The Trade: The Washington Nationals send OF/1B Mike Morse to the Seattle Mariners for C John Jaso. The Washington Nationals send C John Jaso to the Oakland A's for RHP A.J. Cole, RHP Blake Treinen and a PTBNL.
Looking to bolster their offense at a position from which they received little production in 2012, the Oakland A's acquired catcher John Jaso in a three-team deal with the Seattle Mariners and the Washington Nationals. The power-starved Mariners are welcoming back Mike Morse, who was traded by Seattle to Washington for Ryan Langerhans in 2009 (fun fact: Langerhans was traded to the Nationals by the A's in 2008).
Morse is the fourth power-hitter that Seattle has acquired in the past six weeks. In December, Seattle signed LF Jason Bay and DH Raul Ibanez and traded for 1B/DH Kendrys Morales. The Mariners are looking to upgrade an offense that finished 27th in baseball in runs scored in 2012.
Ironically, in making this trade, the Mariners sent away one of their most productive offensive players from their 2012 team. John Jaso appeared in only 108 games for Seattle, but his oWAR was 3.4, good for second on the team behind Michael Saunders' 3.5. Jaso led the Mariners in OBP by a healthy margin. In fact, had he qualified, Jaso's .394 OBP would have ranked fourth in the league, just behind Mike Trout's .399 and ahead of Miguel Cabrera's .393.
Jaso has been a patient hitter throughout his professional career. Drafted in the 12th round by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2003, Jaso spent eight seasons in the minor leagues. In 629 minor league games, he walked 299 times and owned a career .379 OBP. Jaso made his major league debut in 2008 and appeared in five games, but he established himself as a big leaguer in 2010 with Tampa. That season, he finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting when he posted a .263/.372/.378 line in 109 games. Jaso's sophomore campaign was not nearly as successful, however. In 89 games with Tampa in 2011, he hit only .224/.298/.354.
Before the 2012 season, Jaso was traded by Tampa to Seattle for hard-throwing reliever Josh Lueke. Jaso, armed with new batting mechanics, recaptured his 2010 form. In 108 games with Seattle last year, he hit .276/.394/.456 with 10 homers and 50 RBI. For the second time in three major league seasons, Jaso walked more than he struck-out. He also swiped five bases in five chances.
Jaso is considered a below-average defensive catcher, although he has received praise for his game-calling. The Southern California native was the catcher for Felix Hernandez's perfect game last season. Jaso is in his first season of arbitration eligibility and he will be eligible for free agency in 2016. He will be 29 for nearly all of the 2013 season.
To pry Jaso away from the Nationals (who technically received him for Morse), the A's sent Washington a package of three players: prospects A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen and a player to be named later. For Cole, it is a homecoming. The right-hander was acquired by the A's from Washington before the 2012 season in the Gio Gonzalez trade. Cole was the Nationals' fourth-round pick out of a Florida high school in 2010 and he was recently rated as the A's number four prospect by OaklandClubhouse going into next season.
Cole had an up-and-down season in the A's organization. Despite being only 19, Cole was sent to High-A Stockton to start the year. He struggled in the hitter-friendly California League, posting a 7.82 ERA in eight starts. Cole suffered from some bad luck during his time with the Ports. His K:BB ratio was a solid 31:10 in 38 innings and his BABIP was an unusually high .411. However, that BABIP wasn't all from bad bounces. He was hit hard at times, as the seven homeruns he allowed would indicate.
The A's didn't want Cole to lose any confidence by continuing to struggle with Stockton, so they sent him down to Low-A Burlington in mid-May. He spent the rest of the season with the Bees and pitched extremely well. In 95.2 innings, he posted a 2.07 ERA with 102 strike-outs and only 19 walks. He cut his homer rate considerably, allowing only seven in those 95.2 innings. Cole lowered his arm angle slightly while with the Bees, and scouts generally agreed that his stuff looked a little crisper during his time with Burlington. Cole turned 20 in January.
Treinen was the A's seventh-round pick in 2011. The big right-hander has an interesting backstory. He transferred to several different schools while in college and was already on the older side when he was selected in the 23rd round by the Florida Marlins in 2010. Treinen agreed to terms with the Marlins, but Florida negated the deal after they determined Treinen had rotator cuff inflammation in a physical.
Treinen returned to South Dakota State for his senior season in 2011 and drew the attention of scouts when he tipped the radar gun in the mid-90s. The A's were happy to have him available when they made their seventh-round pick and they were aggressive with his first full season assignment in 2012, sending him to Stockton. Treinen began the year in the starting rotation but landed on the DL after 15 starts. He missed the entire month of July and the first month of August with arm soreness and returned on August 9th as a reliever. Treinen finished the year with a 4.37 ERA and a 92:23 K:BB ratio in 103 innings.
In addition to that low- to mid-90s heater, Treinen has a sharp breaking slider, a sinker and a cut-fastball. He turned 24 during the 2012 season and, given his age, may find his most direct path to the big leagues out of the bullpen. OaklandClubhouse recently ranked Treinen as the organization's 30th-best prospect.
Impact on the 2013 A's
The 2012 campaign was a tale of two seasons for the A's offensively. The team posted a 667 OPS and averaged 3.7 runs per game before the All-Star break. After the break, the A's had a 765 OPS and they averaged 5.2 runs per game. While the A's second-half performance at the plate was encouraging, it was still a relatively small sample size. The A's front office has clearly approached this off-season with the idea that the offense as a whole still needed improvement.
Below is a breakdown of the offensive production the A's received by position in 2012. This is a relatively simplistic way of looking at how the A's performed at the plate last season, but it paints a pretty clear picture of where Oakland needs to improve offensively going into next year.
OPS and sOPS* by Position
Catcher: 587 and 64
First base: 801 and 106
Second base: 620 and 78
Shortstop: 585 and 70
Third base: 671 and 77
Left field: 871 and 130
Centerfield: 776 and 107
Right field: 735 and 92
Designated hitter: 782 and 108
*sOPS is courtesy of Baseball-Reference. It refers to OPS split relative to league's split. A number greater than 100 means the A's offensive performance at that position was better than the league average for that position. A number less than 100 means the A's offensive performance at was worse than league average for that position.
Catcher was the A's least productive offensive position last season, followed by shortstop. It is no coincidence that the A's have made two of their most significant off-season targets starters at those positions. At shortstop, the A's are bringing in Japanese free agent Hiroyuki Nakajima. While there is no guarantee that Nakajima will be able to produce in his first year playing in the United States, scouts have liked Nakajima's offensive profile and most projections have him performing much closer to league-average than the group of shortstops the A's put on the field in 2012.
In acquiring Jaso, the A's are making a similar push towards getting that position up to or over league average offensively. Removing Kurt Suzuki and his sOPS of 48 in 277 plate appearances should already help the A's production levels at catcher next season, but there was still plenty of room for improvement over the platoon of Derek Norris and George Kottaras that the A's were planning to use. In 220 plate appearances last season, Norris posted an sOPS of 73, while Kottaras had a decent 108 sOPS in 92 plate appearances.
On the surface, it would seem that Norris and Kottaras would have made an ideal platoon given that Norris bats right-handed and Kottaras bats left-handed. Norris was significantly better against left-handed pitching last season, and Kottaras has hit righties better throughout his career (although he did hit lefties better in 2012). However, Kottaras rated significantly worse than Norris defensively last year. It became clear when Norris started four of the five games against the exclusively right-handed Detroit pitching staff in the ALDS that the A's didn't trust Kottaras' defense.
Jaso isn't a defensive whiz by any stretch of the imagination (in fact, he rated worse than Kottaras last year), but his offensive production was so much better than Kottaras' (Jaso had a 136 sOPS and a 3.4 oWAR in 108 games in 2012) that even with the poorer defensive performance, Jaso was a more valuable player by a big margin than Kottaras. Most of Jaso's production came against right-handed pitching last year. He hit .302 with all 10 of his homeruns in 308 plate appearances against right-handers. Against southpaws, Jaso batted .119 in 53 plate appearances. With Jaso and Norris sharing time at catcher, the A's should see a significant increase in production from that position.
The A's can also get more creative with their line-up now that Jaso is in the fold. Jaso is unique with how well he handles the bat and works the count. In two of his three major league seasons, Jaso has walked more than he has struck-out. With Tampa Bay, Jaso was occasionally used as a lead-off hitter, even though he didn't have the traditional speed of a lead-off hitter. An organization that once had Jeremy Giambi as their lead-off hitter certainly won't shy away from using Jaso in that spot on occasion.
In fact, there may be a very specific occasion when Jaso would be used as the lead-off hitter. Assuming Jemile Weeks is not on the roster, Coco Crisp would be the A's only prototypical lead-off hitter. The A's acquired Chris Young earlier this off-season with the idea that Young would spell Crisp (and others) on a fairly regular basis. Young has excellent speed, but he is a free swinger and doesn't profile as a lead-off hitter. It would make sense when Crisp isn't in the line-up that Jaso would be the man to start things off for Oakland. Even if Weeks does make the roster, it still might make sense to put Jaso and his career .359 OBP at the top of the line-up against right-handed pitchers.
This trade also gives the A's further flexibility if they want to make another deal before the start of the regular season. With Josh Donaldson on the roster, the A's have a player who can fill in at catcher much more competently virtually any other emergency third catcher in the league. Consequently, the A's probably won't be shy about using Jaso as the DH on days when they want his bat and Norris' glove in the line-up at the same time. That being the case, the A's DH picture is getting even more crowded.
Even before this deal, A's manager Bob Melvin was going to have to do a lot of juggling to get enough at-bats for his five outfielders and two first basemen. If Jaso is taking some of those at-bats at DH, then that task will be even more difficult. And if the A's decide to carry both Weeks and Scott Sizemore on the roster, then the DH spot will be even more crowded, as Sizemore, in particular, would be likely to get some at-bats at DH throughout the year to rest his surgically repaired knee.
The A's front office has insisted since they acquired Young during the first few weeks of the off-season that they are content to carry all five outfielders into the regular season. However, they clearly would be dealing from a position of depth if they wanted to trade Seth Smith, for instance, to fill another need or to replace the pitching depth they traded away to acquire Jaso.
In the short-term, this deal looks like a win for the A's. There is no question that the 2013 A's are a better team for having acquired Jaso. And, since Jaso isn't eligible for free agency until 2016, the A's could be a better team for this deal for several years.
This deal does carry the risk of being regrettable, however. While A.J. Cole is still at least two years away from the big leagues, he is a legitimate talent who could make the A's regret dealing him if he reaches his ceiling. Blake Treinen doesn't have the same ceiling as Cole, but he does have a quality arm and could move quickly to the big leagues as a reliever. It remains to be seen what the A's gave up in the player to be named later.
In a worst-case scenario, this trade could remind A's fans of the Milton Bradley-Andre Ethier deal before the 2006 season. That trade was made for all of the right reasons and it did help the A's reach the American League Championship Series, but at the end of the day, Ethier has far-and-away been the most valuable player involved in that trade and for much of the time that Ethier has been in the big leagues, the A's have been searching for production from their corner outfielders.
One thing that mitigates this risk some for the A's is their track record in developing pitching. For the past 15 years, there have been few organizations in baseball better than the A's at developing pitchers. While it is always a risk to give up arms of the quality of Cole's and Treinen's, it is also true that the A's are dealing from an area of strength. With the exception of Bartolo Colon, the A's entire projected Opening Day rotation is under team control for several years and the A's have Dan Straily, Brad Peacock, Sonny Gray and Andrew Werner knocking on the door at Triple-A. There is a saying that you can never have too much pitching, but there are only 11-12 spots for pitchers on any 25-man roster.
One of the things the A's front office emphasized at the end of the 2012 season was that they believed the team was in a position to win in 2013. Every move they have made this off-season has been with the thought in mind that they are improving their chances to win in 2013. While they are taking a risk in giving up quality prospects to acquire Jaso, they are also acknowledging that opportunities to win at the big league level don't come along every season. In that respect, it is a risk well worth taking.