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Originally published May 21, 2014 at 5:49 PM | Page modified May 22, 2014 at 12:34 PM

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Why the Mariners must sign Kendrys Morales now

If the Mariners are serious about contending, they should sign free agent Kendrys Morales as their DH.


Seattle Times columnist

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It seems so elementary: The Mariners have a need, and the ideal player to fill that need is sitting at home, unemployed, waiting for a phone call.

So why isn’t Kendrys Morales on his way to Seattle? Because, of course, it’s never quite as simple as it seems. Yet it’s the perfect time for the Mariners, if they’re truly serious about making a run this season, to put forth one last effort to make it happen.

Conveniently, the blueprint was put forward Tuesday by shortstop Stephen Drew, who like Morales has been sitting in limbo all season. The Red Sox signed Drew to a contract worth $10 million, which is not an arbitrary number. It’s the prorated portion of Boston’s $14.1 million qualifying offer that Drew, like Morales, turned down during the offseason.

It just so happens that Drew’s agent is the same as Morales’: Scott Boras. So presumably that same $10 million deal would be very much in play. Boras did not return a phone call Wednesday.

Yes, that’s a big chunk of change to hand out in the middle of the season. But this is a team that paid $175 million to retain Felix Hernandez and $240 million to lure Robinson Cano. It seems penny wise and pound-foolish to cling to budget considerations when another season — one more promising than most in recent years — is threatened by Seattle’s perennial offensive woes.

Heading into Wednesday’s game in Texas — a 4-3 loss in which they managed just five hits — the Mariners once again had the worst batting average in the American League (tied with Houston at .236) and were 14th out of 15 in on-base percentage-plus -slugging percentage (OPS, .672, just four points ahead of Kansas City).

They masked that for a bit through excellent production with runners in scoring position (RISP), but that’s hard to sustain, as the Mariners have already shown with a recent 2-for-30 stretch with RISP.

To look deeper, the M’s are particularly struggling at the designated-hitter position — Morales’ bailiwick. They have put up a paltry .197/.278/.318 line for batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage (with five homers and 19 runs batted in). Their .597 OPS is the worst at that position in the league. Last year, with Morales putting up 23 homers and 80 RBI to go with a .277 average, Seattle’s DH spot ranked third with a .781 OPS.

A drop of nearly 200 points more than a quarter through the season should be enough to drive home the need for action. And the galvanizing event is the hamstring injury to DH Corey Hart that is expected to sideline him four to six weeks.

Hart, coming off two knee surgeries that cost him all of last season, was hitting .209. Over his last 21 games, Hart had a .158 average with just three extra-base hits.

The Mariners are paying Hart $6 million this season, but they can figure out how to get him at-bats when he returns. They need to be proactive now, while a playoff berth is still in sight. That’s what the Red Sox — further back in the standings and with a worse record than Seattle — did when infielder Will Middlebrooks went on the DL with a fractured finger. They had a need, and they filled it.

The Red Sox realized that the chances of another team signing Drew before the amateur draft in two weeks was negligible. As a refresher, when a team makes a qualifying offer to one of its own free agents, and the player turns it down (as all 13 eligible free agents did), then any team that signs him has to give up its highest unprotected draft pick. That requirement has proved over the past two years to greatly restrict the market for these players — at least the ones who fall short of elite status.

But that compensation stipulation disappears after the draft, which means that the market for Morales figures to heat up June 8. Any team interested in Morales now will surely just wait, which means the Mariners’ chance of picking up a compensatory draft pick has essentially evaporated already. So they might as well pounce now.

I said it wasn’t as simple as it seems, and it’s not. Beyond budget considerations, there is the fact that the Mariners have been rebuffed in previous efforts to sign Morales. Todd Dybas of The News Tribune reported earlier this year that general manager Jack Zduriencik told a group of season-ticket holders on opening night that Morales declined a three-year, $30 million extension offer after last year’s All-Star break.

He later turned down the qualifying offer, and the Mariners moved in another direction. So the team may feel that the onus is on Morales to take less than the prorated $10 million if he wants to play this year. But Boras no doubt will make the counter-argument that if the Mariners really want to boost their offense, they’ll pay the going rate. And that rate was established Tuesday.

The other issue, of course, is the readiness of Morales, who has presumably been working out in the Miami area. He was never a physical specimen, so the Mariners would have to check into his health and conditioning. And even if they sign him, it would take a week or two for Morales to get into game-ready shape. The Red Sox figure it will take 25 at-bats in the minors for Drew.

Morales has always struck me as a guy who could fall out of bed on Christmas morning and get a hit, as the old saying goes. But the holiday that’s coming up is Memorial Day, which has always been a touchstone date in baseball to identify the legitimate contenders.

The Mariners still fancy themselves in that category. Kendrys Morales back in the middle of their lineup would make that quest more realistic.

DH dilemma
Morales might be a big upgrade for the Mariners, who have some of the league’s worst stats at the designated hitter spot this year.
PlayerAvg.HRRBI
Mariners’ DHs this season.197519
Morales in 2013.2772380

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146

or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry



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