Mariners Challenge Justin Smoak with Justin Smoak 2.0

A couple of years ago, Logan Morrison was one of the best prospects in baseball. Before the 2009 season, Baseball America rated him the #18 prospect in baseball, and before the 2010 season, he was rated 20th overall. Then as a 22 year old rookie in 2010, he hit .283/.390/.447 in his debut, good for a 129 wRC+. He took walks, he made contact, he hit for some doubles power, and he looked like one of the game’s best young hitters.

And it’s been all downhill since then. In 2011, he annoyed the Marlins enough that they sent him back to the minors for a week to teach him some humility. His wRC+ regressed to 116, which combined with atrocious outfield defense made him a marginally valuable player. The last two years, he’s been even worse, posting below average hitting lines while struggling to play the field, and knee surgery limited both his playing time and his mobility.

So now, here we are heading into 2014, and Morrison has nearly 1,500 plate appearances, a 108 wRC+ over the years he’s spent in the big leagues, and a career WAR of +1.0. He will head to arbitration for the first time as a 26 year old who has been a replacement level player for each of the past three seasons. What once looked like a promising young hitter now looks like more of an opportunity to salvage a former prospect in his post-hype stage.

So that’s exactly what the Mariners are trying to do. By swapping Carter Capps for Morrison, Seattle is betting that the promise of 2010 still holds some predictive value, and that Morrison is going to develop into a late bloomer. It does happen. Raul Ibanez didn’t become a good hitter until he was 29, while Erik Karros and Tino Martinez broke out at 27. There are examples of guys who have been essentially lousy for their first 1,500 plate appearances and then still became good hitters who had solid careers.

Interestingly, though, this entire story almost perfectly describes incumbent first baseman Justin Smoak. They acquired him as part of the Cliff Lee trade in 2010 when he was one of the game’s best first base prospects, and since then, he’s given them 2,000 useless plate appearances. For his career, he has a 95 wRC+ and has been worth -0.1 WAR, and he just turned 27 last week. Before acquiring Logan Morrison, the Mariners had a first baseman who was teetering between the post-hype and bust stages of his development. Now, they have two of them.

Of course, for an AL team, you can afford to double up on players like this, because the designated hitter spot gives teams in the junior circuit an extra spot to carry a bat only player. Only, a few minutes before the Morrison trade became public, it was also reported that the Mariners have signed Corey Hart to a one year contract. Hart, coming off two knee surgeries, should probably be projected as a DH going forward, or at least until he proves that he can play the field without breaking down again. With Hart in the fold, either the team will have to choose between Morrison and Smoak at first base, or one of those three are going to be asked to run around left field.

The Mariners tried the DHs-at-every-spot tactic last year, going for power at the expense of outfield defense with Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez regularly playing the field together. It didn’t work. The defense was atrocious, and the team’s pitching staff predictably took a beating due to a lack of support from their teammates. One would hope that watching 162 games of defensive futility would convince the organization to not go down that path again, but it is possible that either Morrison or Hart are going to be asked to play the outfield. That would diminish the value of the offensive upgrades, and it’s not clear that Morrison can actually hit well enough to offset his atrocious defense in outfield. Realistically, both of the players the Mariners have just acquired should be 1B/DHs only.

So, perhaps this means the Mariners are moving on from Justin Smoak, and simply wanted to make a similar bet on a similar player in a different uniform. Morrison and Smoak have both been awful against left-handed pitching, so a platoon doesn’t work between them. They are duplicative, not complementary.

However, there is also another option. The Mariners have been widely reported to have interest in David Price, who Tampa Bay is shopping. The Rays currently have a void at first base. The Rays were reported to have some interest in Morrison, and if they’re interested in Morrison, perhaps they’re also interested in Smoak. It is at least theoretically possible that Morrison was acquired either to be part of a David Price package, or because they know that they’ll be shipping Smoak to Tampa in a deal that has not yet been completed. This is all speculative, of course, but it wouldn’t be the first time we’d seen a team make one trade in anticipation of making another.

Neither Smoak nor Morrison look like particularly valuable assets, with both being projected for something like +1 WAR over a full season’s worth of at-bats as a first baseman; Morrison would project worse if he was an outfielder. There is some glimmer of potential left with both, but it has mostly faded, and now both look more like under-powered first baseman who don’t have enough offense to make up for the fact that they don’t do anything else to help a team win. The Mariners seem to be stockpiling these guys, and with Hart, they are once again stockpiling bat-only players.

If the Mariners plan to keep Smoak and Morrison, then this looks like it could be a repeat of last year’s decision to punt outfield defense in search of a moderate offensive upgrade. That would make this move questionable, even if Morrison has some potential in and of itself. If Smoak is being used to help facilitate an upgrade elsewhere, then picking up Morrison for a reliever — even an interesting young arm like Carter Capps — might not be a bad little move.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Jack Zduriencik
10 years ago

So what do I do next Dave?

Dayton Moore
10 years ago

You clearly love 1B/DH type of players. How about Taijuan Walker for Billy Butler?

The Foilsmember
10 years ago

This mission is too important for you to let Dave jeopardize it.

Ruben Amaro's Gonads
10 years ago
Reply to  The Foils

I’m holding onto two left arms and gotta get a hand free to scratch. Help me out there, Jackie boy, second time round’s gonna feel just as good, am I right? Hey, hey??