Dave Nichols: Morgan’s departure forces tough fit at leadoff spot

When the Nationals traded Nyjer Morgan to the Milwaukee Brewers this spring, manager Jim Riggleman was left with an interesting decision. Having no prototypical leadoff hitter on the roster, who would he slot in that position?

It’s not like Morgan was the perfect choice. Once heralded as the center fielder of the present and future by general manager Mike Rizzo, Morgan has some serious flaws as a player and some will cite his erratic behavior last season, saying he may have significant problems off the field, as well. But we’re not here to play psychiatrist. Most Nats fans were happy to see him go and the Nationals had plenty of baseball reasons for moving Morgan off the roster.

For all his speed, he is only an adequate defender. He has a knack for the dramatic, and the catch he made in Baltimore last season robbing Corey Patterson of a home run will not soon escape the memory of anyone that saw it. But as often as he makes a play like that, there were two where he would take a bad route, throw to the wrong base or miss the cutoff man completely with his wet noodle of an arm.

Morgan is also a terrible base stealer, leading the National League in being caught stealing the last two seasons. Sure, he’s fast, but he also runs every time he gets on base and has no sense of when to run and when the threat of running was enough.

But one thing Morgan is good at is getting on base against right-handed pitchers. In his career, his overall slash line of .309/.361/.388 against right-handed pitching was perfectly acceptable for a leadoff hitter in the NL. He is dreadful against lefties though, hitting .203/.296/.278. That’s like batting a second pitcher.

If the Nats had spent the offseason looking for a platoon partner and trying to rehabilitate Morgan from his discipline problems instead of trying to replace him outright, they might have a serviceable leadoff hitter and the batting order would look a lot better. But as it is, Riggleman is forced to choose between Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa. Desmond has had first shot, but Riggleman announced he was switching the two after Desmond started the season 0-for-13, before changing his mind again before Wednesday’s game.

It was nice to see Desmond snap his four-game hitless streak in last night’s 7-4 loss to the Florida Marlins, as he went 4-for-5 with two RBIs in the leadoff spot. Hopefully that’s the change in momentum he needs to seize the opportunity he’s been handed.

But neither player is suited for the duty as he currently plays the game. When the team inserted Desmond in the leadoff spot after the trade, both Rizzo and Riggleman said publicly that they wouldn’t ask Desmond to change his approach at the plate just because he was leading off. This was neither realistic nor practical. Desmond is a hacker by nature, and he owns a .303 career OBP and was ranked fourth-lowest in the National League in 2010 in pitches per plate appearance (of batters with 400-plus appearances). Those are not the attributes of a leadoff hitter.

Espinosa has a nice blend of power and speed, and has had success in the minors hitting leadoff with a decent idea of plate discipline. But he also has never really hit for average (.270/.365/.455 in the minors) and is, after all, a true rookie.

Until the Nats can find someone that will consistently take pitches and reach base ahead of Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, they will continue to struggle to score runs. Desmond will apparently get further opportunity to show he can be that player, but he will have to change his approach to do so.

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nats News Network. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations this week, as MASNsports.com begins a season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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