LaRoche over Morse… Did the Nationals Make the Right Decision?

Now that we are only a few days away from Spring Training and the Nationals front office seemingly has completed their offseason To Do List, this felt like an excellent time to examine the decision to sign Adam LaRoche to a 2-year contract and trade Mike Morse to the Seattle Mariners.  After the acquisition of Denard Span, the Nationals took a relatively clear stance that either LaRoche or Morse would be their first baseman in 2013, and according to their actions, it appears the Nationals preferred LaRoche to Morse. We have spent a great deal of time in recent weeks examining both players past statistics, but what do we expect of each player in 2013, and in the case of LaRoche, what do we expect of him in the 2nd year of his contract in 2014 as well.  Now that we have a clearer picture of what each player is worth, did the Nationals make the right decision for 2013 and the future by signing LaRoche and trading Morse to Seattle for 3 prospects.  Essentially was:

Option A ->        Re-Sign Adam LaRoche for 2-years and $24 million and acquire RHPs AJ Cole, Blake Treinen, and a 3rd prospect from Oakland via Seattle for Mike Morse

Better Than…

Option B ->         Move Mike Morse to 1B and Allow Adam LaRoche to sign elsewhere as a free agent and receive a 2013 Compensation Draft Pick

LaRoche enters his age-33 season as a fairly consistent player aside from his injury-filled first season in Washington, with a career batting line of .268/.328/.482 and the reputation as one of the best defensive first baseman in the National League.  While it will be extremely difficult for LaRoche to match his 2012 statistics .271/.343/.510 with 33 home runs, assuming he remains healthy next season (he’s played 136+ games each season since 2005 aside from 2011), LaRoche is a solid bet to hit near his career batting line with between 23-27 home runs and provide positive value defensively as well.  I hesitate to attempt to forecast what LaRoche might do in 2014, but for the purposes of this article, I will project similar numbers to his career average, with a decline of 5-10% to account for his then being 34-years-old and another year further in his decline phase.  Let’s conservatively project LaRoche to hit .262/.322/.485 with 24 home runs in 2013 and forecast (with plenty of caveats) a .250/.310/.455 with 20 home runs in 2014.

Morse enters his age-31 season as a career .295/.347/.492 hitter with 70 home runs, although his monster 2011 season (.303/.360/.550 31 home runs) forms the majority of those statistics.  A defensive liability both in the outfield and at first base, all of his value comes from his hitting ability which could see some suppression in Seattle’s massive home park of Safeco Field.  On the other hand, his shift to the American League with the Designated Hitter, and his move to the less physically demanding first base position could help counterbalance his unfortunate knack for spending time on the disabled list.  The noted Bill James projects Morse in 2013 to play 134 games and hit .295/.342/.501 with 23 home runs (thanks Fangraphs.com) and optimistically, I will project Morse for 140 games and 27 home runs this upcoming season.  Therefore, in comparing LaRoche to Morse in 2013, Beast Mode should be a slightly superior hitter with more potential offensive upside but the defensive difference between the excellence of LaRoche and below-average Morse at first base, in addition to his greater injury-risk makes these players fairly indistinguishable next season.

We have examined and scrutinized the prospects the Nationals received in return for Mike Morse, specifically RHPs AJ Cole and Blake Treinen and the now-famous Player To Be Named Later in many articles last month.  Although Cole struggled in his promotion to High-A Stockton with a 7.82 ERA and 60 hits allowed in only 38 innings pitched and a demotion back to Low-A, he still owns an impressive arsenal and the potential to be a mid-rotation or better starting pitcher in a few years with further development to his repertoire and added weight to his still-projectable frame.  Cole has found his name included toward the backend of a few Top-100 prospect lists this winter, something I doubt a Nationals 2013 1st Round selection would be able to hypothetically do this time next winter.

Blake Treinen does not have an extraordinarily high ceiling but with a solid fastball and slider combination and good control of the strike zone, he should develop into a relief pitcher in a year or two.  He may not be a Top-15 prospect, but most every organization would be happy to have this 24-year-old in their farm system.  Finally, little is known about the Player To Be Named Later in this trade, but this player is most likely either a recovering injured player or less likely but possibly a 2012 draft pick for Oakland. Certainly we should not expect “a name” prospect, but consider him a lottery pick and someone the Nationals scouting department must like something about.

If this situation had played out in reverse and the Nationals were able to add a compensation pick between picks 11-40 because another team decided to sign LaRoche, the team would be poised to essentially replace the draft pick the team surrendered when they signed Rafael Soriano a few weeks from the New York Yankees.  It has been well stated in recent weeks by scouts that the 2013 MLB Draft is not particularly impressive or deep, although the strength of this draft is in high school outfielders and pitching, especially lefties, and mid-rotation ceiling college starting pitching.  While extremely difficult to hypothesize, AJ Cole should compare similarly and perhaps favorably to a potential 1st round college pitcher next June as he has mastered Low-A and will have experience in High-A again this spring, and the addition of Treinen and the PTBNL makes me lean toward this package of prospects being slightly superior to a 1st Round Pick (and the accompanying bonus money) next June.

After comparing the players, the metrics say that Mike Morse should be a better hitter than Adam LaRoche next season, and while more difficult to quantify, we can confidently say that LaRoche is a significantly better defender than Morse, less of an injury-risk, and his left-handed bat is probably more ideal for the Nationals predominantly right-handed lineup.  Morse has a bit more upside, and LaRoche is the more well-rounder player, I project LaRoche to have slightly more overall value in 2013, but by the razor-thinnest of margins and with little confidence.  I also believe the prospects the Nationals received in return for Morse is superior to a 2013 compensation pick the Nationals would have hypothetically received, but not by an overwhelming margin as 1st round picks are an extremely valuable commodity in baseball.  Therefore because GM Mike Rizzo limited the contract to only two years and LaRoche should maintain a reasonable level of production through in 2014, I feel the Nationals made the smart baseball-decision for this season and the future, by choosing to sign Adam LaRoche this winter rather than keeping Mike Morse in Washington.

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3 thoughts on “LaRoche over Morse… Did the Nationals Make the Right Decision?”

  1. Really, and this is listening to Rizzo talk about the trade, the critical feature to trading The Beast, one of my favorite players, is Tyler Moore. TyMo has the same skills set as The Beast and is ready to step in, should ALR faulter.

    True, I firmly believe that The Beast will be a more offensive threat than ALR in ’13. But at the end of the ’13 he is a FA, and TyMo is ready, willing, and able to smack the ball for another bunch of years after ALR is home carving up cows.

  2. the decision is even more confusing when you consider that had ALR signed elsewhere Rizzo likely would NOT have signed Soriano and instead used the pool money available with the Comp pick to go significantly over slot on the 1st rounder and (perhaps) gotten a greater return. A second variable is what ALR’s 2 year deal means for Rendon’s future, perhaps making his debut as a 2Bman (if Espi faulters) rather than a 1Bman (had he replaced Morse for ’14). A final variable is what would have happened to Morse after this season, does Rizzo make a Qualifiying Offer and does he accept it, what is the ’14 draft look like, etc etc etc.
    Anytime you go into a counterfactual argument like this is too easy to dissapear down the rabbit hole of potential alternate timelines, but going on the most basic level it looks like a push, with perhaps just a slight thumb on the scale towards the path Rizzo eventually took.

    1. @Brandon and @NotRizzo,

      Great points by both of you… Certainly there are many other factors that went into this decision as you pointed out, and others as well, but I was really trying to lay out a one or the other scenario and make the comparison as easy and straight forward as possible, with many caveats and assumptions within it. To begin to try and cover the other factors would have made the piece another 1,000-2,000 words…

      I hope my piece showed exactly how difficult and close this decision was, and can truly go either way. I still struggle with: Are the advantages of LaR over Morse in 2013 and prospects over 1st round pick worth the privilege the Nats have to pay LaRoche essentially $14mm in 2014? As a fan, I sure hope so.

      Keep the comments coming, makes us all smarter and better fans! Happy Friday-

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