The San Francisco Giants added some much-needed thump at the cost of outfield defense on Thursday morning with the signing of left fielder Michael Morse.
The 31-year-old Morse is coming off of a disappointing season which was derailed by a wrist injury. He hit just .215/.270/.381 over 337 plate appearances with the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles, which is why the Giants were able to snag him for $6 million plus incentives, a relatively meager sum in today’s inflated market.
He hit a much more robust .296/.345/.516 for the Washington Nationals from 2010-12. His best year was in 2011 when he hit .303/.360/.550 with 31 home runs. The Giants would kill for that kind of production from left field after receiving a league-worst five home runs and .651 OPS from the position in 2013.
If Morse can stay healthy, he should be a significant offensive upgrade in left field for a more than reasonable cost. He also provides depth to an outfield that could never recover from the loss of center fielder Angel Pagan to injury in late May of last season. If Pagan were to go down again next year, Gregor Blanco could slide in to center field without creating a massive hole in left field as was the case in 2013.
The presence of Blanco and Juan Perez on the bench should allow manager Bruce Bochy to get Morse out of the game early for defense as he did in 2010 with Pat Burrell. The Giants picked up Burrell after he was cut by the Tampa Bay Rays, and they caught lightning in a bottle with him en route to their first championship since moving to San Francisco in 1958. Bochy would pull Burrell for late-inning defensive help when the Giants had leads late in close games.
That will be necessary with Morse, who ranks as a below-average defender according to the advanced metrics. Over 2,447 innings in the outfield, Morse has been worth -23 runs via the metric Defensive Runs Saved and -33 runs according to Ultimate Zone Rating.
The Giants went into the winter with a desire to improve their pitching. Signing Tim Hudson to replace Barry Zito in the rotation was a massive step in the right direction. However, other than the addition of Hudson, they’re bringing back pretty much the exact same pitching staff, though they still have time to improve their bullpen. Signing Morse to play left field weakens a defense that was already below average. The Giants finished just 20th in defensive efficiency—a measurement of balls in play converted into outs—last year.
Angel Pagan wasn’t very good in center field prior to his injury, Marco Scutaro is below average at second base in this late stage of his career, Pablo Sandoval has been inconsistent at third, and Morse is a butcher in the outfield. Back-up catcher Hector Sanchez is also extremely raw defensively.
The presence of Blanco and Perez—two plus defenders—should mitigate some of the defensive issues with the starting outfield. Shortstop Brandon Crawford, first baseman Brandon Belt, and catcher Buster Posey are all above-average defenders.
In the end, Morse should improve a lineup that finished 21st in runs and 19th in OPS last year. Granted, the Giants raw offensive numbers are suppressed by AT&T Park as well as their road games at pitcher-friendly stadiums like Dodger Stadium and Petco Park. However, the Giants are still going to be playing more than half their games in those parks next year.
The cost of getting a potentially large offensive upgrade in left field was cheap in terms of money but significant in terms of the defensive drop-off from Blanco to Morse. If the Giants pitching staff is going to improve in 2014, they’ll have to miss more bats because the club’s defense doesn’t project to improve at all.
The signing of Morse makes sense. It didn’t cost a lot of money, it was a short-term commitment, it creates more depth, and it should improve the weakest spot in the lineup from a year ago. Assuming Morse is healthy and productive, the Giants project to have an above-average offensive player at every spot on the diamond other than shortstop, and getting Crawford out of the lineup more often against lefties would help in that regard.
The Giants winter shopping appears to be mostly completed at this point. They enter 2014 with virtually the same team in 22 of the 25 spots—with Hudson replacing Zito, Morse replacing Blanco as the starter in left, and possibly Heath Hembree replacing the recently released Jose Mijares in the bullpen.
The Giants will need Morse, Pagan, Sandoval, and Ryan Vogelsong to have healthier, more effective seasons in 2014 if they’re going to get back into contention. They’ll also need better years out of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. A lot will have to go right for the Giants to surpass the Dodgers.
Michael Morse having a good year at the plate is at the top of the list of things the Giants need next season.