Five questions about Michael Morse’s multi-year deal

While you’re digesting whatever was for dinner tonight - for me, it was PF Chang’s kung-pao chicken, stir-fried in sirachi sauce - it’s also a good time to deliberate the two-year, $10.5 million extension between the Nationals and outfielder/first baseman Michael Morse that was announced late this afternoon. The contract essentially buys out the slugger’s final two arbitration years after a breakout 2011 season, but raises some questions. So here’s five queries and their answers concerning Morse and his new contract:

Why didn’t they just sign this before exchanging arbitration figures and not go through the charade that Morse would participate in arbitration?

The Nationals contend that Morse agreed to terms before the team and he exchanged arbitration figures - Morse wanted $5 million for 2012, while the Nationals countered with an offer of $3.5 million for a midpoint of $4.25 million - by Tuesday’s noon deadline. Since we’re talking millions of dollars here, the prudent thing for the Nationals to do was to go ahead with the process of having Morse take a physical examination while still appearing to undertake the arbitration process. Nothing untoward here, just a team going through it’s due diligence and making sure Morse was healthy enough to withstand the rigors of his two-year deal. Once he passed the physcial, the whole arbitration process became a moot point. But it still counts as avoiding arbitration.

Two years doesn’t sound like a long time, so why didn’t the Nationals offer Morse a longer deal?

By definition, two years is the shortest multi-year deal a player can sign, and Morse’s contract only covers his final two arbitration years, not his early years of free agency. Now there’s nothing that says the Nationals can’t go back and reformat the deal sometime between now and its expiration at the end of the 2013 season. Morse made $1.05 million in 2011, so he’s getting a hefty raise. However, the Nationals clearly want him to demonstrate that the .303 average and career highs of 31 homers and 95 RBIs are not an aberration. If he does that, Morse has bargaining power heading into his free agent years. And if he falls something short of those statistics over the next two years, the Nationals aren’t painting themselves into a financial corner with a longer-term contract. Basically, this deal gives the team flexibility and puts the onus on Morse to produce to cash in further.

Does this mean the Nationals won’t sign free agent first baseman Prince Fielder?

To the contrary, it might set them up better in the short-term should they come to a long-term deal with Fielder. In today’s game, a $10.5 million commitment is a relatively inexpensive line item. For instance, the Nationals are paying Morse less than the $8 million they owe first baseman Adam LaRoche for 2012 (and might be willing to eat a large portion of should they snag Fielder). No, the Nationals maintain an interest in Fielder and Fielder seems like a logical fit for Washington. Only now, general manager Mike Rizzo has crossed one more item off his offseason to-do list with the signing of Morse, which leaves left-hander John Lannan as the Nationals’ lone unsigned arbitration-eligible player. To get a deal done for a guy like Fielder, lots of moving pieces have to fall perfectly into place. As of tonight, there’s one less moving piece.

Where will Morse play in 2012?

Right now, he’s penciled in as the starting left fielder and could spell LaRoche at first base (assuming Fielder isn’t signed, then he backs up Fielder). This creates a little bit of a dilemma for the Nationals, however, since they’re using Jayson Werth in center field this season (unless they pull off a trade or free agent signing to fill that hole) with Bryce Harper waiting in the wings, presumably to play right field. Morse could also play right field, with Harper taking over in left. However, if the Nationals ever fund a suitable leadoff man who can play center field, they’ve got four outfielders for three spots. Right now, the only way around this would be to make Werth their center fielder for a couple of seasons, or trade one of the other outfielders.

Does this mean the Nationals could entertain trading Morse?

Short-term, no - especially if the offensive production keeps rising. Now if Fielder is signed, and the Nationals work out the expected long-term deal for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, something might have to give. Harper is the future, and won’t be dealt. Werth has full no-trade protection, not that anyone is going to assume the bulk of what’s left on the seven-year, $126 million deal he inked in December 2010. Guys like Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen and Stephen Strasburg will eventually get their big paydays. If Fielder and Morse are signed long-term, too, Morse could become a relatively inexpensive trade chip, the kind of short-term rental a contending team would salivate over. Remember, in successful trades, you’ve got to give something to get something. I don’t think Morse is going anywhere, and the Nationals may still look to lock him up to a longer deal in the future. But for now, he represents a key contributor with offensive upside who doesn’t cost a fortune, and that gives the Nationals some flexibility over the next two seasons - and, perhaps, beyond.

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