How do you solve a problem like Morales? Okay, he’s not really a problem, but plays on words are fun and there is a conundrum brewing with him and the Royals that will come to a head soon after the World Series is over and they have to make a decision. You see, Morales has a mutual option. Mutual options are almost never picked up. I’m sure they have been, but I can’t think of one. And for the most part, the mutual option is just an accounting trick to transfer some guaranteed money to an additional year. Anyway, Morales has that mutual option and it’s likely to be declined, which makes him a free agent.
Free agents coming off seasons where they hit (probably) 30+ homers and drive in (probably) 90+ runs typically can make a little money. There are other statistics to better evaluate players than either of those and teams are smarter today than they ever have been before. But still, those are shiny numbers and home runs are instant offense, and a team in need of some home runs might look at those and look at his fantastic 2015 season and see a guy who can slot in the middle of the order and help them next year and probably a couple years after that.
And that’s not to say that Morales is without his warts. In spite of his shiny counting stats, his average and OBP are both down this season. His SLG is down too, but his ISO is up, so that’s just a result of the average. He’s also been insanely streaky this year. We’ve gone over it, but he’s been mostly bad with about 125 at bats of legitimate greatness which make his season numbers look as solid as they are. While you can’t discount the overall numbers from the streakiness, that’s something that will be evaluated when determining whether or not to give him a big contract. And he’s 33 years old. He’s no spring chicken.
But it’s also kind of hard to envision the Royals lineup without him. A big switch hitter who can balance a batting order with home run power is something that every team could use. And the Royals will continue to have championship aspirations in 2017. So what do they do? You know what? I’m glad you asked.
$11MM Mutual Option
This one is one we discussed in the open. Typically, these don’t get exercised. Usually, either the player is too good for the number or too bad for the number. It’s very rare that he gives a performance where both he and the team look at that number and think it’s fair. In this case though, I think that might be what happens.
It’s not just the performance either, but take a look at the free agent market this season and you’ll see one thing it does not lack is designated hitters. Edwin Encarnacion, Mike Napoli, Carlos Beltran and Mark Trumbo highlight the marquee names. Then there’s a second tier. Guys like Mitch Moreland, Brandon Moss, even Pedro Alvarez and, yes, Morales highlight that. And there’s even a third tier with Ryan Howard and Adam Lind where a team may choose to try to get production for cheap.
That’s 10 players who could potentially be signed to DH next season. A few can actually play the field, so maybe they don’t have the same limitations, but aside from Moreland, they’re all designated hitters, even if they’re wearing a glove.
Now look ahead to next season’s free agents. Lucas Duda will be a free agent. So will John Jaso. Billy Butler and Melky Cabrera will be there. And Jayson Werth will be 39, but he’ll be out there. That seems like a market where Morales could be top dog. It might be in his best interest to be on the lookout for that one-year deal with the hopes of having a better season and getting back out there next off-season to try to find a deal.
Is he worth $11 million? I think so. By wins above replacement, he’s not, but on a team starved for power and always looking for lineup balance, I think it would be hard to just dismiss a player who has been their best power threat for the last two seasons. The Royals payroll situation is a little bit murky with a lot of raises and what’s looking to be the highest number ever for the franchise, but if you’re trying to win in 2017, I think Morales hitting in the middle of a hopefully healthier lineup gives you the best chance.
Of course, we talked about why players decline their mutual options, so…
The Qualifying Offer
This year’s QO is going to be $16.7 million. That’s a lot of money for a guy who walks to the plate 600 times in a season and does little else. In fact, it would be one of the highest salaries ever for a designated hitter. But if he declines his option (or the Royals decline their end), the next question is whether or not to offer this to him. If they do offer and he declines and signs elsewhere, the Royals get a compensatory pick for their troubles. Of course, if he doesn’t sign elsewhere, they get nothing and Morales is out of luck.
You might recall that’s happened to him before. Following the 2013 season, he was given a qualifying offer from the Mariners and turned it down in the hopes of making way more on the free agent market. Nobody signed him. He ultimately landed with the Twins and had no spring training or any time to prepare for the season and had a disastrous year. Luckily for him, the Royals saw more and took a chance on a two-year deal that I was shocked he received. I’m not sure he’d want to go through that again, especially considering the free agent class listed above.
I think if the Royals extend Morales a qualifying offer, there’s a very real chance he accepts it. In fact, I’d put it at a better than 50/50 proposition that he accepts it. That means there’s some tricky maneuvering here. If there’s even the possibility they extend him the qualifying offer, Morales will decline his side of the mutual option because he’d earn nearly $6 million more through the QO than the MO. So basically, the Royals have to decide on the QO before the MO and let Morales know of their intentions.
It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Royals to extend the QO and have Morales accept it, but that’s only if he wanted to work out a deal for more than one season. I suppose he could want a three-year deal they could work out, but a two-year deal puts him on the free agent market following the 2018 season, which might be the greatest free agent class we’ve ever seen, so I doubt he’d want that.
No Mutual Option, No Qualifying Offer, Sign New Deal
This seems to be the most likely route the Royals will take with Morales. They can buy out their end of the mutual option and not offer Morales a QO and then just see what happens. I think free agency for Morales could go one of two ways. He could either choose to get out in front of the big name designated hitters and sign quickly, or he could try to be their rebound DH and nab a deal in January or February. Of course, given the history, I’m not sure how much he’d like to do that.
So the Royals could do nothing with him and take a chance that he’ll be there for a good price later in the off-season or they could get out in front and give him a deal for a year. It could be that somewhere in between the $11 million mutual option and the $16.7 million qualifying offer would appease both sides, so maybe they can do something like one year for $12 million with another mutual option for something like $14 million and a $1.5 million buyout. That puts the money pretty close to in the middle and could probably appease both sides.
That gets Morales back on the free agent market following the 2017 season when the options aren’t quite so plentiful and gives him the chance to make even more money. I think this way might make some sense, though I could see them doing a deal like that even if they do pick up the mutual option.
Let Him Walk
But is keeping him even the smart play for the Royals moving forward?
The Royals have long talked about wanting to gain flexibility with the DH position. Of course, they talked about that and then went out and signed the man this article is about, so who knows? What I can tell you is that next season, the Royals expect Mike Moustakas to return at full strength, but they also have Cheslor Cuthbert, who has filled in quite well for him. Cuthbert, to me, is clearly a big league hitter, but he’s not as good either offensively or defensively as Moustakas. He also seems like he’s faded as he’s played the longest season of his career.
A way to both keep Moustakas healthy and Cuthbert from getting to this point of fade might be to rotate the DH spot. It would also allow for guys like Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain to get some extra days off. So with that in mind, having the DH spot open is definitely appealing. Add in Hunter Dozier if he can nail down the right field job, and it might be nice to get some defense in there for Ian Kennedy or Danny Duffy starts when you know the fly balls will be flowing.
So they could simply buy out their portion of the mutual option, not extend that qualifying offer and just let him go. They can rotate that DH spot and hope the offensive output is the same or better and they get through a season with better health because of the rest afforded to the regulars.
You know, people don’t like to hear this, but the Royals have a budget, and it looks to already be stretched pretty thin next year. Can they even afford to add another $12 million plus to the payroll? I think if you have a chance to win a title, absolutely, but it’s also not my money.
The question is if the Royals are a better team with Morales in the middle or with their regulars getting the opportunity to take a half-day off. I could see either side, but in my opinion, I think the best option for the Royals is to work something out with Morales that doesn’t require them to pay him nearly $17 million in 2017, but does allow them to keep him to provide that key bat in the middle of the order.
Try to imagine a lineup without him. In theory, the flexibility would be nice, but Morales is a proven commodity. He’s been an above average offensive player every year of his career since becoming a regular but one. Sure he’s getting older and he’s had some down times this year, but the Royals need that power bat in the middle, and I do think Morales is the best option.
Now, if you tell me they let Morales walk and do something like sign Carlos Beltran to DH, then I have no issue with that. But they need someone, and they know Morales and know what he brings to the table. To me, he’s a great fit for this offense and can be a big part of helping them get back to the postseason in 2017.