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12/19/12 6:35 PM ET
Trade for Kendrys solves big need for Mariners
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
You might have seen a previous version of this piece in this place mere hours ago. It discussed the Seattle Mariners, their ongoing need for a big bat, their pitching surplus and the increasingly obvious assertion that if they're going to significantly improve an offense that has routinely ranked last in the American League in recent years, they're going to have to get serious about the trading game. As is the nature of a 24-hour news cycle, it's almost immediately outdated. That's because the Mariners did, indeed, swing a trade Wednesday. And at first glance, it's a good one. By shipping Jason Vargas to the pitching-hungry Angels, the Mariners reeled in the very kind of bat that has so sorely been lacking in their lineup. That bat belongs to Kendrys Morales, rescued from the abyss of the Angels' offensive excess and implanted into a Safeco Field setting that has been improved for hitters. This is a rare intradivision deal, but it's a relatively low-risk swap for both sides, as both Morales and Vargas are due to hit free agency a year from now. And for the Mariners, a team so starved for veteran presence and offensive upside in the middle of their order, this is a trade that could propel their production to new heights. Granted, it's not that improvement upon the 619 runs scored a season ago that is an especially tall order. But Seattle has to start somewhere, and this is a fine start. The Morales-Vargas deal is a natural fallout from Josh Hamilton's decision to sign with the Angels last week. Hamilton gave the Halos too many outfield/first-base/designated-hitter types for even an AL roster to handle. And the Mariners, who had actually made a play for Hamilton, were left on the outside looking in, just as they were with Mike Napoli and Torii Hunter, among others, earlier this winter. Is Morales the sole solution to Seattle's woes? No, and not just because of his contractual status. He may never again be the .306/.355/.569 machine he was in 2009, before a gruesome ankle injury cut short his 2010 season and left him sidelined for all of '11. But you've got to be encouraged by the way the 29-year-old Cuban switch-hitter rebounded in 2012. He turned in a respectable triple slash line of .273/.320/.467, belting 22 homers and driving in 73 runs. Equally important, he proved agile at first base, a position of great concern for a Seattle team still waiting -- and waiting -- on Justin Smoak. That Morales, a Scott Boras client, is entering a contract year could inspire him all the more. It goes without saying that the Angels probably would have preferred to move Vernon Wells and his mammoth contract instead of Morales. But Wells is an immovable object unless the Halos eat a significant sum of his remaining salary. And in Morales they had an attractive short-term trade chip that won them the mid-rotation innings-eater they clearly needed. To me, though, this trade is more interesting for the Mariners than it is for the Angels. After all, we already knew the Halos, in the wake of their 2012 disappointment, were going to make a prominent push in the New Year, and the Hamilton signing further confirmed it in one bold stroke. But the Mariners had really been treading water this winter. A short-term offensive injection shows us they're feeling at least a little frisky about 2013 and not just focused on the years following. If the AL West is the new AL East, if the Angels and Rangers are playing the role of superpowers akin to the Yankees and Red Sox and the A's are in the underdog-turned-division-winner role the Rays have played to great acclaim, it seems you could liken the Mariners to the Blue Jays. No, not the Blue Jays we've come to know here in the winter of 2012-13 (the ones bolstered by blockbuster trades with the Marlins and Mets that have totally reinvented their roster) but the Jays of recent seasons past. The Mariners are trying to build up their roster the "right" way, all the while knowing the demands of the daunting division in which they play could overtake their efforts in the immediate. Seattle has accrued the ability to one day -- perhaps soon -- significantly expand upon its payroll (as proven by its negotiations with Hamilton), as Toronto just did. But the Mariners don't want to spend frivolously or out of a sense of panic, and, also like the Blue Jays, they have trouble alluring top free-agents to their territory without substantially overpaying. So prior to the Morales trade, the Mariners' only "major" additions this winter came in trading for Robert Andino and taking a flier on Jason Bay. And while that's all well and good, those obviously aren't the big bats the middle of this Mariners lineup was calling for. The hallmark, to date, of general manager Jack Zduriencik's tenure, which began at the end of 2008, has been the steady acquisition of some promising young arms (Taijuan Walker and lefties Danny Hultzen and James Paxton) and buzzed-about bats (Smoak, Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin), all the while consistently passing on opportunities to trade staff ace Felix Hernandez. The hope for Seattle, though, was that 2012 would be the year those building blocks in the lineup would start to produce at a reasonable rate and that, with Ichiro Suzuki coming off the books, the right pieces could be added in the offseason. Moving in the fences to make Safeco Field a more tempting place for position players also became part of the plan. But while the Mariners did play much better in the second half (.521 winning percentage) than the first (.414), they still ended the season with a multitude of questions about where the runs would come from. In fact, the only two regulars in the lineup who had so much as a slugging percentage above .400 were Michael Saunders (.432) and Kyle Seager (.423). Montero's struggles against right-handers (.609 OPS) were/are particularly confounding. Morales, then, is the sort of slugger they were lacking. And a one-year gamble on him seems less scary than the six-year commitment it probably would have taken to lure Hamilton away from Southern California. This acquisition also measures up well against some of the free-agent options remaining out there. Nick Swisher makes for a fine piece on any contending club, but he's not what you'd consider a headline attraction. Michael Bourn also has tremendous appeal, but paying big dollars for speed also comes with tremendous risks. For the Mariners to solve their need, Zduriencik knew he had to dip into his prominent pool of starting-pitching depth. And when you look around the league -- particularly at what the Royals gave up for James Shields and Wade Davis and what the Blue Jays forked over for R.A. Dickey -- you see that Seattle did all right here. It didn't have to deal any of its prominent prospects, yet it still managed to buy itself some major offensive upside.