By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
SEATTLE — Jack Zduriencik didn’t sulk. When the stunning news broke that he’d lost out on his bid to sign free agent Josh Hamilton to the Los Angeles Angels, the Seattle Mariners general manager didn’t have time to throw a tantrum or wonder how it all went so wrong.
Instead, he simply pushed forward. There were calls to make, offense to find and other “irons in the fire” as he often says.
Zduriencik went right to the team that crushed his Hamilton hopes — the Angels — to make a deal to help the Mariners’ offense for the 2013 season.
On Wednesday, Zduriencik and the Mariners acquired switch-hitting designated hitter/first baseman Kendrys Morales in exchange for starting pitcher Jason Vargas.
“We have been focused on adding offense this off-season, and feel that Kendrys will be a middle-of-the-order bat for us,” Zduriencik said. “He’s a switch-hitter with power who has played, and hit, in the American League West.”
Zduriencik texted Angels’ general manager Jerry DiPoto after the Hamilton news broke to tell him congratulations about the deal and that he was still looking for offense.
“(Tuesday) morning, he called me and said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about Kendrys Morales.’”Zduriencik said.
The talks extended through Tuesday evening and into Wednesday morning before it was completed in the afternoon.
Morales, 29, hit .273 (132-for-484) with a .320 on-base percentage and 26 doubles and 22 home runs and 73 RBI in 134 games last seasons. It was his first full season of baseball since suffering a gruesome broken leg May 29, 2010 while celebrating a walk-off grand slam against the Mariners. To that point, he was hitting .290 with 11 homers and 39 RBI in 51 games.
He missed all of the 2011 season while recovering from leg surgery.
In 2009, he had monster year, hitting .306 with 34 home runs and 108 RBI. He had on an on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .924. He was fifth in the AL MVP voting.
The injury certainly was an issue for Morales last season. There was a noticeable limp in his running gait and he played in just 28 games at first base, spending the rest of the time at designated hitter.
Morales admitted the leg wasn’t 100 percent last season.
“Last year, I didn’t feel 100 percent, but as the year wore on I was able to build strength,” Morales said through translator Luis Garcia in a conference call.
But he said it won’t be a problem this season.
“I would put it at 100 percent,” Morales said. “It’s allowed me to continue to workout this offseason for the first time since about two years back. Following workouts, I feel no pain or inflammation.”
The leg is so healthy that Morales believes he could be an every day first baseman if needed.
Morales acquisition creates a logjam at first base and designated hitter. The Mariners used catchers John Jaso and Jesus Montero at DH often last season, while Justin Smoak is still on the roster and showed signs of living up to his potential last season. There is also Mike Carp, who is out of Class AAA options.
Zduriencik said that he and manager Eric Wedge discussed all the possibilities and concluded they could make it work if Seattle traded for Morales.
“I think we are both very confident that there will be enough at-bats to go around to be able to work well with everyone,” Zduriencik said.
The addition of Morales came with a price. Vargas grew into an established big league starter in his four seasons with Seattle, going 36-42 with a 4.09 ERA in 131 starts and 19 relief appearances. Last season, he led the Mariners in victories with a 14-11 record and 3.85 ERA.
“It’s tough to give up Jason Vargas, the innings he pitches for you and the dependability he shows for you,” Zduriencik said. “He’s been a great teammate. But at the end, in order to acquire talent you have give up talent.”
With the fences coming in at Safeco Field, there was some thought that Vargas’ overall value would be reduced. Last season, he was a completely different and not so effective pitcher away from Safeco, where long fly balls go to die in the cold air and massive outfield.
While Vargas, a fly ball pitcher, was just 5-5 in 14 home starts, he posted a 2.74 ERA and opponents hit just .219 against him and had just nine home runs at Safeco Field. On the road, Vargas was 9-6, but had a 4.78 ERA with a .266 batting average against and 26 home runs surrendered.
That didn’t matter to the Angels.
“Jason was what we were looking for on the market this year — just a steady reliable left-hander who can go out there,” DiPoto said in press release. “He’s got a history of pitching a high volume of innings and clearly I think we make ourselves a little bit better just in that we don’t have to face him because he’s given us fits. We’re thrilled to make the deal. We feel like this makes us a better, more complete and balanced team.”
The Mariners have an extra hole in their starting rotation with just Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Erasmo Ramirez slotted in. Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi and youngsters James Paxton, Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer as in-organization candidates.
Zduriencik said he’s still looking to add at least one more starting pitcher via trade or free agency.
In the end, the Morales-Vargas trade addressed dire needs for both teams.
The Angels were desperate for an established big league starter with the loss of Dan Haren and Ervin Santana in the offseason. The Mariners needed a middle of the order hitter.
The contracts also match up. Both players are in their final year arbitration eligibility and will be free agents next season. The Mariners could actually save close to $3 million based on arbitration projections. Vargas, who made $4.85 million last season, could be due as much a $7.4 million this season, while Morales made $2.975 million and would likely make only around $4.8 million this season.