With Nyjer Morgan out serving a suspension for his role in the bench clearing brawl with the Florida Marlins late this season, the Washington Nationals experimented with September call-up Danny Espinosa in the leadoff spot as they sought a potential future top of the order hitter in light of Morgan's struggles getting and staying on base throughout the 2010 campaign. As soon as Morgan returned, however, he was right back on top, leading off, and Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman was asked in a pregame press conference why it was he had dropped Espinosa down in the order in favor of the OBP-challenged center fielder:
Jim Riggleman: "I think that as we move to the future I don't really think that we would open up next year with Danny [Espinosa] as the leadoff hitter. What I really feel we've got there is about four or five guys that are really well-suited to hit second. Nyjer [Morgan], Ian [Desmond], Espinosa, [Roger] Bernadina, I think all of them are well-suited to hit second, [and] out of the whole group, Nyjer's probably the better guy to hit first out of that group. So we would like to be able to go that way. So, coming back off Nyjer's suspension, we hit him second for a couple days, but get him back in that leadoff spot now and move Danny down. I can't hit everybody second. Somebody's got to hit six/seventh, so that would be the spot...Bernadina's got to hit second or seventh, Danny's got to hit second or seventh, Desmond's got to hit second or seventh or sixth, or something, so it's just a matter of thinking a lot of them could flourish in that second spot, but I can only hit one of them there, and I think Nyjer is a good alternative to hit leadoff..."
But with Morgan's numbers in 2010, is he still an ideal leadoff man? Or do the Nats need to find a leadoff man this winter? "No," at least not in Mr. Riggleman's opinion, "I like to look at the bigger sample. Coming into this year, Nyjer was a .360 OBP, .303 lifetime hitter in the big leagues, and so I think, 'Is Nyjer going to be a .303 hitter?' I don't know. But I don't think he's going to be a .250 hitter either. I think somewhere in between is what Nyjer is and I think, his .360 OBP, if we can move back towards that, that would be huge for us to get him back in that area, because that's big, that leadoff hitter OBP is so important, and Nyjer has a bigger history at .360 than he does at .318 where he is now."
Morgan arrived in DC, after putting up a .283/.351/.376 slash line over three years (157 G, 545 AB) with the Pittsburgh Pirates, during which he had 34 stolen bases in 52 attempts while playing at a +18.1 UZR/150 in the outfield in 2008 with a +0.8 WAR which jumped to a +34.7 UZR/150 and +4.9 WAR overall in '09. In his first 49 games with Washington, Morgan played way above his career averages, posting a .351/.396/.435 line in 191 at bats, and collecting 24 stolen bases in 31 attempts while playing ridiculous defense in center, seemingly solving a long-standing problem within the franchise which had run through a succession of center fielders from Brad Wilkerson to Preston Wilson, Marlon Byrd and Nook Logan, Ryan Church, Lastings Milledge and Willie Harris to the injured-at-the-time Roger Bernadina.
Morgan started the 2010 season strong, .287/.374/.460 in the first 22 games through the end of April, but that dropped to .223/.286/.252 in May, and .250/.290/.280 in June for a first half line of .252/.314/.316 in 85 games and 329 at bats, stealing 20 bases, but getting caught 12 times to further diminish his effectiveness. Morgan's second-half wasn't much better, .256/.327/.311 in 51 games and 180 at bats in which he was caught stealing in 5 of 19 attempts, while playing at a +4.2 UZR/150 exclusively in center, which was good for third-best in the NL defensively. Morgan's career-long problems with left-handed pitchers continued as well, as the 29-year-old-as-of-July 2nd left-handed hitting outfielder finished 2010 with a .200/.280/.252 slash line against lefties, down from his .200/.292/.269 career numbers.
Asked if the Nats should go with a platoon in center, with Nyjer Morgan's career numbers against left-handed pitching brought up as a reason to explore the option, Mr. Riggleman pointed back to an at bat Morgan had against Braves' left-hander Jonny Venters late this season in which Morgan had taken a two-out, four-pitch walk from a pitcher, "who's probably going to end up being a closer in this league," in the Nats' skipper's view, allowing Ian Desmond to come up and hit the game-winning single. "He got on base. He was selective. He was patient, and he drew a walk, and that doesn't show up in batting average, but that at bat right there won that ball game for us, so...We can spin numbers any way we want...If you say, I think you used the word platoon, our other center fielder is Bernadina, he hits left-handed also, so it's not a platoon.
"Really, I think the answer is for Nyjer to continue doing what he's doing. He's made a few adjustments lately, he's gone up on the bat a little bit. He's working very hard with [Pitching Coach] Rick Eckstein, and we're seeing some results there and I think that, like I said, Nyjer hit [.351 AVG] last year with an almost .400 on base percentage, that and what we see this year, probably somewhere in-between is more realistic of the player that he is and that makes you a pretty good player."
Which side of the Morgan debate are you on? Was 2010 Morgan the real Morgan?Or is the electric '09 T. Plush Morgan the real Morgan? Do the Nationals need to look for a full-time center fielder, making Morgan a fourth outfielder? Will Morgan be the Nats' leadoff man in 2011? Riggleman says he doesn't think Danny Espinosa will be asked to fill that role in his rookie year, and though a majority of readers voted in favor of Espinosa leading off in 2011 in a recent poll, in hindsight it might be wise to put less pressure on the rookie infielder assuming he's playing second when the 2011 season starts? Do the Nats count on Morgan bouncing back or find someone else to fill the role on an everyday basis next season?