After Michael Morse went 2-for-4 with a double and a homer in the Nationals’ win over the Reds, manager Davey Johnson pulled out one of his classic tricks: He casually mentioned that he might put Morse back in left field in September, when the Nationals can call up Chris Marrero, so they can get a look at the prospect and give Morse more time in a position where he’s likely to end up next year.
Johnson, of course, knew that the assembled reporters would rush to Morse to talk about the game and mention the possible position move. So he used another of his go-to moves: telling reporters to relay back to him what Morse said.
Morse, who came up in the game as a shortstop, said all the right things - that it doesn’t matter where he plays as long as he’s in the lineup every day, etc. - and he correctly pointed out that he put up his first big numbers in a part-time role last season when he was playing right field. But all this is germane to Morse’s big season because he started fashioning one of the best years in the National League about the time he moved to first base.
Playing full-time for the first time this year, Morse floundered early, hitting .211 in March and April. Admittedly, he was overexcited about playing every day, and by early May, he had sunk back into a platoon arrangement with Laynce Nix (it’s scary to think that Morse has put up almost all of his big numbers in 3 1/2 months). But when Adam LaRoche went down in late May and Morse was moved to first base, his numbers took off. He’s hitting .346 with 19 homers and 61 RBIs at first, compared to .256 with two homers and 10 RBIs in left.
Now, correlation certainly doesn’t imply causation here, and Morse said around the same time he made his switch, he was working with Rick Eckstein on an adjustment to shorten his swing. That paid off, and things clicked for Morse. But he’s certainly not the rangiest left fielder in the world, and he’s been a fine defender at first base. If the Nationals can prove LaRoche is healthy and trade him in the spring, it wouldn’t seem like a bad idea to keep Morse at first. Otherwise, the Nationals could start Morse in left next year, knowing he’s mobile if and when Bryce Harper is ready. Morse has maintained all year that he doesn’t let his defense comingle with his offense. We’ll get a better look in September.
One other point to make here: If Morse is the everyday left fielder next year, the Nationals won’t be nearly as fleet in the outfield as they planned to be when they traded Josh Willingham last December. They’ll still have a solid defender at first in LaRoche, but Morse probably isn’t going to be anything other than an average left fielder. What he does bring to the table, though, is a potent bat - and that’s the point here. As much as the Nationals have tried to win by eliminating runs - and there’s no denying they’ve improved their defense - they need run producers in their lineup, too. Morse has proven for a year and a half now that he’s too good a hitter not to be in the lineup, and his bat will put him there, one way or the other next year. If Harper arrives and the Nationals have to put him or Jayson Werth in center, they could be looking at a Morse-Harper-Werth triumvirate in the outfield.
That’s the kind of toolsy arrangement Jim Bowden would love.