Last man standing: Evaluating Kendrys Morales' potential suitors
With Stephen Drew having finally re-signed with the Red Sox, Kendrys Morales now stands as the final unsigned, high-profile free-agent from last offseason. Morales' continuing availability has nothing to do with his past or potential performance, however. Rather, it's the draft pick compensation attached to his price, the result of his having turned down a qualifying offer from the Mariners last November, that has dried up the market for his services.
Drew was in a similar position and ultimately re-signed with his 2013 team, the one club that would not lose its top unprotected pick for signing him. Morales may ultimately do the same. Here's a quick look at how he would fit on this year's Seattle squad, as well as at three other teams that could most benefit from his services based on their performance through the first quarter of the season.
1. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners' designated hitters rank last among AL teams in OPS+ at a meager 58. As a group, the men Seattle is employing to replace Morales have hit .197/.278/.318 on the season. That's largely the fault of free agent addition Corey Hart, who has hit .181/.268/.291 in his 34 starts at the position.
Hart just landed on the disabled list on Tuesday with a strained left hamstring, which would seem to clear the way for the return of Morales, who hit .273/.342/.441 with 18 home runs in 122 games at DH for the Mariners last year. Given that Seattle is the one team in baseball that would not have to surrender a draft pick to sign Morales, it would seem to have nothing to lose by bringing him back. And given that the Mariners are currently a .500 team with a positive run differential that is just one game out of the second wild-card spot in the American League, it would almost be negligent of them not do so, just as it would have been of the Red Sox not to re-sign Drew in the wake of Will Middlebrooks' injury.
2. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers were the best team in baseball in April, but they are just 7-11 in May and the heavily-favored Cardinals are starting to breathe down their necks in the National League Central. Thus far, the biggest hole in Milwaukee's lineup has been first base (it ranks 27th in the majors in OPS+ at the position), and with Aramis Ramirez going on the disabled list last week with a strained left hamstring, Ron Roenicke has been using Mark Reynolds more at third base and giving additional time at first base to Lyle Overbay. Reynolds has eight home runs but just a .200 batting average, while Overbay is at .207 with virtually no power (only one homer). Signing Morales to play in the non-DH league is less than ideal, and the Brewers' farm system desperately needs an influx of talent via high-level draft picks, but Milwaukee also has a real opportunity to contend this season, and it may slip away if it continues to punt a key offensive position.
3. Cleveland Indians
Morales' best fit is at designated hitter, but he was a regular first baseman in 2009 and '10 with the Angels. The team in the majors with the biggest holes at both positions this year is Cleveland -- its DH's rank 13th among the 15 AL teams in OPS and its first baseman rank 12th. Thus, no team would seem to have more use for Morales than the Indians.
The complicating factor here is that the primary offender in Cleveland is Nick Swisher, who has hit a mere .211/.307/.327 in 199 plate appearances while playing those two positions exclusively. Unlike Seattle's Hart, who is both on the disabled list and playing under a one-year, incentive-laden contract, Swisher is active and due $30 million over the next two seasons (plus roughly another $11 million for the remainder of this season). That's not a player Morales could easily displace.
That said, Cleveland was a playoff team last year and has posted a winning record thus far in May, so the club's management may see Morales as a worthy investment. The question is whether or not the Indians can afford to wait two and a half weeks until after the draft to sign Morales. If they were to do so, they would be free of the draft pick compensation obligation.
4. San Diego Padres
Morales may be a hard sell in the National League given his profile as a designated hitter, but the Padres' first base production ranks dead last in the majors, by a lot. San Diego has gotten a .503 OPS from that position, 80 points worse than the next-closest team, and overall its first basemen have hit .186/.230/.273 this season. Most of that is due to the poor performance of Yonder Alonso, who has hit a disastrous .192/.238/.287. He was once a well-regarded prospect and part of a significant trade for the franchise (the one that sent Mat Latos to the Reds), but the Padres can't continue to run him out there with those numbers. Alonso has been picking up the pace as of late, hitting .314/.400/.514 in his last 10 games, but he's done it in a very strange manner. He has had multiple hits in half of those games and zero hits in the other half. In fact, if you take an even smaller and more recent sample, he's a mere 4-for-his-last-25 (.160). The Padres can't pretend to be contenders this year like the Indians can, so they can afford to wait until after the draft to see if Alonso really is turning things around. If he's still below the Mendoza Line come June 8, there's no reason for them not to sign Morales.