VIERA, Fla. - It's been increasingly apparent for the last few days that Nyjer Morgan's time in Washington was coming to an end. Now, it's officially over.
The Nationals relieved their logjam in center field by trading the center fielder to the Milwaukee Brewers for infielder Cutter Dykstra and cash. General manager Mike Rizzo said conversations about a deal started several days ago, and the Nationals finalized the deal late last night.
The move means Rick Ankiel will be the team's opening day center fielder, and also closes the book on Morgan's tumultuous time with the Nationals.
Morgan came to the team in a four-player deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 30, 2009, and immediately became the electric presence the team was missing at the top of its lineup. Morgan hit .351 in 49 games with the team that season, getting on base at a .396 clip and stealing 24 bases. He broke his hand sliding headfirst in August that year, but he came to camp in 2010 fully healthy, and was expected to once again be a catalyst at the top of the lineup.
Instead, Morgan's 2010 was a long, downward slide. He hit .253 in the first two months of the year, and was dropped out of the leadoff spot for the first time in May, about a week after he'd allowed an inside-the-park homer when he slammed his glove, thinking he'd missed a leaping grab and a fly ball from the Orioles' Adam Jones had gone over the fence. At the end of August, Morgan rammed into Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson and publicly questioned manager Jim Riggleman's criticism of him for the incident. He hit Marlins catcher Brett Hayes in a forceful collision Aug. 31, and charged the mound Sept. 1 after Florida pitcher Chris Volstad threw at him for the second time in a game. He was later suspended eight games for the incident, but at least publicly, the Nationals stood by him; general manager Mike Rizzo backed Morgan through the winter, and even said on Sunday morning there were no plans not to bring the 30-year-old to spring training.
But the Nationals signed Ankiel to a one-year, $1.5 million deal in December, and that move eventually made Morgan expendable. Ankiel has never played more than 122 games in a season, and played just 74 last season. He's also hit .231 this spring, while Morgan had raised his average to .241 after a 1-for-16 start this spring. Still, the Nationals view him as a steadier defender who has a better arm than Morgan, and will platoon him with Jerry Hairston Jr. to start the year in center.
"It wasn't really what (Morgan) didn't show as (much as) what Ankiel did show," Rizzo said. "Ankiel showed us he can go get the ball in the outfield. His arm is really a weapon. When he's out there, very few players are going first-to-third, second-to-home, and he can create a lot of damage with one swing. I focus it more on what Ankiel did than what Nyjer didn't do. Nyjer had a nice spring training. After the first week, he played really well, and did everything he had to do. I feel it was Ankiel winning the job, not Nyjer losing the job."
In the last few days, Morgan had aired frustrations about his likely role with the Nationals, saying he didn't think Washington was the right fit for him anymore. Riggleman said yesterday he was "disappointed" by those comments, and praised Morgan's work ethic this spring after his 2010 season.
Rizzo did the same again this morning, saying Morgan had been a great presence in the clubhouse and adding he was comfortable with Morgan's relationship with Riggleman and the coaching staff.
And if Rizzo had to do the trade for Morgan - the first multi-player deal he did with the Nationals - again, he said this morning he would.
"If he would have played like he played that half-season (in 2009), it would have been great for the ballclub," Rizzo said. "But I don't find it disappointing at all. I would do that trade again today, if I had to do it again. We got ourselves a terrific young, controllable bullpen piece (in Sean Burnett) to go along with Nyjer. Nyjer was a good piece for us for the year and a half he was here. Combined with what we gave up in the deal (Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan) and what we got back, I'm still satisfied with it."
The move means the Nationals have one less left-handed outfielder in the mix to make their roster, but they will still have decisions to make in the last few days of camp. They will start Ankiel, Jayson Werth and Michael Morse on opening day, and with Hairston playing a fair amount in center field, it remains unlikely they'd keep both Roger Bernadina and Laynce Nix.
"Spring training's not over. We haven't made any final decisions on who's going to be the extra players and the extra bullpen pieces," Rizzo said. "We still have games to play and decisions to make."