the $11 million owed to a league-average hitter and allowing Anthony Alford or Dwight Smith Jr. to play everyday. Giving Alford/Smith everyday at-bats not only allows the team to find out what they have in those near-MLB-ready prospects, but it will also improve their outfield defense and speed significantly. As long as Smoak continues to hit, Morales is more or less redundant to this ball club. It would also open up the DH slot for older players to rotate through, allowing the Jays to give Bautista, JD and Tulo more days off the field while keeping their bats in the lineup.

Morales isn’t doing much to contribute to the Blue Jays present, and it seem slike he’s harming the future as well. But his underwhelming play also means that it’ll be hard to trade him anywhere. Moving him can open an opportunity for the Jays to improve on other areas, in 2017 and beyond. But even if they manage to get rid of Morales, he’ll still go down as the first big mistake of the Shatkins era in Toronto.