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Sleeper sluggers: Mike Morse has potential

3/17/2011

By now most of us know the story of Toronto Blue Jays utility player Jose Bautista emerging from obscurity to hit 54 home runs last season. His questionable track record heading into the 2010 season seemed to suggest that a big season was impossible. However, Bautista did, as the wise owners who drafted him like to point out while using 20-20 hindsight, slug 10 of his 13 home runs in 2009 in the month of September, a harbinger for some to believe there was big-time power lurking.

So it is that I paid particularly close attention this past September to see if any veteran hitters suddenly provided power that could indicate a breakout season to come. I also looked to see if any under-the-radar type of player was doing so. One player who stood out to me is Washington Nationals outfielder Mike Morse, a guy I tagged last summer and discussed in my NL East wrap-up blog. To some, it appeared the team's signing of Jayson Werth ended Morse's chances for 500-plus at-bats, but that doesn't match with what Washington's decision-makers are saying at the moment.

"If Opening Day was tomorrow, he certainly would be our [starting] left fielder," general manager Mike Rizzo said. Manager Jim Riggleman was also pretty effusive about Morse, who is tied for the big league lead this spring with five home runs and is hitting .429, with a .914 slugging percentage. Yes, we preach how little spring stats matter, but if Morse's fine numbers earn him a starting job, they certainly matter. "Mike's winning the job," Riggleman told The Washington Post. "[He] is making a statement that, 'I'm the guy.' We welcome that. We're not looking to platoon. I'm just reacting to what I see. He's just played so well."

Morse didn't have a double-digit-homer September, but if you extrapolate his five-homer, 14-RBI month over a full six-month season, you're talking 30 homers and 84 RBIs. Perhaps Morse will not deliver this kind of production in 2011, but I'd sure like to see him get the chance. For years the Seattle Mariners had this guy and didn't know what to do with him. At first he was he a shortstop (despite standing 6-foot-5). Next week Morse will turn 29 years old, hardly too late for him to emerge (Bautista was the same age). As for the Mariners, are you wondering, like me, how such a strong organization can handle a player so poorly? I mean, two years ago he was traded for the great Ryan Langerhans.

I'll take the "over" on Morse getting 450 at-bats this season and swatting 20 home runs. I've heard some compare him to Matt Diaz, a longtime lefty-killer who wasn't given the chance to play regularly (until perhaps this season with the Pittsburgh Pirates). Morse does have a large platoon split, hitting lefties better. But it's not like he's Mario Mendoza against right-handers, either; Morse has hit .279 with a .341 OBP against them. The Nats should let him smash the southpaws and contribute against right-handers. Plenty of right-handed hitters do that. Look at the splits for Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee last year. Morse has similar career splits.

Here are a few others that you might not realize hit for power in September:

Mike Aviles, 2B, Kansas City Royals: One of only two players to hit six or more home runs and steal six or more bases that month (Shin-Soo Choo was the other), Aviles has a career .298 batting average, albeit in fewer than 1,000 at-bats. Can he stay healthy? I never thought of Aviles as a potential 20-homer option -- the most he hit in a minor league season was 17 -- but I also never thought Bautista would hit 20 home runs.

Kila Ka'aihue, 1B, Royals: He has hit .217 over 52 big league games, but in September he hit .274 with 10 extra-base hits, six of them home runs. And unlike Aviles, Ka'aihue has hit for power at every level of the minors. Both Ka'aihue and Billy Butler will play regularly until hotshot prospect Eric Hosmer is ready, but don't be surprised if Ka'aihue hits more home runs and becomes an attractive free-agent signing in fantasy.

Danny Espinosa, 2B, Nationals: At the moment, Espinosa is not being drafted in most standard mixed leagues, but if you're looking for a middle infielder with some pop, look no further. Of course, Espinosa also brings considerable batting-average baggage, which is why he's being ignored. He's a prodigious strikeout guy as well. But could he smack more than 20-plus home runs? Sure. After he hit six home runs in September (despite hitting just .233), I wouldn't be surprised if he did.

Danny Valencia, 3B, Minnesota Twins: Another youngster not quite on the mixed-league radar, Valencia hit an impressive .311 as a rookie, but fantasy owners are probably turned off by the mere seven home runs in 85 games. You know what, though? Five of the long balls came in September, along with a .310 batting average and .512 slugging mark. This is a player who didn't hit for big power in the minors, but maybe he's developing it.

Chris Johnson, 3B, Houston Astros: By now anyone who has read the ESPN Fantasy profile on Johnson knows his .308 batting average is likely a fluke, since it came with a .387 batting average on balls in play. However, like Valencia, Johnson flashed his power at the end of the season, hitting five of his 11 home runs in the final month. Johnson's career minor league slugging percentage was a muted .429, and he appears to be allergic to drawing walks, but stranger things have happened.

It's unlikely we'll see another Bautista-like explosion anytime soon, but don't be surprised if Morse and/or a few of these younger players emerge.