May 27, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners first baseman Kendrys Morales (8) hits a single against the San Diego Padres during the 5th inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Mariners Future at 1st Base: Justin Smoak, or Someone Else?

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As tradition — and as is the case with many spots on this Mariners team — first base is sort of up in the air for the future. This has been the case off an on for years, arguably dating back to Richie Sexson. And even then, we had a guy in his thirties who probably belonged as the right handed half of a DH platoon.

Since Sexson, the Mariners have gone mostly with Russell Branyan, Justin Smoak, and Mike Carp. Branyan is no longer playing (but gave the M’s some much appreciated power), Carp was cut in favor of Raul Ibanez and is now crushing the ball in Boston…and you all know Smoak’s story. Up until this point, it has been a slow and painful one. Needless to say, 1st base has not been a cementitious* position for Seattle as of late.

Now though, the team has a few options. Heck, not only do they have options, but the options they have are actually kind of appealing! First off, there is the scorching Kendrys Morales, who has been hitting like a mad man over the last month or so. That streak undid a somewhat slow start, and now has him at a .373 wOBA and 141 wRC+. But more on that later.

The other obvious option is Justin Smoak, who has shown a much improved approach, leading to some better results in certain areas. He is injured right now, but his OBP is up to .350 on the year, which puts him 13th among full-time first baseman in that category. However, his .344 SLG% puts him three from the bottom, ahead of only Eric Hosmer, Ike Davis and Alex Gonzalez.** I have gotten some disagreements on this, but to me, that is not going to cut it.

The third option would be moving Michael Morse back to 1st base, or signing another first baseman. The latter doesn’t make much sense considering there most likely won’t be a better free agent option than Morse, and they shouldn’t have much issue bringing him back if they so choose.

So now that we have outlined the options, let’s analyze the Pros and Cons of each of them. This may seem like an odd time to discuss what will happen next year and beyond, considering I have mentioned multiple times how numbers through two months do not necessarily stick around, but it has been something that I have thought about quite often lately, and think it will be good to look at it now, and then again towards the end of the season to see how our perspective changes.

Morales:

  • Pros-
  1.  Best hitter of the three, especially this year. Hitting .305/.367/.493 on the year since having a red-hot May, and has shown no signs of slowing down. He’s on pace for his highest WAR season (through 600 PA), even better than the 3.0 he posted in his previous career year of 2009.
  2. Best hitter/player over his career. He has slashed .283/.336/.492 over his 521 game career, and looks like he should continue, or even better that production going forward.
  3. Not as young as Smoak, but still in his prime. Turns 30 later this month, and should still have at least 2-3 more years until he sees a sizable decline.
  4. Has shown he can hit in pitchers parks, including Safeco. As simple as it sounds, it is not something that everyone can do.
  • Cons-
  1. He is a Boras client. That pretty much says it all. It probably won’t be easy/possible to extend him before he hits the market. And if he keeps up this production, he could be in for some kind of a payday. The team that pays him may be the Mariners, but he won’t be cheap. I think 3 years, $36-39M could be what it takes. And while the Mariners should have money to spend, that doesn’t guarantee they will. 
  2. There are some questions about whether he can be a full time 1st baseman anymore. He played there a lot early in his career, but since the leg injury he suffered a couple seasons ago, he has seen a lot of time at DH. And while he has played 1st in Smoak’s stead, the team prefers him at DH. The question doesn’t seem to be whether he is good defensively (seems he is at least average), but is instead about whether he can handle an everyday job in the field. So this con is contingent on how he and the team feel about his durability. 
Smoak:
  • Pros-
  1. He is the youngest, and simultaneously cheapest option the team has. He is still on his original contract, and becomes arbitration eligible after next year. So if the Smoakamotive is the path the M’s want to take, they have him locked up on the cheap through 2017.
  2. He has shown a much improved approach at the plate this year. As I mentioned earlier, his OBP is in the upper middle of the pack at .350. This is thanks to his 13.9% walk rate, good for number one on the M’s among full-time players. A solid approach and good discipline at the plate are great building blocks for success, and he has certainly displayed some of both.
  3. Seems to be an above average defender at first base. He certainly looks the part when he is in the field. The (shaky) defensive metrics have him as average or slightly below, but I do not know how accurate that is.
  •   Cons-
  1. He has been awful for his career, and I am not sure a month an a half of league average hitting is enough to make me a believer. His career triple-slash is .225/.311/.373, which is not adequate at all really, but is especially bad for a first baseman.
  2. He has still hit for little to no power this year. While I do believe value is value no matter how it is achieved, you do want/expect some kind of power from your 1st baseman, and hopeful 5-hole hitter. He currently has a “wow, really” .344 slugging percentage, and .104 ISO on the season. That stems from the fact that, while he is walking a ton and getting on base, he only has 10 extra base hits on the year, seven of them doubles. As great as a .350 OBP is, it is not enough when you only slug .344. A sub-.700 OPS will not cut it at an offensive position like 1st base. You can find multiple guys who can out-do that and play passable first base. Offense is just really important at that position, and Smoak has not brought enough of it.

Morse:

  • Pros-
  1. He seems like a great clubhouse presence, as well as a someone who genuinely likes playing in Seattle, for the Mariners. And as overrated as I think “clubhouse-ness” is, it is a nice thing to have. I do not know how much of an effect it has on the actual performance, but it certainly can’t hurt.
  2. Even though he has struggled through many ups and downs this season — from a monster 1st week, to an injury, to a slump, and now to a slight resurgence, followed by another injury — he has still be a solid hitter this year. He has a ton of power, which has helped him achieve his .340 wOBA and 120 wRC+ on the season (or .789 OPS for those who prefer it). He has not been as good as Morales for sure, but he has been above average. And just as a side note, his numbers from this year and last year and extremely similar. I am talking 2 points of OPS, and 1 point of wOBA. That could be a sign of what to expect from him. And that is something good, but not great.
  • Cons-
  1. He is not that great of a hitter anymore it seems. His .340 wOBA would put him 16th among 1st baseman in 2012, and his 120 wRC+ would have him slotted 11th. That isn’t bad, but he will likely get payed more than a middle of the pack 1st baseman should, due to his character and love of Seattle. 
  2. He is on the wrong side of 30. He will be 32 next season, which is generally a time in which players see more of a declination than an improvement. And as I mentioned, his numbers over the last year-plus has been somewhat underwhelming, and that is likely what we will get for the future. A 120 wRC+, and then probably worse over time, is not what you ideally want at 1st base, especially for the 3/36 Morse could get. 
  3. He is a terrible defender in the outfield, and probably won’t be great at 1st either. In 873 innings at 1st base throughout his career, he has a -5 DRS at the position. As I said earlier, defensive metrics aren’t perfect, but with that many innings it is likely he is a sub-par defender at 1st also.
In my estimation, Morales is the clear choice. He is the best player of the group, especially offensively. On top of that, he is in what most people would consider his prime, and should be in position to maintain a high level of production for at least a few more seasons. And he has been especially productive as of late, and has really been the middle of the lineup force this team has been missing for some time.
And I am sure the Mariners feel the same way. As much flack as people, including myself, give them, they can see a good player too, which is what Morales is. The only problem is the difficulties that Scott Boras can create. He rarely advises his clients to sign extensions, and has a knack for getting his guys (over)payed. And let’s face it. The Mariners are not a prime free agent destination, so it is hard to imagine them getting a guy without putting up the best contract.
Some of my fellow Sodo Mojo writers, and I am sure other fans as well, still see Smoak as the go to guy next year. And while I see the argument, I just am not a fan of a first baseman who slugs .344. That number could and probably will go up, but how much is yet to be seen. He may just not be very strong, and in turn won’t have a ton of extra-base power. If he regains his pop and improves his overall production by the end of the year, then it may be a viable option. But as it sits now, he still isn’t going to cut it.
And Morse, well, he is the backup plan. If Morales ends up leaving town, and Smoak is still without power, then he is probably the guy the M’s will turn to. He is not as good as Kendrys, but he will get the job done for a couple years, until hopefully the Mariners have a suitable replacement. There is also a chance the Mariners decide to continue to ignore outfield defense and bring him back as a left fielder again, but I am just hoping that doesn’t happen. He does not belong out there at all.
I can definitely see a situation in which Justin Smoak and another player — maybe Stefen Romero or another corner outfielder — either battle for a starting position, or enter a platoon situation. That would mean Morse bounces between the outfield and first base, while Smoak and his partner share the other at-bats. That wouldn’t be a terrible situation, but it also is far from the best option.
Overall, the M’s have a lot of options at 1st, and that’s a good thing. It is not very often we can say that here in Seattle, as they are constantly forced to run out guys that most other teams would never even consider. We just have to hope that Morales sticks around for a few more years. If not, it isn’t the end of the world. But still. Morales please.
So what you guys think of this whole situation? Is Smoak the guy once again, or should Morales/Morse be brought back?
*Yes, cementitious is a word. It means something along the lines of “having the characteristics of cement.” I don’t know, ask Google.
 ** I just wanted to take a moment to recognize the fact that three similarly rated 1st baseman who all entered the league around the same time have all busted to this point. Just goes to show you…I am not sure what it shows you, but it is something probably. 
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Tags: Justin Smoak Kendrys Morales Michael Morse Seattle Mariners

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