By Marc Normandin
It took until the final third of May, but Stephen Drew is no longer a free agent. The draft pick compensation that came out of receiving the qualifying offer this past off-season essentially banished him to limbo when certain teams who shall remain nameless refused to pony up the dollars and pick for him that would have improved their club. That's all over with now as he's rejoined the Red Sox, and can help them try to right themselves.
Not every free agent is so lucky. Kendrys Morales, who was with the Mariners a year ago, is still sitting out there waiting to be signed. There is a very good chance that, unlike Drew, Morales will have to wait to sign until after the 2014 MLB Draft, which runs from June 5-7, as its conclusion means draft pick compensation is no longer attached to his free agency. When that moment hits, who is going to need Morales the most?
First, some background on why Morales is needed. He seems to be most known for landing on home plate after a walkoff homer and busting up his leg, causing him to miss the rest of the 2010 season as well as all of 2011, but he's otherwise been healthy and mashing. Since 2009, Morales' breakout year, he ranks ninth in OPS+ among first basemen/designated hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances in that stretch. His 128 OPS+ puts him right behind Mike Napoli, and ahead of Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Teixeira, Billy Butler, and Freddie Freeman: Morales can flat-out hit, even if he's spent his career in parks that hide this fact.
He was no different in 2013, when he hit .277/.336/.449 with 23 homers and 57 extra-base hits for the Mariners in 156 games, despite the fact that Safeco is pitcher-friendly. He was as good as he's ever been, yet the free agent offers did not come in thanks to the need to give up a draft pick for his services. With that out of the way in a few weeks, his market should change, and in a hurry.
The reason why Morales is still a free agent is absurd, especially given his talent level, but that's just how things are written up in the collective bargaining agreement at present. It will be to some mystery team's benefit that Morales is still available, as they would have had two more months of information to decide how much they need him, and won't have to give up a draft pick to do it once the draft runs its course.
The Mariners are an obvious destination, and like the Sox with Drew, could ink Morales before the draft with the only cost being money since they were the club to give him the qualifying offer in the first place. Justin Smoak has not been great at first base -- he's been an above-average hitter with a 107 OPS+, but matching the average first baseman requires far more thump -- and designated hitter Corey Hart has been a disaster who has batted .209/.295/.353. Morales could slot in at one position or both depending on how the Mariners want to rotate plate appearances, and with the Mariners sitting around .500 within striking distance of a playoff spot, the sooner they upgrade with Morales, the better.
They are far from the only club who could use Morales, though. The Pirates probably should have been in on that during the winter even if it cost them a draft pick, but instead they're now third-to-last in the National League. While they traded for Ike Davis to fill their hole at first, and that's worked well enough to this point with Davis batting .263/.372/.413 on the season in a park that slants towards pitchers, it's worth it for the Bucs to keep an eye on the Morales' market. Davis has a history of crashing and burning at the plate, and while the Pirates' record is terrible now, they aren't at the point where they are hopeless, especially now when top prospect Gregory Polanco could be up soon and parts of the rotation -- such as Wandy Rodriguez -- might be able to right this ship with some time.
They don't outright need Morales like the Mariners do, but if Davis comes back to Earth in the next couple of weeks and the Pirates manage to inch closer to .500, signing Morales for the last almost four months of the season would make a lot of sense.
Morales' old friend the Angels are also a perfect fit for the slugger. They're currently throwing Raul Ibanez out there, and while he mashed with the Mariners last year, there was a risk in adding him given he was heading into his age-42 season. As he's batting .152/.273/.277 with just six extra-base hits in 37 games and 132 plate appearances, it's safe to say there's room for Morales as the Angels' designated hitter. The Angels currently have the third-best OPS+ in the majors even with Ibanez flailing, but the pitching isn't quite good enough that third will guarantee them anything: combining a bat like Morales' to the likes of a rejuvenated Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Howie Kendrick would do wonders for a team that's been successful, but top-heavy offensively.
The rotation has been solid, but there is no guarantee that either (or both) of Tyler Skaggs or Hector Santiago will turn things around and be the successful back-end starters the Angels desperately need if they're to hang with the talented Athletics or the rest of the AL wild card scene all season long. Morales is no guarantee, of course, but they're a better team with his bat in the lineup, and at this late stage, when money is all that upgrade will cost, teams in the Angels' position should be interested every time.
The Brewers have been messing with Mark Reynolds at first base this year, and while it hasn't cost them in the standings yet, he's hitting just .200/.282/.416 -- sure, the power is there, but he's been a below-average hitter and an even worse first baseman thanks to the awful average and on-base percentage combination. The Brewers are in first place with a legitimate chance of winning the National League Central thanks to their rotation and an otherworldly bullpen. The offense has amassed just an 88 OPS+, just 10th-best in the Senior Circuit: If anything is going to be their downfall as they try to outpace the St. Louis Cardinals, it's going to be that lineup. Adding Morales, who would be in a homer-happy park for the first time in his career, could help push that lineup much closer to average.
As they're relying almost entirely on Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, and Jonathan Lucroy right now, they might need Morales more than any other team in the majors. Their previous wins are in the bank, but they can't always depend on victory through pitching alone over the course of 162 games.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin