The Mariners traded left-hander Jason Vargas to the Angels for Kendrys Morales, a first baseman/designated hitter. Morales, a switch-hitter, hit 34 home runs in 2009.
In the midst of a firestorm over losing out on free-agent Josh Hamilton last week, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik sent a congratulatory text message to the counterpart who’d nabbed the slugger from under his nose.
That text to Los Angeles Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto, whom Zduriencik had spoken to often about hitting needs the past year, paved the way to a trade Wednesday that sent first baseman Kendrys Morales to Seattle for pitcher Jason Vargas. Morales, 29, became expendable only after the Hamilton signing and the trade brings Seattle a needed switch-hitting bat in the middle of the order.
The move also leaves financial and trade flexibility to the Mariners.
“When he got Josh, I sent him a message and said, ‘Congratulations on the deal, I’m still interested in acquiring some offense and do you have some pieces there that would interest us?’ ” Zduriencik said. “He texted me back and said, ‘I will keep you in mind. We’re just letting the dust settle and just trying to figure out all of our options with adding Josh to the club.’ “
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After another text from Zduriencik over the weekend, DiPoto got back to him late Tuesday morning and the deal was finalized roughly 24 hours later. It brings to Seattle a first baseman and designated hitter who was becoming an elite bat before breaking his leg in a home-plate celebration against Seattle in May 2010 at Angel Stadium.
Morales had just hit a walkoff grand slam, but leapt into a celebratory mob of teammates at home plate and landed awkwardly. He had to be carted off the field, had season-ending surgery, then missed the entire 2011 season as well.
He finally returned last year and hit .273 with 22 home runs and 73 runs batted in, with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) of .787. All of those numbers are better than any full-time Seattle regular produced last year and the Mariners were particularly impressed by his totals in August and September, when Morales posted an OPS of .900 and .829.
“Last year, in terms of my start and finish, it’s obviously part of my recovery,” Morales said, through interpreter Luis Garcia. “I didn’t feel 100 percent, but as the year wore on, I was able to build some more strength to have a stronger base — especially in my left foot — and toward the end of the year, I ran much better. And now, I’m at a point where I can work during the offseason and continue the improvement from the latter part of last season and be ready for the upcoming campaign.”
Morales also declared he’s “100 percent ready” to play first base every day if needed. Zduriencik isn’t sure that’s such a good idea, but will wait until spring training to see how it all shakes out.
The arrival of Morales seems to spell less playing time for either first baseman Justin Smoak, DH Jesus Montero, or both. The Mariners are waiting to see the results of Montero’s offseason running and agility workouts before deciding whether any additional catching might be in his future.
But for now, Zduriencik insists he and manager Eric Wedge aren’t too concerned about juggling the three players.
“I think the biggest thing we’ve seen here recently is you just want to get your guys on the field and let them compete,” Zduriencik said. “And I think that’s a good thing for everybody, so as long as we create competition and as long as we have these pieces in spring training we’ll see what happens. I don’t have an exact answer. We certainly have talked about a lot of scenarios. I think we both feel very comfortable that, as I said earlier, there will be enough at-bats to go around for all these guys.
“But in the end, if you’ve added a piece that you think makes your club better, then that’s just better.”
Morales and Vargas each have one year of arbitration eligibility left. Vargas is expected to make between $7 million and $8 million, while Morales could get between $5 million and $6 million, so there is some cost savings for Seattle.
The Mariners might need to use some of that to land additional pitching to replace the career-high 217 1/3 innings delivered by Vargas, 29, last season when he went 14-11 with a 3.85 earned-run average. One of the big question marks this winter was how Vargas would be impacted by the team’s decision to move in fences at Safeco Field.
Vargas gave up 26 home runs on the road last season, but just nine at home. His new home park in Anaheim plays well for pitchers — Vargas is 2-1 with a 2.27 ERA lifetime there in seven outings — meaning this trade should benefit both teams.
Morales had already hit an impressive .292 with a .909 OPS at Safeco Field and looks forward to the fence changes making the park even more welcoming.
“For the batters, I think previously it was a little difficult probably to center field,” Morales said. “At the end of the day, it should be a benefit to all of our hitters.”
Zduriencik hasn’t broached any contract extensions with Morales yet, preferring to let him acclimate first. But Zduriencik has had plenty of contact this winter with Morales’ agent, Scott Boras, who also represents free-agent outfielder Michael Bourn.
The addition of Morales likely rules out Nick Swisher as a free-agent addition — but center fielder Bourn remains a possibility. Morales coming in also gives the Mariners the option of including Smoak or Montero in any trade to bring in more pitching.
“We’ll continue to see what else is out just there to make the club better,” Zduriencik said. “And if there’s something that makes sense, we’re wide open to it.”
|New Mariner Kendrys Morales hit 34 home runs in 2009.|
|*Did not play, injured|