During the offseason, as the Washington Nationals went through their negotiations with first baseman Adam LaRoche, they fielded preliminary interest in Michael Morse from several teams. They found themselves in a precarious position.
The Nationals couldn’t get serious with a trading partner because they were unsure until early January if LaRoche would ultimately end up back with them and they needed Morse as their first baseman in the event that he didn’t. But once LaRoche agreed, once he was under contract for two more seasons in D.C., Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo’s phone lit up.
The interest was such that Rizzo all but knew a trade was in Morse’s future.
“We could’ve kept him,” Rizzo said. “And knowing me, if we didn’t get the deal we wanted, we would’ve kept him. But I don’t think it would’ve been fair to him in a contract year to come off the bench. I don’t think his skills are really indicative of a bench player.
“There was enough interest. We were getting enough phone calls and hits on him, I thought there was going to be a deal that we liked out there. When we signed LaRoche, I got a bunch of phone calls right after that asking about him.”
It took some time, though, for all that interest to evolve into something where the Nationals felt they would have a deal strong enough to trade him. What was paramount, Rizzo said, was getting a prospect they deemed to fall into the “premium” category. It wasn’t until they involved the Oakland Athletics that Rizzo thought he might be able to get back one he’d already had once.
“(A.J. Cole) was the toughest part for me for the package for Gio (Gonzalez),” Rizzo said, referencing the four-prospect package the Nationals sent the A’s last winter in exchange for their ace lefty. Cole, 20, was traded with catcher Derek Norris, left-hander Tommy Milone and right-hander Brad Peacock. Both Milone and Norris were integral parts of the A’s success in 2012.
“Strange things happen in baseball. We didn’t identify A.J. as a guy we wanted to have back (at the time of the trade for Gonzalez). In this particular situation, this was the key component of a trade that we could make. We were fortunate to involve Oakland. They needed a player from Seattle that Seattle was willing to give up for him. And we demanded that the deal had to have A.J. Cole in it, or there wasn’t going to be a deal.”
The deal they arrived at on Wednesday was a three-team pact in which Morse went to Seattle, which sent John Jaso to the A’s. The A’s then sent Cole, big right-hander Blake Treinen and a player to be named — who will come from “a couple of players” the Nationals will chose from at a future date — to Washington.
So what to make of the Nationals’ reasons for making a trade that did, ultimately, rid them of a middle-of-the-lineup hitter?
First it’s important to remember that the Nationals traded away one year of control over a player to get back at least 12 in Cole and Treinen. It’s important not to underestimate the role those years of service plays in deals like this from the Nationals’ perspective. They weren’t looking to deal Morse to make an upgrade to their major league team, they were looking to use him as a means to beefing up their prospects for the future.
Despite some ugly numbers during a brief stint in high Single-A, in the offensively-charged California League, the Nationals feel strongly that Cole is still the type of prospect he was when they gave him up a year ago.
“We feel that he’s on course,” Rizzo said, noting the Nationals had scouted him often this past season. “His developmental curve is on track. We’re going to get him with our pitching people and straighten out his delivery. I think that this guy will be a quick mover for us from this point forward. Stuff was great. He’s in great shape. He’s a big, strong man now. Couple that with another couple of pieces we got in the trade, and we feel very fortunate to get the package we did for one year of Michael Morse.”
Second, given that LaRoche’s signing and the trade for Denard Span would’ve forced Morse back into a reserve role, the Nationals felt they had something of a redundancy in that role with Tyler Moore — who is also a right-handed power hitter who can play the corner outfield spots and first base, and is younger with more years of control.
“They have very similar skill sets,” Rizzo said. “To have two of them is almost redundant… With the outlay of prospects to get the club that we have, we felt that Mike would recoup some of those prospects for us. Especially with the trade of Alex Meyer to obtain Denard Span, we felt that A.J. Cole kind of replaces his spot in our minor league system.”
Finally, Rizzo expressed a genuine desire to allow Morse a chance to excel in his contract year as an everyday player. The Nationals acquired Morse in what, at the time, was a straight minor league trade. Ryan Langerhans for Michael Morse. Given a chance to be an everyday player, Morse excelled. The affection they had for one another — and for what they were able to accomplish together — was evident.
Rizzo called his telephone call Wednesday night with Morse “bittersweet.”
“Mike’s an easy guy to like,” Rizzo said. “He was moving on to the next chapter of his career. He told me he appreciated everything we’ve done for him.
“I told him we appreciated everything he’s done for us. ‘Go out, have a good year and make a lot of money.’”