As the Nationals continue to search for a first baseman, there’s perhaps no one on their roster who will be affected as much by the result of their decision as Michael Morse. The 28-year-old had an eye-opening 2010, hitting 15 homers in just 266 at-bats and nudging his way into the mix for a starting spot in 2011.
He’s likely to have a greater role in 2011 than he did in 2010, but just what - or where - that role is remains to be seen. At the moment, Morse is the logical, if not the only, candidate on the roster to start at first base. He’s played there only sparingly throughout his career, but seems athletic enough to be at least a serviceable fielder. And his surprising power numbers have the Nationals hopeful he can hit 20-25 homers in a full season.
But if the Nationals sign a first baseman - and at this point, there’s every reason to think they will - Morse goes back the outfield, where he was fighting for at-bats in 2010. The Nationals would plan to platoon him with Roger Bernadina, starting Morse against left-handed pitchers and Bernadina against righties. That arrangement, though, would still prevent the Nationals from really seeing if Morse can be an impact player. And there’s at least some evidence Morse can handle both righties and lefties.
In almost half as many at-bats against righties as Bernadina had (178 to Bernadina’s 358), Morse hit .287/.340/.406 against righties. Bernadina, with a considerably larger sample size, hit .240/.304/.377 against them. And against lefties, it’s not close: Morse was .295/.375/.625 in 88 at-bats, while Bernadina was .250/.328/.429 in 56.
(Actually, there’s some evidence there for a reverse platoon, but not nearly enough to make that anything more than a digression.)
Bernadina is superior to Morse athletically, and his range and arm fit well in left. He takes bad routes to balls sometimes, but is usually quick enough to cover for it. But if the Nationals limit Morse to playing against left-handers, they may deprive themselves of an impact bat.
Now, 2010 was the first time Morse had displayed any consistent power in the majors, and there’s always a chance he regresses in 2011. Bill James projects a slight dip for Morse, forecasting a .278/.337/.461 season over 284 at-bats. Even if given 550 at-bats in that projection, though, Morse would hit 22 homers and drive in 85 runs. General manager Mike Rizzo has said he wants to get Morse at least 300-400 at-bats in 2011, but if he plays more often, he could add some much-needed length to the middle of the lineup.
As things sit now, though, Morse is waiting to see how the Nationals’ offseason moves will affect him. It’s clear he’s not at the center of their plans, at least at the moment, but if things break right, he could get a chance to put himself there.