Does Michael Morse fit better in left or right field?

If the Nationals are intent on going into 2012 with Jayson Werth as their primary center fielder - as general manager Mike Rizzo told a national radio audience Wednesday - the move creates an opening in right field. Rizzo’s proclamation has also stirred up a lot of discussion in NatsTown in the past 24 hours, with curious fans wondering who will be manning the patch of green to Werth’s left (for you directionally challenged folks, right field is to Werth’s left).

Yes, there’s a lot of Bryce Harper chatter, meaning we’ll be subject to all manner of speculation until one of two things happens in spring training in Viera, Fla.: Either Harper hits so well that he forces the Nationals to keep him, or Rizzo convinces manager Davey Johnson that Harper could benefit from a little more minor league seasoning. There’s no guarantee that Harper patrols right field when he gets to D.C. - he played primarily left field after being promoted to Double-A Harrisburg last season; before that, he was a regular right fielder at Single-A Hagerstown.

Either Harper and Michael Morse are flanking Werth on opening day, or the Nationals will seek a short-term solution to allow the 19-year-old Harper more time to develop. But where does Morse fit into this picture? When the Nationals wanted to get a look-see at Chris Marrero at first base late last season, Morse, who had played first in place of the injured Adam LaRoche, shifted to left field. That’s where he’s penciled in for 2012, but is Morse a better defender in left or right?

Critiquing defense can be a subjective exercise. We tend to remember sparking plays like Roger Bernadina’s highlight-reel diving grab in center that’s now making the rounds in compilations of the best plays from 2010. But we usually ignore the decent, unspectacular defender, who, like the umpire, is barely noticed when he’s doing his job. Most scouts I’ve talked to agree that Morse is an adequate major league corner outfielder, athletic enough to get to balls that would elude a less capable defender. Morse hustles, an intangible that cannot be overlooked, and takes it personally when he commits an error or doesn’t get to a catchable ball. He makes decent reads, takes good routes, uses the stride that accompanies his 6-foot-5 frame to compensate for a lack of blazing speed and has enough arm strength to make the kind of accurate throws that keep opponents honest. In short, he’s no Gold Glove threat, but he’s not a defensive liability, either.

Like most corner outfielders, the foul lines can be his best friends, but does Morse fit best in left or right? It’s a decision the Nationals may soon have to revisit, depending on Harper’s maturation, the availability of players on the trade market and the personal preferences of Rizzo and Johnson.

Subjective assessments aside, the best of the new wave of advanced metrics to decipher defense is Ultimate Zone Rating, which divides the field into zones and assigns individual fielders responsibilities for covering them. This creates a numerical rating - plus or minus - that tells observers the number of runs a fielder is above or below average. Purists will debate whether UZR is fair or just another way to crunch numbers in an era where mathematicians are on the payrolls of major league clubs, but taken in larger sample sizes, UZR can be a useful diagnostic tool. So what does UZR say about Morse?

For his career, Morse has played 495 2/3 innings in left field during his career, 421 coming in 2011, and has a -7.2 career UZR and a -7.9 in 2011. Now, before you get too freaked out by the negative rating, consider that Adam Dunn had a -15.4 UZR in left field in 2009, and Josh Willingham’s ratings at the same position were -4.0 in 2009 and -1.9 in 2010. This represents the difficulty in using UZR as the be-all and end-all of defensive stats - it works best in multiple-year samples, but not all players have that sample size to work from. My eyes tell me Morse is a middling - and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, but as fair description of a run-of-the-mill fielder - defender in left. UZR says he’s a little less than average (for comparison, the 2011 Gold Glove left fielder, Arizona’s Gerardo Parra, had a 9.6 UZR).

Morse was the Nationals’ primary right fielder in 2010, when he logged 510 1/3 of his career total of 597 1/3 innings at the position. That season, his UZR was -7.1, a little worse than his career mark of -5.3. Austin Kearns, an admittedly better defender, had UZRs of 14.5 in 2007, 9.3 in 2008 and 1.2 in 2009. But to further prove that UZR can be deceptive, consider how two speedier outfielders also performed for the Nationals in 2010: 33-year-old Willie Harris played 220 1/3 innings in right field to a UZR of -2.0, while 27-year-old Bernadina totaled 492 1/3 innings (slightly less than Morse) with a -5.2 UZR (only slightly better than Morse).

Maybe with a few more years of outfield play on his resume, we’ll have a better idea of how advanced metrics gauge Morse, who turns 30 in March. For now, his ability to fit into either corner gives Rizzo some added flexibility as he creates his roster and could buy time for Harper to continue to progress.

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