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The case against -- and for -- Nyjer Morgan (and Adam Kennedy too)


Every Nats fan is well aware of Nyjer Morgan's struggles this year, at the plate, on the bases and in the field. Despite having a good series against the Orioles, he is still hitting just .255 for the year. He has 16 stolen bases but he has been caught (or picked off) 11 times, a dreadful percentage. He makes the occasional spectacular play in CF but he cancels that out with poor plays on fly balls and on questionable decision-making on other plays (whether to throw home or hit the cutoff man, etc.).

Morgan took D.C. baseball fans by storm last year, hitting .351 over 49 games and stealing 24 bases in 31 attempts. The honeymoon has long since passed and now he is the target of increasing criticism, especially as the entire team is slumping badly as the All-Star Break nears.

What are the alternatives to Morgan, both in the field and in the line-up? Roger Bernadina has been hitting well this year, with an average of .284 and 5 HR in 52 games. He also has 6 stolen bases while getting thrown out twice. He has the speed to play CF plus he has a great throwing arm as we saw in Sunday afternoon's game. Michael Morse is a possibility in RF. He is hitting .340 with 3 HR in limited action.

In the line-up, Bernadina could also take Morgan's spot there and lead off. Morse could stay at the no. 7 spot. Ian Desmond could move up to the no. 2 spot. He has been slumping lately but it could be due to hitting low in the order. He is only hitting .239 in the 8th spot, .253 in the 7th spot. But he is hitting .353 when he has batted 2nd. Bernadina and Desmond could be a very potent combination in front of Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham.

The top brass of the Nationals are aware of Morgan's struggles but Jim Riggleman sounds like he's going to stick with Morgan for the time being. Morgan has a career batting average of .236 in May and .246 in June but career averages over .300 for July, August and September. Maybe he is simply a 2nd half player and he really will wake up and catch on fire for the team again. After watching three months of subpar play, it's hard to have much confidence in him but those numbers are very interesting.

***

Nyjer Morgan isn't the only reason for the Nats' struggles this month. The entire team seems to disappear after the 4th or 5th inning, and not just against the Orioles. That can't be blamed entirely on Nyjer Morgan. Sluggers will have slumps, as Ryan Zimmerman is right now. Adam Dunn has been performing exceptionally, driving in runs and hammering tape-measure shots just like he's supposed to be doing.

One problem that could be fixed easily is Adam Kennedy. He has not seen much playing time this year with just 160 AB in the Nats' first 76 games. He was a full-time starter last year for Oakland. He doesn't appear to be handling his part-time status very well. Not only is he not hitting (.238 BA) but he is also making many mistakes in the field. He made another mental error in Sunday's game, throwing to 1B on an attempted double play off of a grounder that took its time getting to Zimmerman and a speedy runner racing down the 1B line. Kennedy should never have thrown the ball. He did so, with the result being a ball rolling into the dugout and the tying run scoring. This is not the first significant mental error Kennedy has made in recent weeks. Riggleman is trying to give Kennedy more playing time to keep his skills sharp but that strategy is backfiring. Kennedy is showing that he deserves less playing time, not more.

If he gets less playing time, who should pick up the slack? Easy decision -- Alberto Gonzalez. He is an outstanding defender. He filled in more than capably at 3B when Zimmerman was on the DL earlier this year. He provides great defense at 2B and SS. He hasn't been hitting as well in recent games but he had been hitting around .290-.300 for most of the season. The Nats don't need him for his offense. If he could hit .260-.270, that would be adequate. He would shore up the infield defense. If he had been playing 2B today and Desmond had been at SS, it's very possible that Baltimore doesn't score that 3rd run and the game might have played out differently. Gonzalez would probably have made fewer errors throughout the past three months than Kennedy has. Maybe Gonzalez is not ready to be the everyday 2B and spot starter at SS and 3B but I think he deserves far more playing time than he has been getting. And he needs to move up in the IF "rotation" ahead of Adam Kennedy.

Kennedy is playing himself out of a role altogether on this team. The 2010 Nats are not good enough to overcome all of these errors. Yes, Ian Desmond has been making some errors lately but he looks to be a mainstay at SS for many years to come, so it makes more sense to let him struggle and learn. That can pay off in later seasons. But Kennedy is not a key part of the long-term plans of the team. The organization paid out a decent amount of money for him last off-season but I don't think that's a good enough reason to play him over Gonzalez. Might it be time to cut losses and put Kennedy at the far end of the bench where he would only come in for emergency situations (an injury to another IF)? Or even release him? Maybe. That could also provide a jolt to the rest of the team and wake them up.

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