VIERA, Fla. - All spring, ever since Jayson Werth - perhaps somewhat presciently - hinted at an open competition for the two outfield spots next to his, the Nationals’ players in left and center field have been jostling around like bumper cars, with the actions of one seemingly sending another in a different direction. Those pieces haven’t settled into place yet, but now, we at least have some sense of how they’re ordered.
Both general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman said this morning that if the season started tomorrow, Michael Morse would be the Nationals’ left fielder - and not just on a platoon basis. The 28-year-old, who is hitting .480 with four homers this spring, has an inside track on playing every day.
“He’s gotten an opportunity, and he’s taken the bull by the horns,” Rizzo said. “If opening day was tomorrow, he certainly would be our opening day left fielder.”
It appears, at least at the moment, the Nationals are willing to give Morse the kind of leeway they afforded Ian Desmond at shortstop last year, letting him ride through slumps and bad nights in the field. He’s improved in left field, not to the point where he’d be as skilled defensively as Roger Bernadina, his primary competitor for playing time, but to a level where the team sees signs of him becoming an above-average defender.
And then there’s the bat, the primary reason why Morse is in position to snag an everyday job at all. He only got 293 plate appearances last year, many of them coming in spot starts or pinch appearances. But Morse did his damage in a kind of irrepressible fashion, blasting 15 homers, hitting .323 off the bench and creating a groundswell of support from many in the Nationals’ front office. He had an impressive spring last year, is putting together another one this year and the Nationals seem willing to take the leap with him.
“I don’t project numbers. I don’t utilize the math of what he did (last year) times two,” Rizzo said. “This guy is going to go. He’s going to have real bright moments, but he’s also going to have struggles, because he’s never been given the opportunity to put a full season of at-bats together.”
In our bumper car analogy, Morse has bumped Roger Bernadina and Rick Ankiel toward Nyjer Morgan’s spot in center field. Rizzo referred to all three players as candidates to play that position, and when asked if he would make the same if-opening-day-was-tomorrow proclamation about Morgan in center field, he said none of the three center fielders had separated themselves from the others. From a versatility standpoint, it doesn’t help that all three are left-handed.
But Bernadina and Morgan both have minor league options, and Jerry Hairston can also play center field, so the logical move would be to send one player to the minors and use Ankiel and Hairston to back up the other. There are still 15 games left in camp, and if Morse continues to lay claim to the left field spot, the Nationals will have to figure out how to use the other players.
“When Mike’s in there, there’s an abundance of left-handed hitters who are not in there,” Riggleman said. “That’s a problem, but it’s a good problem. Somebody’s not going to play, but it’s because the talent of the people are playing has made it clear that this is where we’ve got to go.”
Morgan, who is coming off his most disappointing season in the majors, got off to a slow start this spring, but has started to turn things around offensively as he works through swing adjustments with hitting coach Rick Eckstein. He started 1-for-13 this spring, but has four hits in his last 13 at-bats and has raised his on-base percentage to .300. Those numbers aren’t great, and Morgan has had some misadventures both on the bases and at the plate, but he looks to be coming around somewhat.
“His attitude has been terrific. He’s been upbeat. He’s been energetic,” Rizzo said. “He’s really working on his at-bats. He’s really grinding away and working on his shortcomings - on-base percentage, drag bunting. In the last couple of games, he’s hitting more line drives and being a little more productive.”
But if Morse has been the start of camp, Bernadina hasn’t been too far behind. He’s batting .304 with a .360 on-base percentage this spring, showing marked improvement in his bunting ability. He’s starting in center field and hitting leadoff today, and the fact he’s done that a handful of times this spring is a sign the Nationals are measuring whether he could take that spot.
“We’re looking for (Nyjer) to step up and be that guy,” Rizzo said. “If not, we’re going to find somebody that will do that, and it’ll be somebody that’s maybe not accustomed to that role.”
When the Nationals traded for Morse in 2009, it was because Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was in a sudden need of a fourth outfielder. He’d eyed Ryan Langerhans, and approached Rizzo - then still the acting general manager - about a deal.
The Nationals went to their log of players from other teams they’d target in a trade, and found Morse at the top of their section on the Mariners. He’d worked with Riggleman, then the Nationals’ bench coach, and had been scouted extensively by the team’s staff. After some reluctance from Zduriencik, Rizzo pried Morse loose on June 28, 2009, two days before he’d land Morgan in a four-player deal.
It seemed insignificant then, but it appears now that Rizzo might have landed a fixture in left field. And 21 months after those two deals, the players the Nationals received in them look more intertwined than it would have ever appeared.
“I was so excited (when I got traded),” Morse said. “Something told me, ‘This is where I belong.’ This is a place that’s going to be good for me.”