A good, old-fashioned solid-bat-for-solid-arm trade has gone down in the AL West.
As first reported by Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com, the Los Angeles Angels have agreed to send switch-hitter Kendrys Morales to the Seattle Mariners for left-hander Jason Vargas:
So just like that, the Angels have filled their need for a solid veteran starter and the Mariners have filled their need for a middle-of-the-order hitter.
This is hardly the boldest transaction as far as baseball trades go, but the impact of it on both teams and the AL West at large is bigger than you may think.
A look at the winners and losers of this deal will reveal why.
The Mariners have been without a solid middle-of-the-order hitter for some time now, but no longer. That's exactly what they're getting in Kendrys Morales.
Morales' return to the diamond in 2012 after more than a year away from the game was largely a success. He posted a slash line of .273/.320/.467 and hit 22 home runs. He was particularly hot at the end of the year, compiling an .867 OPS and hitting 11 home runs in the final two months of the season.
Had Morales been on the Mariners in 2012, he would have led the club's regulars in both OPS and home runs. As a team, they ranked dead-last in baseball in OPS and they tied for 19th in the league in homers.
Morales can bemoan moving from the Angels' lineup to Seattle's lineup, as he won't be hitting in the company of Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout. However, he shouldn't be too worried about trading Angel Stadium of Anaheim for Safeco Field.
Safeco Field has traditionally been death on power hitters, but that could change in 2013. The fences are moving in, meaning there's a chance that Safeco Field could actually end up being more friendly to hitters than the park Morales is waving goodbye to.
I hesitate to call Morales a winner seeing as how he's moving from a sure contender to a team that may not be ready to contend yet, but there's no doubt that the Mariners have scored a victory with this trade.
Justin Smoak had his chances to make an impact at the major league level, but he may not have any more coming his way after the Morales trade.
Morales served mainly as a designated hitter in 2012, but he's a first baseman by trade and a pretty good one too. He rated well in the eyes of both UZR and Defensive Runs Saved as an everyday first baseman back in 2009, according to FanGraphs.
But the main reason Morales is likely to play first base more often than not is because the Mariners need to keep their DH spot open for Jesus Montero. He's a catcher by trade, but he lacks the defensive skills to be a quality everyday catcher in the major leagues.
The Mariners are better off going with John Jaso behind the plate, with top prospect Mike Zunino waiting patiently in the background for his shot.
So that leaves Smoak as the odd man out, and he doesn't have a leg to stand on to demand regular playing time. He has a .686 OPS as a Mariner, and he's coming off a season in which he posted a .654 OPS in a career-high 132-game sample size.
Given his track record, the Mariners are going to be lucky to trade Smoak for anything significant. They may be stuck with him, in which case they could either keep him on their bench or bury him in the minors.
So yeah, not a good day for Mr. Smoak.
Theoretically, taking Jason Vargas out of Safeco Field could be an utter disaster. He gave up 35 home runs in 2012, and 26 of those came on the road. His ERA in road starts was two runs higher than his ERA in home starts.
But not so fast...
The switch from Safeco Field to Angel Stadium of Anaheim isn't likely to hurt Vargas that much. Per ESPN.com, Angel Stadium was almost as tough on power hitters in 2012 as Safeco Field was, and there may be no difference between the two parks in 2013 with the fences at Safeco Field moving in.
Besides which, Vargas is going to have the right kind of defense to handle his fly-ball style of pitching. With Mike Trout in left field, Peter Bourjos in center and Josh Hamilton (presumably) in right, not too many balls are going to find the outfield turf when the Angels are on defense in 2013.
Vargas won't be an ace for the Angels, but he stands to have a solid year for a team that has no excuse not to contend. And for Vargas, the timing couldn't be more perfect.
Free agency is looming for the 29-year-old lefty. And with prices for starting pitchers escalating, he ought to do very well next winter if he has a solid year in 2013.
Justin Smoak is the odd man out with Kendrys Morales joining the Mariners. In Anaheim, the odd man out with the arrival of Jason Vargas is Garrett Richards.
Before the Morales-for-Vargas trade went down, Richards was slated to be the No. 5 starter in the Angels rotation behind Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson. He was going to get his shot to live up to his billing as one of the club's top young players.
That shot is going to have to wait now. Richards could open the season in the minors and stay there until somebody gets hurt. It's either that, or he could work out of the bullpen.
He'd probably rather not do that again after how he performed as a reliever in 2012. In 21 relief appearances, Richards compiled a 5.50 ERA and a 1.86 K/BB ratio.
Even if Richards does find his way to the bullpen, he's more likely to be a middle relief man or a long reliever than a key setup man. The Angels already have enough of those to go around.
There basically is no bright side of this trade for Richards. He got screwed.
When the Angels came out of nowhere to sign Josh Hamilton, Peter Bourjos immediately stood out as one of the deal's biggest losers. The starting job he was lined up for in 2013 seemed to disappear.
Now it's back again.
With Morales out of the picture, the Angels have a wide open space at DH for Mark Trumbo, who very much fits the mold of a classic DH-type player. And with him out of right field, there's now room in the outfield for Bourjos again.
In Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Bourjos, the Angels basically have three center fielders lined up for their outfield. Bourjos is the one most likely to actually play center, though, as his defense in center field is off the charts.
Per FanGraphs, Bourjos owns a career UZR/150 of 23.9 as a center fielder, as well as a DRS of plus-34. These numbers reveal him to be a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, and I'd say that he should be considered the favorite for the award in 2013 once he's officially penciled in as the Angels' starting center fielder.
Bourjos can provide value on offense too. He's got some solid pop in his bat and speed to burn on the basepaths, so it's possible that the Angels will have a 30-30 guy at the top of their lineup and a 15-30 guy at the bottom of their lineup.
All teams should be so fortunate.
As soon as word of the Josh Hamilton signing came through, everyone and their uncle immediately started speculating what would become of Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos.
"Surely they'll be traded," said everyone...and their uncles.
Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com said that this was indeed the case, and that the Angels were likely to target a pitcher in a trade involving one of them:
Angels are very likely to trade one of the outfielders (Bourjos, Trumbo) for a pitcher. Could be either one, depending on the return.— DKnobler (@DKnobler) December 14, 2012
The Angels could have gotten what they wanted for either Trumbo or Bourjos, as there will always be teams on the line whenever a player with a powerful bat and a player with an excellent glove find their way onto the trade block.
Instead, the Angels got the pitcher they needed for a player who was more expendable than either Trumbo or Bourjos.
This is very good for them, but a big disappointment for those who were drooling at the idea of trading for Trumbo or Bourjos.
Turning our attention back to Seattle again, this trade isn't just about Kendrys Morales getting a new home and Justin Smoak probably losing his job.
With Jason Vargas out of Seattle's rotation, there's a clear hole that needs to be filled. And since there are no obvious candidates to fill it, that means the opportunity is there for one of Seattle's young guns to take it.
The Mariners have two pitchers in the top 10 of Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com's prospect rankings: right-hander Taijuan Walker and left-hander Danny Hultzen. They also have another top prospect waiting in the wings in left-hander James Paxton (pictured).
Paxton, according to Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times, may be more major league-ready than either Walker or Hultzen. But since Walker has made it as far as Double-A and Hultzen has made it as far as Triple-A, neither of them is very far off from being ready for the majors either.
There's a good chance that all three of them will contribute in 2013. And with Vargas gone, there's also a good chance that one of the three will break camp with the big club this spring.
The Morales-for-Vargas trade isn't going to grab quite as many headlines as the Josh Hamilton signing, and it would be a stretch to say that it has drastically rearranged the power structure of the AL West.
It did, however, make both the Angels and the Mariners a little better.
The Angels needed to go get a veteran innings-eater to plug into their rotation, and they did that. Say what you will about the talent level of their starting five, but it's by no means a downright bad rotation. In fact, it's a rotation that's finely tailored to the Angels' roster and home ballpark.
The Mariners, meanwhile, slightly upgraded their chances of contending in 2013 by adding Morales. They still don't look like a significant threat, but that could change in a hurry if Morales shores up the middle of their order as planned and a few other things go Seattle's way.
In short, the Angels got the final piece to their puzzle and the Mariners got what they're hoping is a cornerstone piece to their own puzzle.
The Oakland A's, Texas Rangers and Houston Astros won't be celebrating this trade, for the competition level in the AL West just got kicked up a notch.
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