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Giants, Phillies: Desperate contenders

12/14/2013

News items:

• The San Francisco Giants agreed with Michael Morse on a one-year deal for $5 million plus incentives.

• The Philadelphia Phillies agreed with Roberto Hernandez on a one-year deal to join their rotation.

Both moves could pay off, but both moves also show the positions both clubs are in: You don't need to sign players like Morse and Hernandez if you're in good shape to begin with.

Morse peaked in 2011 with the Nationals with a 31-homer season, fell off in 2012 and was a disaster for the Mariners and Orioles in 2013, hitting .215/.270/.381. He's a guy who doesn't draw walks and is terrible in the outfield, so all his value resides in his ability to hit for power and a high BABIP. In his three seasons with the Nationals, he did consistently hit for a high BABIP with marks of .330, .344 and .339. He cratered last year with a .254 mark. He did battle some injuries, but his line-drive rate, according to ESPN Stats & Information, was 20 percent, higher than his 2010-12 rate of 18 percent.

This could make him a good bounce-back candidate. He hit .263 on ground balls from 2010 to 2012 but just .149 in 2013. Of course, maybe he wasn't hitting his ground balls as hard. Or maybe he was just unlucky. (The MLB average in 2013 on grounders was .241.)

On the other hand, Morse will be 32 and has accrued negative-20 Defensive Runs Saved over the past three seasons. Ultimate Zone Rating rates him as the second-worst outfielder over the past three years (minimum 1,000 innings), with negative-21 runs per 150 games. If Morse plays regularly in left field, the Giants' outfield defense could be among the worst in the majors. Angel Pagan was once an elite center fielder, but he is 32 and has rated below average the past three seasons via DRS. Hunter Pence has also rated below average the past two years.

Will Morse pay off? I have my doubts. He is very slow, doesn't provide value on defense and is at the age when players of his skill set often decline rapidly. His lack of plate discipline is another major issue. He's a one-dimensional kind of risk, and his one dimension may not play well in AT&T Park. But the Giants may be looking at him as primarily as a platoon player with Gregor Blanco, a much better defender, and if Morse hits enough, then maybe he wins more playing time.

The Hernandez signing makes sense since the Phillies were looking for a cheap starter to compete with Kyle Kendrick and Jonathan Pettibone for the final two slots behind Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Miguel Gonzalez. Hernandez was 6-13 with a 4.89 ERA for Tampa Bay in 2013, somehow lasting most of the season in the rotation. Despite Tampa Bay's shifts on defense that help its pitchers, Hernandez allowed a .281 average -- and 24 home runs in 151 innings, primarily because left-handers hit .305 and slugged .537 off him.

As with Morse, however, there are some positives that hint at a better 2014. His control, always his big issue, was much improved as he issued just 38 walks; his home run-to-fly ball rate was high, meaning you could expect fewer home runs in 2014; he's healthy; he won't be pitching in the American League East. He's not a difference-maker but a worthwhile one-year gamble.

That said, are the Phillies really contenders? Michael Baumann wrote this the other day on Crashburn Alley, before the signing:

Let's put it this way–the Phillies are a high school student with a report card of an A, a B-plus, four C-minuses and a D. The Marlins have two As and five Fs, and Cano and Ellsbury represent an A and a B-plus to put anywhere on your report card. Those two replacements make a bigger difference for the student that was worse to start.

The Red Sox last year changed a bunch of Fs to Bs, and had to be incredibly smart and incredibly lucky to do even that. If the Phillies were that smart and that lucky, the impact wouldn't be that great. Weakness in the form of one or two disastrous gaping holes is relatively easy to solve in free agency. But the Phillies have a case of general mediocrity, an across-the-board malaise, and for 2014 at least, they’re going to drown in it.

I'm inclined to agree. Hernandez is a small fish. The Phillies needed to land several big ones.