Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell, in assessing the talents of center fielder Nyjer Morgan in a June 2009 Nationals Journal post entitled, "The Meaning of the Nats Trade", (after he was acquired from the Pirates along with LHP Sean Burnett, for failed-center-fielder Lastings Milledge and struggling right-handed reliever Joel Hanrahan), wrote that the then-29-year outfielder, "...has an adequate but modest .351 on-base percentage in 545 career at bats, a 65 percent steal rate and a history as a fast left fielder who was never trusted very long in center field." Mr. Boswell's suggestion? Install Morgan for the, "last couple of months as your center fielder and leadoff man. If he pans out, good. If not, then he may make a versatile fourth outfielder next year."
In the 49-game stretch that followed Nyjer Morgan's arrival in the nation's capital, he was exactly what D.C. GM Mike Rizzo expected. Did Rizzo will Nyjer Morgan into being as the Nats' leadoff man and starting center fielder? Morgan certainly seemed buoyed by the general manager's enthusiasm, telling MLB.com's Bill Ladson in an article entitled, "Morgan, Burnett begin again with Nats", that he was, "...excited to start all over again with a new franchise", as Mr. Ladson wrote, and excited that, "'The talent is here, and [acting general manager Mike] Rizzo, he wanted me bad.'"
With a jump in SB% from 64-65% on his career to 77%, an OBP up from .351 in 71 games with the Pirates to .396 with the Nats, an average that went from .277 in '09 and .286 over three years in Pittsburgh up to .351 in D.C., and a BABIP (.325 to .398), wOBA (.314 to .379), OPS (.704 career to .831 in '09 w/ Washington), and WAR (+0.8 in 82 games in '08, +1.9 in '09 w/ the Pirates to +3.0 w/ the Nats) all up above what anyone expected, Morgan could do no wrong in the nation's capital...in 2009.
2010, as has been noted repeatedly, reversed the upward trend for Morgan. Defensively, Morgan had his highest error total and a UZR/150 that went from +34.7 in '09 between Pittsburgh and Washington (39.4 in CF in DC) to +4.2 overall in 2010 when he spent all his time in center with the Nats. The 30-year-old outfielder's SB% was back to 67% (34 of 51), his AVG was down from .309 on the year in '09, (.351 w/ WAS) to .253 in 2010, which was thirty points below his career average, his OBP went from .369 to .319, his OPS was down from .757 to .633 and his BABIP was down from .355 in '09 with the Pirates and .398 with the Nats to .304 in 2010 with his wOBA dropping from .340 to .287.
As Fangraphs.com's Matt Klaasen noted in a recent article entitled, "Brett Gardner: 2011′s Nyjer Morgan?", Morgan's game relies on, "speed and [the] ability to make contact to hit plenty of singles," since he has to get on base without power or a high walk rate, so his drop in BABIP was particularly devastating to his effectiveness at the plate, as was his significant drop in SB% when he did get on, which combined to render Morgan ineffective as a leadoff man and everyday player in general. Is he more a fourth outfielder as the Washington Post's Mr. Boswell suspected or the player Mike Rizzo believed he could be and the Nats fans saw for a brief time in 2009?
When the Nats' General Manager spoke to the D.C. press corps at the end of the season last year, as recorded in MLB.com's Bill Ladson's article entitled, "Nats put rotation atop offseason priority list", Mr. Rizzo said that in addition to help at the top of the rotation, he'd like, "a bat at the top of the order to set up the sluggers to drive in runs," and Mr. Rizzo, "...said that center fielder Nyjer Morgan will be given every opportunity to fill that spot during Spring Training." If he struggles this Spring? Rick Ankiel, predomintantly a CF throughout his career, was signed to compete for a spot in the OF, but he's hardly the answer offensively. Roger Bernadina's being counted on in left as part of a platoon with Michael Morse? Jayson Werth? Some expect him to play center against LHP, since Morgan's never hit left-handers well...but not on a regular basis, and that just opens a hole in right til Bryce Harper's ready anyway. The Nats, at least publically, believe Morgan can be the player he was in 2009, though he'll have to improve significantly on his 2010 campaign to even be the player he was with the Pirates.
"I think, his .360 OBP, if we can move back towards that," Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman said in a late-season press conference, "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." A .350 OBP guy with a 66-67% SB% is exactly the sort of player the Washington Post's Mr. Boswell wrote immediately after the trade might be, "a versatile fourth outfielder," as opposed to the everyday center fielder. How long will Morgan have to prove he's the right man for the job in center and at the top of the order? In the January 27th edition of his chat with readers entitled, "Ask Boswell" the WaPost's Mr. Boswell responded to a question about Morgan being handed the CF job by explaining that, "Morgan is a low-salary 'free player' who showed a lot of promise in '09," and the Nationals, "aren't going to the playoffs this year,":
"...so it costs them nothing to start the year trying to find out if the true Morgan is the star of '09 or the frustrated player of '10. Once they feel they have an answer, Morgan will either be their stellar CF (which they'd prefer) or he'll be in a lesser role (and like it.)"
342 games and 1,245 at bats into his career, and 185 games and 590 at bats after the trade, the questions about Nyjer Morgan remain the same.