By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Michael Morse is hardly fond of his first memory of Safeco Field.
“I pinch hit for Brett Boone,” said Morse, who was back at Safeco on Staurday as part of Mariners’ Fan Fest. “It didn’t go well. It was like four or five pitches, slider down and a way, I struck out. I walked back in the dugout and Boonie told me, ‘I could have done that.’”
Yet eight years later, Morse couldn’t be happier to be back in the place where he began his big league career with a strikeout. When Morse found out earlier this month that the Washington Nationals had traded him to Seattle, his home for part of four seasons from 2005 to 2008, Morse was excited about a second chance with the Mariners.
“This is where I started out, this is where it all started for me,” Morse said. “There’s ties here, I love this city, the fans are amazing. … I feel like this is a great opportunity to help the team be a championship ball club.”
Morse comes back a much different player, not just because he’s older (he’ll turn 31 in March) and bigger (he currently weighs 245 pounds, 30 more than he did when he last played here), but also because, in Washington, he finally got a chance to see what he could do as an every-day player. Morse was limited by a back injury last season, missing the first two months of the season, but in 2011 he appeared in 146 games, hitting .303 with 31 home runs.
“I didn’t have a position,” Morse said of his previous go-around in Seattle. “I didn’t let that bother me. I left here, I found a spot, got to play every day and I think I made a little name for myself. Now, I get to come back and show the city, show the team that I’m here to help the team win.”
This time around, Morse will get every opportunity to be an every day player. The Mariners, a team that has had a desperate need for power bats in recent years, will find ways to get him in the lineup, whether it’s playing in left field, serving as a designated hitter or getting spot duty at first and third base,
“We thought it was important to bring someone in our lineup who could hit 30 home runs,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said of the three-team trade that brought Morse to Seattle, sent the Mariners’ John Jaso to Oakland and three A’s prospects to Washington.
Now, is there any guarantee that Morse will rediscover that 2011 form? Hardly. But for a franchise that has struggled to score runs for so long, the trade is one that comes with more upside than risk.
Yes, Jaso was, in a limited role, the Mariners’ best hitter last season. But limited role is the key phrase there. You can argue all you want that Jaso could be better than Morse over 150 games, but Jaso wasn’t going to play 150 games this year. Jesus Montero is this team’s primary catcher, and last year’s first-round pick Mike Zunino doesn’t seem long for the minor leagues.
“John Jaso, great teammate, good player, (but) he was going to be a part-time player,” Zduriencik said. “The fact we had Zunino around the corner I think helped our thought process in trying to make that move.”
Morse, on the other hand, has the power to be a middle-of-the-lineup difference-maker. If he is anything close to his 2011 self, the trade will look brilliant. If Morse doesn’t work out, the Mariners are loaded with outfield/first-base/DH-types who could step into that role.
And let’s face it, the success or failures of Morse (or Jaso, were he still here) isn’t going to determine if the Mariners have an eighth losing season in 10 years.
Back when the Mariners added Jason Bay, and when Josh Hamilton was still a free agent, Mariners manager Eric Wedge made it clear that his team’s fate is tied not to who is added in the offseason, but how the team’s young nucleus develops this season. Morse could hit 40 home runs this season, but if players like Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Kyle Seager don’t take steps forward, it probably won’t matter.
“The greatest impact we can have on our organization is the collective whole of our core group here,” Wedge said in December. “… If you talk about your core group of guys, whether it be your position players, your starting pitchers or your bullpen, that’s the greatest impact you’re going to have on your club as you move forward.”
The hope is that Morse, like veteran additions Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales, can help those young players develop. Morse knows what it’s like to wait his turn for opportunities. He’s gone through ups and downs, losing seasons and playoff ones. When Morse first came up with the Mariners, he learned from Ibanez; now he hopes to do for young players what Ibanez did for him eight years ago.
“We have a lot to give,” Morse said of himself and Seattle’s other offseason acquisitions. “I think we can help these guys and push them in the right direction, because the talent’s here.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.