Expect market for Morales to heat up

 The start of Major League Baseball’s 2014 amateur draft brings a sense of excitement and exuberance to the hundreds of hopefuls who have dreamt about hearing their favourite team call their name from the podium, but this year there’s no doubt the draft brings a sense of relief to a particular slugger still looking for a job: Kendrys Morales. The soon to be 31-year old is now free of the draft pick compensation that has presumably prevented him from signing the lucrative free agent contract that he sought at the beginning of last winter. Teams like the Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers, and Kansas City Royals are rumored to still be interested in acquiring the designated hitter, so it seems as though it’s only a matter of time — possibly just days — until an agreement is reached and announced.

As Spring Training began in February, Morales’ agent Scott Boras made it well known that his client would be willing to wait until after the draft to sign the right deal. And by right, they likely meant most lucrative. As the season began, and stretched into May and June, Boras maintained that stance and we now know that that wasn’t a bluff. It’s also been reported that Morales turned down a three-year contract extension offer from Seattle last summer, and of course, he declined the one-year $14.1 million qualifying offer. It’s easy to debate whether or not the right decisions were made on those two offers, especially with what we know now, but presuming Morales signs within the next week or so and is ready for game action by the end of June, he will be a player that has missed the first three months of the 2014 campaign.

The most obvious situational comparison here is a player returning from a major injury of some sort and requiring an adjustment period to get back to the level of production that they are capable of. An alternative comparison is the case of Stephen Drew who ended up re-signing with the Boston Red Sox in May and is working his way back to game shape after missing the first two months of the season. Seeing what he’s able to produce upon his return to the big leagues could offer some point of reference for what Morales can be expected to provide on his potential return. The reality of the situation is that Morales will be a player that’s approximately nine months removed from playing, and will require a possibly significant adjustment period. If he were to sign tomorrow, it’d be fair to suggest one wouldn’t see him playing for the signing team until the end of June, or in about three or four weeks time.

On to the latest report on the Morales situation in which Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com lists the Brewers, Mariners, and a mystery team as the favourites to land the free agent. The Brewers are currently sitting atop the National League Central and the trio of Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun, and Jonathan Lucroy have anchored the offence that has scored the tenth most runs in all of baseball this year. First base has been an area of weakness for the club however, as the regular starter Lyle Overbay has produced just a 65 wRC+ so far this season. It’s easy to see the potential fit here provided the club is willing to play Morales at first everyday, so depending on where the asking price currently sits, this match definitely could make sense.

Certainly the M’s lineup could use a boost given the injuries to Corey Hart and Logan Morrison and lack of production from the shortstop position, but the reports of the club having little to no payroll flexibility appear to be the biggest obstacle between a potential reunion. Seattle has been finding ways to win with the likes of Endy Chavez and Cole Gillespie in the lineup of late — the M’s enter Friday with a five-game win streak — but there’s reason to think that continued success with these players playing regular roles in unsustainable. Without going into a lot more detail or specifics, it’s obvious that adding a piece like Morales to the lineup could push the team to the next level — that much has been known for a long time.

It’s possible that Seattle would like to see if Morrison still has anything to add to the major league team this year before making a move on Morales. The 26-year old is currently rehabbing with Triple-A Tacoma and should be able to return to the big club sooner than later. Hart has been recovering well from his injury but is likely another month away from a return barring any further setbacks. It’s also worth mentioning that Cole Gillespie may be in line for a few more at bats after a couple solid starts in the past week.

Seattle and Milwaukee both sit around the same place offensively right now as the Brewers have 254 runs scored on the year compared to the 247 scored by the Mariners and could both use an upgrade in the lineup at the first base position. It’s also interesting to note that the Mariner offence hasn’t been reliant on the long ball like it was in 2013; their 48 total home runs is the twelfth fewest in the league.

While the mystery team in Heyman’s report is anybody’s guess, it’s fair to presume that the Yankees could still be involved given injuries to Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, but they’ve asked Morales to wait while they assess their players’ health according to Heyman. Money doesn’t appear to be an issue for New York, although finding playing time for Morales could be given the fact that the designated hitter role is being split between Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki, and Derek Jeter as well as the pair of injured hitters. But, as with the Brewers, if the Yankees believe Morales can handle fairly regular time in the field, then finding playing time for everyone shouldn’t be much of an issue until the injured players return and muddy the roster picture.

There’s really nothing all that new on the Kendrys Morales situation aside from where the potentially interested clubs sit in terms of need at this point in the season and if Heyman’s mystery team turns out to be a factor in any way. But with the draft pick compensation out of the way, expect the rumors surrounding the designated hitter to heat up over the weekend. All three of the Yankees, Brewers, and Mariners make sense in some ways, but there’s still no clear suitor that stands out above the rest at the moment.

If the Mariners deeply desired a reunion with Morales they could get creative with a potential contract by signing him to a one-year deal with a low base salary with an option for next year that carries a significant buyout to make up for the low base salary. Or they could sign him to a two-year deal — it’s mentioned in the Heyman article that a multi-year deal is still a possibility — with a lesser salary in year one, and a much larger salary in year two. But without knowing exactly how the Mariners’ payroll budget works it’s all just speculation on my part. Some clubs count buyouts to the previous year’s budget, some count them towards the following year. There are several possibilities.

Bottom line: does Seattle need to sign Morales? I wouldn’t say they need to, but the club is very much in the playoff race right now and an addition to the lineup could go a long way in ensuring they stay in the race throughout the summer. There’s no question that inserting a quality hitter behind the trio of James Jones, Michael Saunders, and Robinson Cano at the top of the order could pay major dividends. If I was Jack Zduriencik I wouldn’t be rushing to make a deal happen this week, but knowing that Morales has been growing impatient and possibly inclined to jump at the next club to show some serious interest in acquiring his services, it wouldn’t hurt take discussions to a more serious level if the budget allows for another medium-sized contract.

There’s nothing to be gained by not signing Morales at this point now that the draft is underway, but if Seattle ends up a couple games short at the end of the year, they may regret not making more out of this opportunity.

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Tyler Carmont

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