Less than a month into the 2010 season, with center fielder and leadoff man Nyjer Morgan having been caught in three of his first seven stolen base attempts, Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman was asked if there was a point at which he would rein the then-29-year-old speedster in or at least take away the green light Morgan had to run whenever he saw fit. After explaining that he thought the catchers the Nationals had faced were tough to steal on, Mr. Riggleman explained that, "If I put the reins on him, then it's just, his value to us goes way down if I hold him up too much." What if the Nats' Skipper had stopped Morgan there? Or after he'd been caught stealing in 12 of 21 attempts in the first half of the season? Morgan had a hard enough time getting on base, putting together a .252/.314/.316 first half and a .256/.327/.311 slash line in the second half of the 2010 campaign, and he ended up getting caught stealing on 17 of 51 attempts on the year after he'd been caught in just 7 of 31 attempts for the Nats in 2009 after he was acquired from the Pirates. With the Pirates in '09, however, Morgan had been caught in 10 of 28 stolen base attempts. Though he put up a gaudy .351/.396/.435 slash line in his first 49 games with Washington after the trade to D.C., he'd averaged a .286/.351/.376 line over his first two and a half seasons in the Majors with Pittsburgh...Which was the real Morgan?
The left-handed hitting outfielder's .304 BABIP in 2010, down from .355 in 2009 and .364 in '08, would lead one to believe it might just be a matter of Morgan missing out on some of the luck he'd experienced with the bat earlier in his career. Morgan's 4.9 WAR value dropped to +0.9 between '09 and 2010. After finishing the '09 campaign with a +39.4 UZR/150 in center, Morgan played at just +4.2 in 2010, experiencing difficulties going back on balls hit to center early in the season which led to THIS, which for those who don't click the link, is the infamous inside-the-park HR by the O's Adam Jones, a play on which Morgan missed the ball at the wall and threw his glove in frustration while the ball fell behind him and came to rest on the track as two runs scored. His base stealing, OBP, defense were so drastically differently in 2010 than what Nats fan saw in 2009 that one has to wonder which is the real Nyjer Morgan?
Nats' second baseman Ian Desmond told Sirius/XM MLB Network "Inside Pitch" hosts Casey Stern and Jim Bowden earlier this winter that he believed for Morgan, it was "...just one of those years,":
"He had a rough year, and .265, I think he finished like .255, .260, I don't want to sell him short...(it was .253) but around there, and that was a bad year in his eyes. According to him he struggled all year, and if he comes out and hits .300, everyone looks at him like a god, just like they did the year before when he got brought over from Pittsburgh, and then all the weight's off his shoulders. He just put a lot of pressure on himself, he expected more of himself, but hopefully he comes in and he's ready to go."
Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman defended his leadoff man late in the 2010 season when asked if he thought Morgan was the ideal man for the top-of-the-order job, telling reporters that, "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."
D.C. GM Mike Rizzo gave Morgan his own vote of confidence earlier this winter, telling MLB.com's Bill Ladson in an article entitled, "Nats put rotation atop offseason priority list", that, "Nyjer Morgan will be given every opportunity to fill that spot during Spring Training." The Nats, however, have mentioned that Jayson Werth is capable of playing center, and Morgan's career .200/.292/.269 slash line against lefties almost demands that the 30-year-old, 4-year-veteran sit against left-handed pitching. Jim Riggleman's thoughts, as expressed to reporters late last season:
"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 [Hitting 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."
Does Mr. Riggleman have to take a harder line with his center fielder and leadoff man if he struggles at the start of the 2011 campaign? Will Morgan continue to run at every opportunity? Will the frustration build up again if he doesn't start strong leading to the same drop in the lineup and the problems which followed resulting in suspensions, closed-door meetings and eventually this...
Here's hoping the lasting image of Nyjer Morgan from the 2011 season isn't him charging the mound and being led off the field as he taunts the fans, but instead an important stolen base, diving catch or some other example of the skill Nats fans saw on display in the '09 campaign. In spite of all his issues in 2010, fans in Nationals Park still vocally supported Morgan when he came to bat late in the season, if he can get on base, setting up the new middle-of-the-Nats' order with RISP and play the type of center field he's shown he can during his career, will Nats fans reembrace Nyjer Morgan? One thing I'd like to see after watching the GIF above, is Nats fans booing Gaby Sanchez every time that clotheslining punk comes to the plate against the Nationals this season...