As the Nationals negotiated with Adam LaRoche, General Manager Mike Rizzo had preliminary talks with other teams about Michael Morse. Nothing concrete, of course, because what if LaRoche and the Nationals couldn’t strike a deal? But those conversations were substantive enough that if and when LaRoche signed, the Nationals knew exactly what their options were.
And once LaRoche agreed to a two-year deal on Jan. 8, Morse’s exit out of Washington was all but assured. The Nationals’ wide net of trade partners then became narrower, and the Seattle Mariners were the ideal target. But the two sides couldn’t agree on a trade proposal so the Nationals turned to a third team, the Oakland Athletics, that had players they wanted in return.
This was how Wednesday’s three-team deal took shape, and how Morse was sent back to the team that brought him into the major leagues and the Nationals got a young power right-handed pitcher, A.J. Cole, they lost in a trade a year ago; added another young arm and a player to be named later. The Nationals could restock their minor leagues with two young power arms they felt they missing with a Morse, who had only one year remaining on his contract.
“We wanted to make sure we got the right deal,” Rizzo said. “The right players had to be involved, or we wouldn’t have gotten the deal. Once the right players were involved, and players that we really wanted for a talented player like Michael, I didn’t find any reason not to do the deal. When A.J. became part of the deal and we got two other pieces, that was a deal I felt was to pull the trigger on.”
By a strange twist of fate, Morse and Cole came back to their teams. As Morse was shopped around, the Nationals didn’t target Cole as a player they wanted. But once Oakland got involved and they, in turn, wanted a player that Seattle was willing to part with (catcher John Jaso), the Nationals eyed Cole.
“We demanded that the deal had to have A.J. Cole in it or there wasn’t going to be a deal,” Rizzo said.
When the Nationals sent four of their best prospects in the winter of 2011 to the Athletics for Gio Gonzalez, Cole was the toughest player for Rizzo to part with. He and the Nationals believed in Cole’s ability and potential, handing him a $2 million signing bonus out of the 2010 draft. He’s young (only 21 now), he’s big (6-foot-4), can throw hard (hit the high-90s with his fastball).
Cole had struggled in high-Class A Stockton, going 0-7 with a 7.82 ERA. After moving to low-Class A, however, Cole was better and went 6-3 with a 2.07 ERA to finish the season. In the California League — where offensive numbers are inflated by the dry air, high winds and grounders turn into hits bouncing off the rock-hard ground — Nationals scouts saw beyond Cole’s numbers. Now, he is going to replace Alex Meyer in the Nationals organization, the former top Nationals pitching prospect they sent to Minnesota for Denard Span.
“(Cole’s) stuff was fine,” Rizzo said. “His delivery wandered a little bit throughout the season. He righted the ship when they sent him to the Midwest League and dominated that league as a 20-year-old. We feel that he’s on course. His developmental curve is on track. We’re going to get him with our pitching people and straighten out his delivery. I think that this guy will be a quick mover for us from this point forward … He’s a big, strong man now.”
And in Blake Treinen, the other reliever in the deal, the Nationals get a big (6-foot-4) and hard-throwing (96 to 97 mph) former reliever who will be a starter. Treinen, 24, struggled at high-Class A Stockton last year and went 7-7 with a 4.37 ERA in 24 games, including 15 starts. “We feel he’s going to be a late bloomer,” Rizzo said.
“To get one premium prospect and two other good prospects is something we felt will refurbish the minor-league system and have a guy comparable to Michael Morse still on the ballclub,” he added.
Rizzo insisted that he would have not have traded Morse, and kept him as an expensive bench player, if the right deal could not have been reached. But Rizzo reasoned, that Tyler Moore was essentially a cheaper, younger version player than Morse — a right-handed power hitter with similar defensive abilities. It was redundant to keep Morse. And Rizzo knew that keeping Morse on the bench one year away from free agency wouldn’t also have been fair to him — and, too many teams wanted a quality middle of the order hitter.
“There was enough interest” in Morse, Rizzo said. “We were getting enough phone calls and hits on him, I thought there was going to be a deal that we liked out there. When we signed LaRoche, I got a bunch of phone calls right after that asking about him.”