The Miami Marlins signed Garrett Jones before the 2014 season to a two-year deal to try and fill in their perennial hole at first base. The deal was doomed at the start; Jones was just non-tendered by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Fish committed for two seasons for some reason. They wanted to infuse some power, but Jones struggled at the plate despite providing 15 home runs for the team.
Jones is with the New York Yankees now. Replacing him at first base will be Michael Morse, who signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Marlins this past offseason as part of the team's re-imagining of the infield. Morse has delivered more power in similarly difficult parks in the past, but can he handle the new position and still hit in Miami?
1. Michael Morse
2. Jeff Baker
Minor League Depth; Justin Bour, Viosergy Rosa
Morse will be asked to handle first base for the next two years just like Jones was, but there is at least a decent chance he will do a better job. For starters, Morse has displayed a lot better power over the course of his career, at least compared to the players the Marlins employed since 2012..
|Marlins first basemen, 2012-2014||.125||23.3||7.0||11.6|
*Denotes doubles and triples per hit, no homers included
Obviously, you can see that the biggest discrepancy in terms of power is in the home run department. Morse has raked homers in his career despite inconsistent playing time and a batted ball profile surprisingly loaded with ground balls. For a guy with a career ground ball rate of 47 percent, Morse lifts the fly balls he actually hits quite nicely. In fact, since 2010, Morse ranks 13th among qualified Major Leaguers in home runs per fly ball (HR/FB), along with Mark Reynolds, Paul Goldschmidt, and Ryan Howard among others.
Part of that above discrepancy almost certainly has to do with where Marlins first basemen hit. Marlins Park was their home for half of the year, and it is not easy to hit homers there. But Morse has shown he can hit balls out of tough parks too. Last year, he played his games in San Francisco, and AT&T Park had the worst home run park factor in 2014. He hit terribly in Seattle, but he still pulled off 13 home runs in 300 plate appearances in a traditionally tough park (though one in which the fences were moved in). The proof is not extensive, but Morse has succeeded in tough homer parks.
Morse's game is predicated on hard contact and power, and that is important to remember, because he does not have much outside of that. He strikes out a lot, with a career rate of 23 percent. He does not get on base without hits, as he has just a 6.1 percent walk rate. The reason for these numbers is that he swings at everything; Morse is tied for the 15th-highest swing rate and the 19th-highest out-of-zone swing rate among qualified big leaguers since 2012. Thankfully for him, he makes contact at a level somewhat below the league average, which helps to limit the damage from his poor zone recognition.
Morse is also one of the league's worst baserunners, having been worth six runs worse than average on the bases per 600 plate appearances. This all combines to limit his offensive game. The only saving grace beyond his power is his ability to snag hits off balls in play. Despite that awful speed, Morse owns a .328 BABIP since 2010 and a .333 mark for his career. He hits better on fly balls and grounders when compared to the league average, and he has been doing it for a long time. At this point, at least a decent amount of that has to be real skill.
Morse will need all of his limited batting tools because his defense is still in question. No one on the Marlins can be truly sure how good Morse will be in transitioning to first base. He has played 1259 innings, or about a full season, at the position since the start of his career. Two-thirds of those innings were back in 2011, but the good news is that one-third of them were last year with the Giants. The numbers are mixed on his results, but his reputation as a bad defender follows him wherever he goes. According to the Fans Scouting Report, Giants fans noted him to be lead-footed and with poor instincts, leading him to a bottom-three ranking at each of the seven voting categories in the report. Morse had the second lowest rating among any player who spent time at first last year.
All of this points to him at least struggling to start the season. When you tally it all up, however, what do the projection systems say?
The projections all seem pretty even between the three systems. ZiPS projects the lowest power numbers, but he is still expecting 14 home runs in a smaller amount of playing time. Both Steamer and PECOTA see a player who should hit 20 or more home runs for the Marlins in 2015, which is exactly what the team is searching for. But all the systems expect the 33-year-old Morse to also hit worse than his career average (.281/.335/.473, .351 wOBA), in large part due to regression on his fantastic work on balls in play. After all, Morse is aging, and it would not surprise anyone to see a slow, strikeout-prone slugger to start dropping off faster than the average player.
The difference in these projections may be how the systems see his defensive play. Steamer sees Morse as a mild liability at first base, while PECOTA sees him as average or a bit better. PECOTA has actually considered him a mildly negative left fielder for his career, which goes against the scouting-based thinking of his atrocious outfield play. I'm more inclined to agree with Steamer rather than PECOTA on his work, so let's consider Morse a -3 defender per season at first base.
What can we expect based on these numbers? Morse might hit something like .258/.311/.431, which might equate to a 327 wOBA. In 570 plate appearances and about 135 games, that would be worth about one Win Above Replacement. This more or less matches the projections listed above. The Marlins would be slightly overpaying for such an asset, but this would still be a one-win improvement over Jones in 2014. Is that worth it for the Fish? Tell us what you think!