Mariners add big bat in Morales, part with Vargas
Morales, 29, hit .273 with 22 home runs and 73 RBIs last year in 134 games after missing all of 2011 and most of 2010 with a broken left leg. That injury occurred when he landed awkwardly while jumping into a group of teammates at home plate after hitting a walk-off grand slam off Mariners closer Brandon League in Anaheim on May 29, 2010.
Before his injury, Morales was one of the emerging power hitters in the American League, batting .306 with 34 home runs and 108 RBIs for the Angels in 2009. He returned to the cleanup role for the Halos for much of this past season and hit 14 of his home runs and 45 RBIs in the final three months.
"Last year, in terms of my start and finish, it was obviously part of the recovery," Morales said through interpreter Luis Garcia in a conference call from his home in Miami. "I didn't feel 100 percent, but as the year wore on, I was able to build and have a stronger base, especially in that left foot. Now I'm at the point where I can work during the offseason and continue improvement from the latter half of last season to be ready for the upcoming year."
The Angels were willing to part with Morales after the acquisition of free agent Josh Hamilton last week, giving Seattle the veteran power hitter that general manager Jack Zduriencik has been pursuing all offseason.
The price wasn't cheap, however. Vargas, 29, went 14-11 with a 3.85 ERA in 217 1/3 innings last season, and was the Mariners' No. 2 starter behind Felix Hernandez.
Both players are entering their final year of arbitration eligibility and will become free agents after the 2013 season.
"It was tough to give up Jason Vargas with his innings and dependability," Zduriencik said. "He's been a great teammate and great guy on the club. But to acquire talent, you have to give up talent. We feel the strength of the organization is our pitching right around the corner. And in this situation, we felt we could add an offensive piece and help the ballclub continue to grow."
Zduriencik sees Morales as the needed veteran middle-of-the-order presence that was missing in last year's young lineup. Morales played mostly first base with the Angels prior to his injury, but started at DH for 92 games and at first base 28 times last year.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder said he's fully recovered now, feels no pain or inflammation any longer in the leg and is able to fully work out for the first time in two years.
He figures to compete with Justin Smoak at first base or give Seattle a quality DH, with Jesus Montero and John Jaso splitting duties at catcher and DH as well.
"We're confident there'll be enough at-bats to go around to make it work for everyone," Zduriencik said. "At the end, if you add a piece that makes your club better, then that's just better."
Morales said he's ready and willing to play first base as much as possible.
"Obviously that's not my decision, but I'm confident I'm ready to play first base every day if that's what is needed," he said.
Morales has spent his entire career with the Angels, batting .281 with 79 home runs, 265 RBIs and an .823 OPS in six Major League seasons. The native of Cuba has hit .292 with a .904 OPS in 34 games at Safeco Field, with seven home runs and 23 RBIs.
As for facing his former team now in the same division?
"Obviously they made the decision to make the trade," Morales said. "I've always defended the jersey I'm wearing at the time 100 percent. Now it's my responsibility to do the same for the Seattle Mariners and do everything I can to help this team win."
The Mariners are counting on the powerful switch-hitter to make an impact as a run producer on a club that finished last in the AL in scoring the past four years.
"Kendrys gives us a veteran presence and a proven middle-of-the-order bat, with power from both sides of the plate," said manager Eric Wedge. "Adding him to our lineup immediately makes us a better offensive club."
Vargas, who grew up in Southern California, was 36-42 with a 4.09 ERA in 119 games in four seasons with Seattle. His 14 wins led the Mariners last year, and he ranked fourth in the AL with 22 quality starts, though he also tied for second in the AL in home runs allowed with 35.
"I'll be able to come to an area that I'm very familiar with," Vargas said on a conference call with Angels reporters. "It's a great opportunity for me to be with an organization that's committed to winning now, obviously, and putting a team on the field that is going to be premier from top to bottom. It's exciting for me."
The Mariners have a number of top young pitching prospects coming up, though they now have just two established veterans in their rotation with Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, a 31-year-old from Japan who pitched well in his first season in the Majors last year.
Young starters Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi and Erasmo Ramirez also return, while top prospects Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Brendan Maurer will also be given good looks at Spring Training. The Mariners could also still add a veteran in free agency as Zduriencik maintained his payroll flexibility even while adding the much-needed bat.
"All options are on the table," Zduriencik said of the rotation. "We could add from within if we have to, and our ears are always open on the free-agent market and with other teams."
Morales earned $2.97 million last year in his second season of arbitration eligibility, while Vargas made $4.85 million in the same situation. Both were tendered contracts by their teams this offseason, and figure to get sizable raises before hitting free agency next year.
The swap leaves Zduriencik with more payroll room going forward as Morales figures to make less than Vargas when their deals are done. The Mariners GM said he won't talk about a contract extension with Morales or his agent, Scott Boras, until things play out further on the field.
But clearly the Mariners are still poised to make more additions, either for offense or pitching, and Zduriencik told 710 ESPN Seattle he had another trade offer on the table as of Wednesday afternoon.
The Mariners have now added Morales and infielder Robert Andino in trades this offseason, while signing free-agent outfielder Jason Bay to a one-year deal.