The Adam LaRoche derby came to an end on Tuesday, when the first baseman chose to stay in the nation’s capital on a two-year contract with a mutual option for the 2015 season. Today’s Roundup is a look at the implications of the deal; Ben Lindbergh analyzed the agreement itself here.
After re-signing LaRoche, Nationals mulling options with Michael Morse
LaRoche’s two-month tour of the free-agent market lasted as long as it did for two reasons: his unyielding demand for a three-year hitch, and general manager Mike Rizzo’s strong leverage to avoid offering one. The source of that leverage was the presence of Morse—who played almost exclusively in the outfield last year, but fits better defensively at first base—and the acquisition of Denard Span, who pushed Bryce Harper to left field, thereby creating the possibility of moving Morse. Now that Rizzo has prevailed in his negotiations with LaRoche’s agent, Mike Milchin, he must decide whether there is still a role for Morse on the 2013 roster.
Just minutes after news of the signing broke, national baseball writers swarmed Twitter in a race to break down the Morse sweepstakes. FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal heard from a source that five or six teams were actively speaking with Rizzo about the 30-year-old Morse, who is set to earn $7 million in 2013, the second year of a two-year, $10.5 million extension that he signed last Jan. 20 in a decision to forgo his remaining arbitration eligibility. ESPN’s Jim Bowden doubled Rosenthal’s total, claiming that Rizzo is actually fielding calls from 10 or 11 of his counterparts. And thus, by the mid-afternoon, our own Jason Collette quipped that armchair GMs from all 29 other teams were concocting hypothetical offers for Morse, in a frenzy trumped only by the Giancarlo Stanton madness that swarmed the Internet during the past few weeks:
The Phillies are among the teams still seeking offensive upgrades, and Morse—a (kind of) versatile right-handed hitter—would complement manager Charlie Manuel’s incumbent pieces well. But Rosenthal is skeptical that Rizzo would trade Morse to a division rival, and he named the Mariners, Orioles, Rays, and Yankees as viable alternatives. CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman added the Indians, Mets, and Rangers as possible fits, and it’s possible that Sandy Alderson will have more luck wooing Rizzo than Ruben Amaro because the Mets are not viewed as a threat to the Nationals in 2013. Assuming that all of those teams are on Bowden’s list of 10 or 11, two or three other suitors remain unidentified.
Rizzo’s intentions are also somewhat muddled. He told reporters in the wake of the LaRoche agreement, “Nobody said that we have to trade Michael Morse,” and added that while as many as a dozen teams have shown interest, there is no financial pressure to unload him. On the other hand, Washington Post beat writer Adam Kilgore reminded followers that manager Davey Johnson said earlier this winter that keeping both LaRoche and Morse would leave him with too many mouths to feed. If the skipper and his boss are on the same page, then Rizzo’s statement on Tuesday was most likely just an attempt to improve his leverage in trade talks.
And that leverage could be critical, because Morse’s preferences may serve to diminish it. Rosenthal followed up on his initial report by speaking with sources that indicated that Morse “strongly opposes being a [designated hitter],” a sentiment that, if rigid, would make him unattractive to some American League suitors. A lumbering 6-foot-5, 230 pounder, Morse is a below-average outfielder (-2.4 FRAA in 2012, -8.7 career FRAA) with poor range and a mediocre arm, and his defensive shortcomings eat significantly into his offensive contributions. If he is unwilling to help teams to hide those shortcomings, then many will be reluctant to match Rizzo’s price tag.
A Nationals insider told Bowden that the asking price for Morse is a left-handed reliever and/or prospects to revive a farm system that graduated Bryce Harper last year and now lacks depth. Johnson’s primary bullpen southpaws, Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez, departed in free agency to the Angels and Brewers, respectively, and while Rizzo retained Zach Duke and inked Bill Bray to a minor-league deal, finding a reliable complement to Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen would provide the finishing touch to a roster that is otherwise complete.
Many of the aforementioned suitors have lefties to spare. The Mariners, who shipped Morse to the Nationals for Ryan Langerhans in 2009, could try to bring him back with an offer that includes either Charlie Furbush or Lucas Luetge. Meanwhile, the Orioles might make Brian Matusz available, the Rays could dangle Jake McGee, and the Yankees—enticed by Morse’s expiring contract—may put Boone Logan on the table. Then again, Rizzo told reporters, including CSN Washington beat writer Mark Zuckerman, that he is confident in his righty relievers’ ability to retire opposite-handed batters, a comment that suggests that his focus is on obtaining minor-league talent.
Does the LaRoche deal affect Mike Napoli’s limbo with the Red Sox?
And if Morse can be pried away with a return bundle comprised mainly of prospect value, then the Red Sox, in an intriguing subplot, could become a viable buyer. General manager Ben Cherington might use either Craig Breslow or Andrew Miller to kick off his package, but neither is likely to suffice in a one-for-one barter. Fortunately, Cherington has a rapidly improving farm system from which to provide a sweetener that seals the deal.
Remember the aforementioned staring contest between LaRoche and the Nationals? The Red Sox were one of the teams that maintained their interest in LaRoche throughout the offseason, and they were keeping tabs on his status as recently as Dec. 27. The connection was a win-win: Milchin could use the Red Sox to pressure Rizzo into a three-year hitch, and the Red Sox could use LaRoche to hedge their bets on Napoli, whose three-year, $39 million contract still hangs in the balance. Now that LaRoche is gone, Cherington’s has lost his primary backup plan to Napoli, and Morse represents his most credible alternative.
ESPN Boston’s Gordon Edes corroborated the Morse idea, and also noted—after speaking with Napoli’s agent, Brian Grieper—that there appears to be no progress on that front. Boston Globe beat writer Peter Abraham repeated what has been the Red Sox’ company line since concerns arose during Napoli’s physical: They remain “hopeful,” but the process of amending the pact to include language that protects the team from what is “believed to be a preexisting hip injury” has moved at a glacial pace. There is no reason to believe that the sides are not negotiating in good faith, but as long as Morse remains on the trade market, the Red Sox have little motivation to cross the T’s unless they have their way with the medical jargon.