Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 1/23/12

Sorry.

Two or three years ago, Michael Morse looked like another marginal major-leaguer who once had a short hot-streak. After reportedly having his last two seasons of arbitration-eligibility bought out by the Washington Nationals this weekend, Morse is now a millionaire (the reported amount is $10.5 million). It has been a long path to relevance for Morse. Of more relevance at the moment is Morse’s likely current true talent level, , and how he fits in with the Nationals path to relevance in the National League East, particularly given Washington’s on-again, off-again dalliance with Prince Fielder.

As a defensively questionable shortstop in the Mariners’ organization, Morse showed signs of offensive promise in 258 major-league plate appearances in 2005, but defensive questions and a suspension for a positive PED test (there goes his shot at the Hall of Fame!) put him on the back-burner, despite hitting well in a very small sample in 2006.

In 2009, Morse was traded two Washington for Ryan Langerhans, a trade that some of those enchanted with Langerhans’ reputation in the field (including me, a former High Priest of the [now-defunct] Cult of Langerhans) saw as an “obvious win” for Seattle at the time. It would be glib of me to simply dismiss how things have turned out as “20/20 hindsight.” After all, even if the Nationals made the trade primarily as a favor to Langerhans, they obviously saw something in Morse that made them think is was worth taking a flyer on him. It has clearly paid off, and it is another a good lesson in “you never know.” Who knows, maybe a year or two from now, people will be saying, “yeah, those first few episodes of Whitney were terrible, but it has been awesome ever since!”

When Morse got an extended opportunity in 2010 for surprising power. Given Morse’s prior history, that might understandably have been viewed as a small-sample blip, and given that his 2010 wOBA was also bolstered by a high BABIP, that impression tended to stand out. However, he did it again in 2011, hitting for ever more power. The BABIP is still high, so one should still expect that to regress, although not as much as for some players given the increasingly large sample for Morse in this respect as well as the way the Nationals’ home park inflates hit rates on balls in play, which is a good thing in this case.

The big concern with Morse’s hitting is that to a certain extent he has to rely balls in play to get on base at a decent rate. Morse has never had much plate discipline — he sports a below-average walk rate. Moreover, it is not as if he is a below-average walk-rate guy who makes up for it with plenty of contact (cf. the Texas Rangers), as he also has a strikeout rate that is worse than average. Few walks and low contact is a bad combination for most hitters, but Morse makes up for it with his biggest skill — power.

In less that a full season of playing time in 2011, Morse hit 31 dingers. While Hit Tracker does seem in indicate that a greater number of Morse’s home runs than typical tended to just get over the fence (“Just Enough”), he also had a third of his 2011 home runs classified as “No Doubts,” and the average distance and speed of the bat of Morse’s home runs are well-above league average. Morse’s approach to plate discipline is far from ideal, and at his age (he will be 30 in March) that is unlikely to improve much, but excellent power can make up for many problems. Oliver’s 2012 projection for Morse is for .292/.349/.505 (a .369 wOBA). Over roughly a full season, that is about 25 runs above average, which will play anywhere.

That is a big question with Morse — where will he play? The former shortstop is, to say the least, not one any more. He spent 2011 playing left field and, after Adam LaRoche‘s injury, first base. UZR was not overly enamored with his fielding, especially in left, but even the most fervid defender of advanced fielding metrics (assuming said defender is well-informed0 would strongly warn against taking too much for a partial-season sample. Even if Morse is a true-talent -10 fielder in left or -5 at first base, his projected bat would still make him around a two-and-a-half win player over about 150 games, or above average. So even if you think his defense is really poor (something upon which I am not insisting), Morse still projects a tick about average overall.

Obviously, on the free agent market, a two-year, $10.5 million deal for a player like that is a steal, but Morse still had two arbitration seasons left. Matt Swartz’ arbitration projections had Morse getting around $4 million if he went to a hearing, a bit lower than the midpoint between his and the team’s proposal. One would expect that with even a decent year, that would go up to at least $6 million after 2011, and probably higher given that the projected figure for 2011 is based on only playing a full season in 2011 and a partial season in 2010, and Morse would play a full season in 2012. The Oliver projection has Morse putting up enough power numbers that he would probably get more than $7 million dollars in arbitration after this coming season, maybe more. This is not an exact science, but I would say the deal is fair overall — Morse gets some security, the team avoids the potential for a bigger payday, and both can happily avoid the unhappiness of an arbitration hearing.

Some are wonder what it means for the Nationals’ pursuit of Prince Fielder. Some have assumed that this might end it, given that Morse played first base much of last season, and Adam LaRoche is still under contract. However, this is not necessarily the case. After all, LaRoche’s presence was not preventing rumors about negotiations between Fielder and Washington prior to Morse’s extension. Moreover, even without this new contract, Morse was going to be a National in 2012, anyway. Finally, the Nationals started Morse in left field last season, so why wouldn’t they this season? If there is an obstacle to Fielder signing with the Nationals (and it is hard to see how Adam “Solid B Average” LaRoche really poses an obstacle), it is not Michael Morse’s new contract. That is not to say that a defense with LaRoche in left, Jayson Werth in center, and Prince Fielder at first might not have its own peculiar surplus entertainment value… Even so, whatever happens in the field and whomever else is hitting around him, Morse should provide at least a partial homer fix for Nationals fans pending the arrival of Bryce Harper.

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