There have been hundreds of hours spent - and millions of words transmitted across the World Wide Web - this winter about the Nationals' primary needs: a No.1 starter, a first baseman to replace Adam Dunn and a marquee free agent to let the rest of the game know the team was ready to spend money. And though there are plenty of differing opinions on the moves (this is where our word count gets into the millions), the Nationals have at least added pieces that would meet two of those three needs.
But aside from a No. 1 starter, they still have one glaring need which, from the looks of things, will have to be improved from within. The Nationals, put simply, need to do much better at the top of the lineup than they did last year. And going in 2011, it appears they'll once again be counting on Nyjer Morgan to account for most of the improvement.
By this point, it would seem that guessing what to expect from Morgan is a waste of time. He was a revelation in 2009, hitting for a .351 average in 49 games with the Nationals and playing superb defense in center field in the two months between his trade from Pittsburgh and the broken wrist he sustained at Wrigley Field that August. He was healthy for 2010, but his season - the longest one he's had in the majors - was a disaster.
Morgan hit just .253, with a .319 on-base percentage that made him a liability at the top of the lineup. And when he got on base, he often didn't stay there; he was caught stealing 17 times, picked off another 11 and made another seven outs on the basepaths. He was merely above-average defensively after a spectacular 2009, and attracted plenty of negative attention with a couple of ugly on-field incidents (slamming his glove after thinking he'd missed a catch on Adam Jones' inside-the-park homer in May and brawling with the Marlins in September, most notably).
But the Nationals have stood by Morgan, at least for now, and heading into spring training, he appears to have the center field and leadoff jobs mostly to himself. General manager Mike Rizzo traded for Corey Brown this offseason, but the outfielder probably needs a couple months at Triple-A Syracuse before coming to the majors. And while Eury Perez has emerged as a top-end prospect in the Nationals' system, he's probably not going to be ready until at least 2012.
So the Nationals, more or less, are relying on Morgan. Bill James' projections for the center fielder have him making a solid rebound in 2011: .285/.347/.352, with 55 runs and 29 steals in 119 games.
If he actually put up those numbers, I doubt too many people in the Nationals' organization would be disappointed with him. But Morgan still has never played more than 136 games in a season, and he's been dreadful against left-handed pitching the last two years. The best answer might be a platoon in center field, but other than moving Jayson Werth to center against tough lefties, the Nationals don't have many options right now. For better or worse, their lot at the top of the lineup and in center field appears to be cast with Morgan.
He should come into spring training refreshed, distanced from his 2010 season and emboldened by the confidence Rizzo showed in him late last season. The Nationals need him to produce, though, or they might find a new center fielder high on their shopping list for next year.