Grading the 2010 Nationals: The outfielders

We’re continuing our series of grades on the 2010 Nationals, wrapping up the report card for players before turning to manager Jim Riggleman and general manager Mike Rizzo later today.

This installment focuses on the Nationals’ outfield, which grabbed headlines and was thrust into uncertainty in March when the team cut Elijah Dukes - who had been penciled in as the starter in right field. The Nationals pieced together a solution in right field, taking a long look at Roger Bernadina and getting surprising production from Michael Morse.

But by the last month of the year, another problem had surfaced: Nyjer Morgan, their prized acquisition of 2009, struggled on the field and earned a suspension for a series of incidents in late August and early September. Now, in addition to assessing what they have in right field, the Nationals have to figure out where Morgan stands for the future.

Here are the grades for the Nationals’ outfielders:

Roger Bernadina
Grade: C- The Nationals gave Bernadina a full season to prove he could be the everyday right fielder in the future, and what do they know? It’s hard to say. He hit .282 in the first half, but fell to .219 in the second half, and ended the year with the team talking about platooning him with Michael Morse. Bernadina hit just .249 for the year, posted a .307 on-base percentage and struck out about three times as much as he walked. He also played the outfield to his own detriment at times, needing to make catches more difficult than they should have been after getting bad jumps. Bernadina’s best position, defensively, might be left field, but the Nationals have Josh Willingham coming back there. After a 134-game audition, Bernadina hasn’t asserted himself as a full-time starter.

Willie Harris
Grade: C- Some will probably howl about this grade, pointing out Harris’ .183 average. But despite how poorly he hit this year, struggling with limited at-bats after starting in right field on Opening Day, Harris managed an on-base percentage 108 points higher than his batting average and still hit 10 home runs. Harris’ defense in left field was adequate, though he wasn’t terribly sharp anywhere else. It’s unlikely Harris will be back in Washington - he’s a free agent after this season - but though he had a poor season, it was better than it looked at first blush.

Justin Maxwell
Grade: D The Nationals have continued to give Maxwell chances, albeit in small chunks of playing time, to prove he can play in the major leagues. And Maxwell continues not to take advantage of them. He played 67 games in the majors this year, more than doubling his career total, and hit .144. He managed a .305 on-base percentage, and the Nationals continue to hope he can put things together. But despite his physical gifts, he’ll be 27 in November, possibly out of options next spring and still trying to prove he can play at this level.

Nyjer Morgan
Grade: D- It’s always dangerous to go into a season under the “we’ll be better because we’re getting a full season of this guy” premise. The Nationals did that with Morgan, who played 136 games this year after igniting the team’s offense in 49 games last year. But it’s hard to call his 2010 season anything but an abject disappointment. He hit .253, posted a .319 on-base percentage too low to be the leadoff hitter, got caught stealing 17 times and was picked off another 11. He struggled defensively in the first half, attracting national headlines when he slammed his glove after thinking Adam Jones had hit a homer on May 22, eventually allowing an inside-the-park homer. And in a 10-day stretch in August and September, he slammed into Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson, publicly feuded with manager Jim Riggleman, shouted obscenities at fans in Florida and charged the mound on Sept. 1, earning an eight-game suspension. Morgan will likely return next year, but his status as the leadoff hitter and starting center fielder is far from guaranteed. His defense, on balance, was still solid, though not as good as last year. But in every other area, Morgan had a disastrous year.

Michael Morse
Grade: B+ Morse might be the biggest surprise of the Nationals’ season, first establishing himself as a dangerous threat off the bench and then hitting handfuls of home runs as a starter. In the process, Morse put himself in position to contend for a starting job next season. He hit 15 homers in 98 games, inviting conjecture about what he might do in a full year, and fashioned a .352 OBP. He probably benefitted from some good luck (his BABIP was .330), and showed his limitations in right field, but Morse’s bat certainly recast him as more than just a utility player, and he thrust himself into the conversation for a starting spot in 2011.

Josh Willingham
Grade: B Willingham played himself into All-Star conversation with an impressive first half, built largely on his impressive month of May (a 1.037 OPS, seven homers and 22 RBI). He struggled in the second half, playing through knee troubles that finally truncated his season when Willingham had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. But he continued to show his remarkable plate patience, swinging at 18.9 percent of pitches outside the zone and just 39.1 percent of the total pitches he saw, and actually improved in left field until his balky knee got the best of him. Willingham, who is entering his final year of arbitration, figures to return as the starting left fielder in 2011, and gives the Nationals a solid veteran at that position.

If you’ve got any thoughts on the grades, or questions about a particular player, leave them in the comments section.