The Miami Marlins aimed to get an improvement over their current first base situation, and they likely found one in free agent first baseman Michael Morse. The team signed Morse to a two-year contract, and depending on which sources you hear about, the deal is guaranteed a total between $8 million and $12 million total, plus incentives that could bump the price up.
The price is a critical aspect of this signing. Before the season, I expected Morse would earn around this much in terms of average annual value, but might receive a longer contract in the order of three to four years. MLB Trade Rumors suggested that Morse, as one of the only first basemen in the market, would earn closer to $11 million annually on a shorter deal. Either way, we both expected the signing team to have to commit about $20 million and change to sign Morse to a contract. Instead, the Marlins were able to slash that price in half for the native south Floridian to return home (Morse is from Fort Lauderdale and went to school at Nova High School, right near my hometown).
There are a couple of things to examine in this deal, so let's get down to it.
Like last season, the Marlins were interested in adding power to their lineup, particularly at first base. Morse has never been short of that. For his career, he owns 99 home runs and a rate of nearly 24 homers per 600 plate appearances. No Marlin currently shares that kind of rate except Giancarlo Stanton, and you have to figure the Fish are excited to slot Morse in the cleanup spot.
More exciting for the Fish is the fact that Morse's power went relatively unaffected despite recently hitting in one of the worst home run stadiums in baseball. AT&T Park's odd dimensions left the San Francisco Giants' stadium as the worst homer stadium in baseball. Still, Morse did at least hit six home runs in AT&T Park to go along with the 10 he bashed on the road.
Now he is moving to a stadium that has equally big, if less odd dimensions in Marlins Park. The fact that he performed reasonably in AT&T Park has to appeal to Miami. The Fish did better on home runs in 2014, but they struggled to develop power once again. Only one of their players not named Stanton was able to reach 20 home runs, and Miami would have liked more bash in the middle of the lineup. They found a reasonably consistent power hitter in Morse, who owns a career .193 ISO and just posted a .196 mark in a harder stadium to hit.
The Rest of the Game
The problem with Morse has always been the rest of his game. He's survived multiple years batting with an above-average BABIP. He owns a .328 mark since 2010, when he first became a Major League regular. That ranks 46th among 333 big-leaguers with at least 1000 plate appearances in that time span.
For a sample of 2117 plate appearances, it is not unreasonable to guess that he might come close to or match that pace for the next two years, but it is not like Morse hits the ball drastically hard or is a blazing runner. He owns a career 47 percent ground ball rate, which is crazy for a supposed power hitter. He also is among the slowest players in baseball; Morse has the tenth-worst number of baserunning runs according to FanGraphs since 2010, ahead of only other slow-footed first basemen like Prince Fielder, Billy Butler, and David Ortiz. In fact, for his career, Morse averages -6.6 runs per 600 plate appearances on the bases.
It is not as though Morse is going to age gracefully offensively either. His plate discipline has always been awful; he owns a career 6.2 percent walk rate and a 25,1 percent strikeout rate. He also swings at everything, with a 52 percent swing rate for his career and a 36 percent rate of swings on balls out of the zone. Morse will not discriminate on what pitches to swing at, and that will not help the on-base aspect of his game, particularly if either his power or BABIP slip.
The Marlins did not get good defense from Garrett Jones last season, and they have to be concerned about defense again this season. Jones's bad defense only exacerbated a bad situation with his poor offense. Morse is a better hitter than Jones by a healthy margin, but he is also a defensive risk given how terribly he has played in the outfield over the course of his career.
But Morse will not be manning the outfield at all for Miami, as the Fish have three qualified Gold Glove-caliber defenders there. It is much more likely that Miami will play Morse exclusively at first, and there is at least a little encouragement that he will not be terrible there. The numbers over essentially a full season of play at first over his career have been just mediocre rather than bad. He once was a shortstop some time ago when he first came through the bigs, and he may be better adjusted to playing the infield even long after his athleticism has disappeared. The Marlins need him to merely be average or below to allow him to be a one-win player.
The most important part of this deal is the cost, and it is the reason why Miami can breathe a sigh of relief with this one. The Marlins are paying somewhere between $4 million and $6 million guaranteed, and they are only committing two years to Morse. That is reasonably the cost of a one-win player at most, and the Fish can expect to get at least that if Morse does what he usually does offensively and is a mediocre first baseman. His health concerns are still present, but they should be diminished by playing a less athletically-demanding position, so Miami may be able to get 500-plus plate appearances out of Morse for the first time since 2011.
The two-year commitment is also relevant. Miami has no real future option at first base going forward, but they also did not panic and commit to someone outside the organization who would age poorly. The 33-year-old Morse is not the type of player who will finish his mid-30's well, but there was always a chance Miami may commit too long to a player, even at a reasonable yearly cost. Instead, the Fish got the best of both worlds, having snagged Morse for the same cost of Jones's second year while avoiding a disastrous long commitment that would have ended just like Jones's did after 2014.
If you figure that Morse matches his career marks in 500 plate appearances (factoring injury and time off against righties occasionally), he would be worth seven runs above average offensively even with his terrible baserunning. If you lop a little bit of that off due to age and make it an even five runs above average, he can play reasonably below-average first base defense and be a one-win player. If he matches his career marks and is an average defender, it may approach 1.5 wins over 500 appearances. Either way, the Marlins are getting the appropriate bang for their buck, and they get the power boost they apparently so desperately want, even if it comes at the expense of infield defense.
The Fish are not getting a lot by signing Morse. But they are not paying a lot either, so while the upside is low, the cost is cheap enough that it doesn't matter. And Morse still represents an upgrade over the team's current options.