By John Perrotto
It seems Brian Sabean makes at least one move in free agency each offseason that causes many in baseball to scratch their heads.
Last winter's case in point: Michael Morse. The San Francisco Giants signed the right-handed hitter to a one-year, $6 million deal to play leftfield.
Morse looked cooked last season when he had a miserable .215/.270/.381 slash line in 88 games and 333 plate appearances with the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles. Though he managed to hit 13 home runs, he had a poor strikeout/walk ratio of 87-21, in line with his career norm. Furthermore, the Giants were asking the defensively challenged 6-foot-5, 245-pounder to play the outfield in spacious AT&T Park.
It looked like a bad signing from every angle. Yet there is a reason Sabean is the longest-tenured GM in the game, having been on the job since 1996. He tends to get things right more often than not, even if the moves look wrong to those outside the organization.
Morse has been one of the top hitters in the National League during the early part of the season and is one of the reasons the Giants lead the NL West. He has hit .295/.342/.600 with eight home runs in 33 games and 112 plate appearances and his WAR is 1.2 after being a career-worst minus-1.4 last season.
There has been no particular mechanical adjustments to spark Morse's resurgence this season. Instead, Morse believes he has been refreshed by the culture of excellence created by Sabean, manager Bruce Bochy and a top-notch coaching staff, something that produced World Series victories for the franchise in 2010 and 2012.
"I got a good feeling from the first day of spring training when I met everyone," Morse said. "I just felt like I fit in here. It's the best team I've played on, both and off the field. These guys are so close-knit. It's such a great group of guys. To come out every day and help the team win and produce like I have done so far has just made the experience greater. I'm feeling as good as I ever have in my career."
Morse's career has been a mixed bag since the Chicago White Sox chose him in the third round of the 2000 amateur draft from Davie High School in the Miami suburb of Nova, Fla. The Seattle Mariners acquired Morse in a 2004 trade that saw right-handed pitcher Freddy Garcia go to the White Sox and thought he could be their shortstop of the future.
Morse made his major league debut the next year but proved too big to be a big league shortstop and tried third base, first base and in the outfield without ever gaining any traction in the Mariners' lineup. He was also suspended twice by Major League Baseball for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Seattle finally traded him to the Washington Nationals during the 2009 season.
Morse had three good seasons with the Nationals from 2010-12, including a career-type year in 2011 when he hit .303/.360/.550 in 146 games and 575 plate appearances while splitting time between first base and left field. The Nationals traded him back to the Mariners last season, but his return to Seattle was so disastrous many scouts and front-office types wondered if Morse was at the end of the line.
Morse, though, knew better than to give up on himself and now is in position to possibly outdo his 2011 season.
"I've pretty much been through everything during my career, I've had so many ups and downs with injuries, position changes, going up and down between Triple-A and the big leagues," Morse said. "A lot of times there have been people who thought that might be it for me. Baseball is all I know, though, and I love the game and doing all the work that goes into being the best player I can be. Hopefully, I'm getting a little break here with the Giants and things are back on the upswing."
Morse then paused and smiled.
"I'll just keep riding the wave as long as possible and see where it takes me."
Bochy is happy with Morse's season and says he is a big reason the Giants are off to a 21-12 start after going 76-86 last season.
"He's an intense player who's just brought a real presence to our lineup," Bochy said. "He's been the run-producing, right-handed bat that we really thought we needed and were lacking last season. He goes all out all the time and he's been a great teammate, fit right in with our guys. He's been fine in left field, too. Even though I take him out [for defensive purposes in the late innings], he's done well out there."
Morse believes one of the benefits of playing for the Giants is the chance to be teammates with star catcher Buster Posey and be around Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who works for the club as a special adviser.
"I believe you're always learning in this game and I love having the chance to pick Buster's brain every day or get a chance to talk with one of the greatest players ever in Willie Mays," Morse said. "Everyone does their own thing. Who knows if my way is the right way or if their way is the right way? I like to hear everybody's way and see if there's anything that can help my game.
"Willie said the hardest thing to do is to come out every day and be the best. He said anyone can be the best once or twice but it takes a special level of dedication to be the best every day."
Morse has taken Mays' advice to heart. While he will never reach Mays' level, Morse has been pretty darn good in his first 32 games in a Giants uniform.
"The key is to have quality at bats every time you're at the plate," Morse said. "You have to stay humble, keep in the right medium and ride that wave. If I have a big game and hit a home run, my swing might get long, so I'll cut it down and just think base hits. That's how I've been attacking the season so far and it's working for me."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.