PEORIA, Ariz. — Michael Morse is stretching and playing DJ at the same time. It’s 8:15 a.m. in a sluggish Mariners clubhouse, the morning needs some caffeine, and here is the self-proclaimed beast, combating the slow day with an infectious energy to match his selections of up-tempo music.
Morse fits in so well with the Mariners that you figure he has been here forever, and that’s where today’s lesson begins. If only Morse had been here his entire career. Morse is the one who got away that the Mariners snatched back. It took a series of failures in player evaluation and development, mostly by the previous regime, for the franchise to overlook and give up on a player who hit .303 with 31 home runs for the Washington Nationals in 2011.
Now, with the Mariners delving deep into a youth movement, it’s worth pondering how they can prevent repeating their woeful recent history with prospects such as Morse and Adam Jones, who are on an alarmingly long list of players raised in the organization who wound up reaching their potential elsewhere.
How do the Mariners avoid the Michael Morse Mistake with their current youngsters? It’s an interesting question with a complicated answer and a warning that frames the importance that they figure it out: If they guess wrong too many times, they’ll ruin everything they’ve spent the past four years building.
Fortunately, the Mariners are more diligent about nurturing precocious talent than they were under former general manager Bill Bavasi. While current GM Jack Zduriencik traded Morse in 2009, the Bavasi front office actually set that failure in motion
Back then, the Mariners didn’t have a good plan for developing Morse, who was a 6-foot-5 shortstop but possessed a frame that clearly indicated he would outgrow that position. (Bavasi acquired Morse in the 2004 Freddy Garcia trade).
The Mariners didn’t create a path for him to have a sustained big-league role, and when he made it to the majors, he could only show his talent in flashes because too many overpaid veterans were in the way.
Finally, Morse forced himself into the conversation after a great spring in 2008, but early in the regular season, he tore the labrum in his left shoulder diving for a ball in the outfield — a position the Mariners clumsily had him learn on the fly — and missed the rest of the season. When Zduriencik arrived, he had a different vision, undervalued Morse and traded him to Washington for reserve outfielder Ryan Langerhans, who hit .200 as a Mariner.
All teams trade away a Michael Morse prematurely. It’s inevitable in a sport in which you’re constantly developing players in the minor leagues but can only accommodate 25 guys on the major-league roster. But the Mariners can’t have a Morse, on top of a Jones, on top of a Brandon Morrow, on top of an Asdrubal Cabrera, on top of a Shin-Soo Choo. Those are all players who were mismanaged by the Bavasi front office and discarded by either Bavasi or Zduriencik.
Jack Z understands where teams go wrong, and he plans to be better. The fact that his team-building philosophy hinges on player development means that he’ll be more patient and place a higher priority on making the right calls with homegrown Mariners. In Zduriencik’s plan, it’s a must. If Zduriencik is doing his job properly, free agency will never be the Mariners’ primary avenue to get better.
“You have such a history with all your own players,” Zduriencik said. “We know ‘em much, much better than anyone else. We’re supposed to know ‘em better. They’re ours. It should make it easier for you to make the best decisions.”
The Mariners have shown the patience to build this way, and it appears that they have tons of good young talent, though no potential superstar has emerged. Now, they have to develop them the right way, understanding which players need to be brought along quickly and which ones require more time. They will encounter can’t-miss players who miss wildly. And they will encounter unheralded prospects who demand a closer look.
This is an interesting season in the process. How will Justin Smoak do, and how will the Mariners respond? With some intriguing shortstop prospects on the way, what will the Mariners do with veteran Brendan Ryan? Did they give up on recent castaway Mike Carp too soon? In a crowded outfield, will the Mariners find room for the younger and more athletic Casper Wells, or will they prefer a veteran such as Jason Bay?
They need to be right on three out of every four of these decisions. And the more they progress, the harder the choices will be.
“You run out of time sometimes with players, which is unfortunate,” Zduriencik said. “You just run out of time because if players are on your roster and you’re not positive they’re going to be a contributor but you think somebody else is, then you have to move on. You see this a lot. When you put a guy on the 40-man roster and three years later, he’s not on your big-league club, somebody else is going to get him, and they’re going to reap the benefits because he got on the roster and didn’t produce for you.”
Still, Zduriencik says he’s “confident” the Mariners will avoid too many repeats of the Michael Morse Mistake. It’s not just an aspiration. It’s a key to their rebuilding.
Sometimes, you can make amends and reacquire an old mistake. It would be unwise, however, to try to turn the redemptive team-building model sustainable.