VIERA, Fla. - In all the talk about the Nationals’ possible switch from Nyjer Morgan to Rick Ankiel (or possibly Roger Bernadina) in center field, much of the discussion focuses on the sudden hole the Nationals would have at the top of their lineup.
Morgan, their leadoff hitter for the last year and a half, was brought to Washington specifically for that job. If he’s not starting, the thinking goes, the Nationals don’t have anyone else who would be a natural fit to do it.
They’re not the only ones with that problem.
In 2011, most teams would like a “pure” leadoff hitter to do three things: get on base, see a high number of pitches and run - though the emphasis there has shifted from stealing bases in bulk to swiping them occasionally and efficiently. And among the 15 other projected leadoff hitters in the National League, there aren’t many players who do all three things well.
Only five projected leadoff hitters in the NL have career on-base percentages of .350 or higher: the Braves’ Martin Prado, the Cubs’ Kosuke Fukudome, the Brewers’ Rickie Weeks, the Rockies’ Dexter Fowler and the Dodgers’ Rafael Furcal. All five were among the NL’s top 100 players in pitches per plate appearance (among players with 425 plate appearances or more), but of the five, only Furcal stole more than 20 bases last year.
And even taking the stolen base out of the equation, many of the NL’s leadoff hitters don’t measure up: eight have career OBPs of .335 or lower.
So where would Morgan fit in that group? His career numbers put him squarely in the middle of the pack. His career .344 OBP would put him eighth among the 16 leadoff hitters (though the Pirates’ Jose Tabata, who edged Morgan with a .346 OBP, has only played one season). And he saw 3.8 pitches per plate appearance last year, good for 60th in the NL among players with 425 PAs or more.
But, as many fans have bemoaned, Morgan has been wildly inefficient on the basepaths over the years, getting thrown out 42 times in 134 career stolen base attempts. He was also picked off 11 times last year, and made seven other outs on the basepaths, If he were simply able to match his career OBP numbers, see his usual number of pitches and not make outs on the bases, he’d be a perfectly serviceable leadoff hitter. With his problems on the bases, as well as his weak arm in center field, though, the Natonals might well look in a different direction.
If Morgan’s not the leadoff hitter, there’s a good chance Ian Desmond will be. The shortstop already has two good traits to be a leadoff hitter; he saw 3.51 pitches per plate appearance last year, 93rd-best in the NL, and he stole 17 bases in 22 attempts. Jerry Hairston, who would likely see plenty of time in center field if Morgan isn’t starting, also saw 3.81 pitches per plate appearance last year.
Desmond’s OBP, though, was just .306 last year, and Hairston’s career OBP is a pedestrian .335. With or without Morgan, it would seem the Nationals don’t have a perfect solution at the top of the lineup. It’s a big part of the reason they’re putting Jayson Werth - who probably should be hitting lower in the lineup to drive in more runs - in the No. 2 hole.
Among National League teams, though, their problems aren’t unique.