When the Washington Nationals called first baseman and '06 1st Round pick Chris Marrero up late in the 2011 campaign, Nats' skipper Davey Johnson told reporters that Michael Morse, who'd taken over at first when Adam LaRoche went down with a shoulder injury, would move back to left so that they could get a look at what Marrero could do at the major league level. An additional benefit of the move, the manager explained to Washington Times' writer Amanda Comak, was that it would give Morse time to prepare for the 2012 campaign, when LaRoche would return and play first in the second year of his 2-year/$16M dollar deal. "'Ideally,'" the 69-year-old skipper told the Washington Times' reporter, "when LaRoche comes back, we'll have LaRoche at first and probably [Morse] in left field. But definitely, we'll have him somewhere every day."
Morse was a different player (offensively) when he was in left field as opposed to first base. In 83 games and 354 plate appearances as a 1B last year, Morse had a .336/.401/.601 slash with 27 of his 35 doubles and 19 of his 31 HR's. In 52 games and 208 plate appearances in left, Morse had a .254/.293/.482 line. BABIP? .384 as a 1B, .282 as a LF. In his career, Morse has played 102 games as a first baseman, in 402 career PA as a 1B, Morse has a .327/.388/.579 line. As a left fielder, the 29-year-old, seven-year veteran has a .250/.300/.459 line in 62 games and 240 plate appearances. Coincidence? Insignificant?
Davey Johnson doesn't think it will make a difference where Morse plays in the field. When he was asked about the move to make room for Marrero this past season, he told reporters, "As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't affect him at all. He's still hitting cleanup. He's had a great year. He's been more of a mainstay in the lineup than anybody else in the lineup. It's never easy changing position, but when you go from first base to the outfield, you're probably just going to get a little bored out there on the field because there's not as much action." Davey's predecessor, Jim Riggleman, wasn't buying it either, telling MLB Network Radio hosts hosts Jim Memolo and Rob Dibble last summer that slow starts to the season like Morse had in 2011, after a strong start in Spring Training, are pretty common. "It happens sometimes," Riggleman said:
Jim Riggleman: "A guy has such a good Spring and he almost just feels like, 'I've wasted a lot of hits,' and he talks himself out of getting off to a good start. And [Morse] just couldn't buy a base hit practically the first month of the season, and really lost his playing time to Laynce Nix who was doing a really good job for us. We worked Mike back in there, he was starting to play a little bit, [Adam] LaRoche got hurt, we moved [Morse] to first base and he's been pretty much the same as he was in Spring Training. He's getting a lot of hits for us, he's playing an outstanding first base, and you know, it's well-deserved, he's worked really hard. He's 29-years-old and he's worked a really long time to become a regular in the big leagues and it's happening for him right now."
Morse hit three doubles and nine HR's and had a .364/.421/.818 slash in 21 games and 66 at bats at Spring Training in 2011, then started the year with a .211/.253/.268 line, one double and one home run in 23 games and 79 PA's through March/April. The 1B/OF told MLB Network Radio hosts Mike Ferrin and Cliff Floyd he'd been motivated to make the team in Spring Training, and the slow start was all about getting consistent AB's:
Michael Morse: "In my career, I never had that guaranteed job, so I always had to fight. It was nothing new, so I went into Spring Training with that mentality of, 'I have to make this team.' I had a good Spring. It was my first time playing Opening Day. It was my second time on the squad Opening Day. But I got an opportunity to play, I didn't play much at the beginning. I platooned a lot. At one point I pretty much lost my job to Laynce Nix in the outfield and I was on the bench. And then Adam LaRoche got hurt and I stepped in, played first, and I went off from there."
When LaRoche went down three weeks into May, Morse was already starting to heat up, collecting 10 hits in 25 at bats over the first three weeks of the month. The big slugging first baseman had a .267/.294/.356 line on the year when he took over for LaRoche. Morse was 25 for 62 with five doubles and six home runs in May, putting up a .403/.422/.774 line over 22 games. He'd started the month at .216/.256/.270 and he ended the month with a .301/.329/.504 line. From June through August 27th, when Chris Marrero made his debut, Morse had a .324/.392/.561 slash with 24 doubles and 14 HR's in 73 games and 311 PA's.
Morse finished the year with a stretch of 28 games in which he had a .252/.314/.577 line, six doubles and 10 HR's in 121 plate appearances. When the season ended, Morse had played a career-high 146 games, had a career-high 575 plate appearances and had collected ten more home runs (31 total in 2011) than he'd hit in his previous 685 PA's going back to his MLB debut in 2005 in Seattle. He finished the year at +3.4 WAR.
Morse, given his first real shot at the major league level since his first MLB season, hit 12 doubles and 15 HR's in 98 games and 293 PA's in 2010, finishing the year with a .289/.352/.519 line. He was worth +1.1 WAR in 2010. 248 of those plate appearances, 11 of the doubles, 13 of the HR's and 63 of his 77 hits that season came with him in the outfield, though it was RF in 2010. So maybe it won't matter where Morse plays. All of these samples, in left, right, or at first, are small sample sizes, of course and Morse in 276 games and 923 plate appearances since Washington acquired him in return for Ryan Langerhans on June 28, 2009, has a .295/.353/.536 line with 51 doubles and 49 HR's.
In January the Nationals and Morse avoided arbitration by agreeing on a two-year deal worth $10.5M after he, "... led the Nationals in all three Triple Crown categories (.303 [AVG], 31 homers, 95 RBI) and became just the fourth qualified National to hit .300 since the club came to DC in 2005," as the Nationals noted in a press release on the deal. The Nats believe in Morse and as he told the hosts in his MLB Network Radio interview this winter, he likes the direction he sees the team heading:
Michael Morse: "Mike Rizzo, our GM, he's put this together and people might have thought a couple years ago he might be crazy. But he had a vision and it's all come together. We've got Ryan Zimmerman, he's healthy. Last year he had [an ab tear] early in the year. We were missing [Adam] LaRoche all year. He's going to be healthy. He's a big bat. And we've got Jayson Werth for the next six years. And there's so much upside, also, I'm even leaving out Ian Desmond. And we've got Bryce Harper waiting... But he's part of the young crowd. We've got Danny Espinosa at second base, who's a great infielder, and he has pop. We've got Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper. These are all young guys that are going to be around, and except for Bryce, these guys are getting their feet wet now. So, this team...I mean, people have got to watch out. They're coming. The Nationals are coming."
According to the Bill James' projections, they'll be getting 25 HR's and a .291/.347/.505 line from their left fielder next year. Last year the Nationals got 29 HR's and a .256/.310/.461 slash out of their left fielders. If Morse can keep it up, that will be one spot in the lineup that provides the improvement Washington's expecting from the players already on their roster since they weren't able to add another power bat this winter. Can Michael Morse do it again?