Buried deep within perhaps the most meaningless game the Washington Nationals will play all year was one very meaningful, extremely encouraging sign:
Michael Morse is not going to give up left field without a fight.
In the first spring training game of the season, Morse went 3-for-5 with a pair of two-run home runs, both off of major-league pitchers.
But to be fair, the Mariners had the same reservations.
Over parts of four seasons in the Mariners organization, Morse batted .300/.365/.397, yet averaged just 75 at-bats per year.
He has continued to hit with Washington, but his power has blossomed, hitting .283/.342/.513 along with 23 homers and 64 RBI in 397 at-bats. Assuming 550 at-bats (a full major league season), he would have hit .283-32-92.
Last season, he hit .287/.320/.466 against right-handers and .295/.374/.625 against lefties. Morse batted .310 in the first half of 2010 and .282 in the second half.
With two outs and runners in scoring position, he batted .350/.469/.550 with a 1.019 OPS. Again, assuming 550 at-bats, he would have hit 39 doubles, 13 triples, 13 homers, drove in 278 runs and walked 119 times.
Compare that to Ryan Zimmerman, the team’s unquestioned “King of Clutch.”
Zimmerman, in the same number of at-bats, would have hit .365/.507/.538 with a 1.046 OPS, adding 29 doubles, zero triples, 19 homers, 232 RBI and 145 walks.
And yet, for Morse to start in left in 2011, there will have to be a perfect storm of luck and long home runs.
“Oh yeah, he can hit,” they say, “but he has a tough time against the better pitchers in the league.”
Roger Bernandina, the person most likely to be the team’s everyday left fielder, has a tough time against pretty much every pitcher in the league.
In parts of three seasons with the Nationals, Bernadina—admittedly a far more athletic player than Morse—has averaged .241/.306/.364 with 12 home runs and 52 RBI in 550 at-bats.
And with two outs and runners in scoring position, Bernadina is no Michael Morse, batting just .161/.235/.258.
Rick Ankiel, the third member of the left-field triumvirate, has averaged over his career .248/.312/.441 with 21 homers and 70 RBI. However, his last good season—really his only one—came four long seasons ago.
Ankiel’s clutch numbers are almost as bad as Bernadina’s: He has hit just .226/.305/.345 with 13 homers and 168 RBI with runners in scoring position and two out (assuming 550 at-bats).
Another reason given why Morse is not an everyday player is his defense.
True, he doesn’t glide through the outfield like Bernadina and Ankiel, but he certainly catches everything he gets to. Over six major league seasons, Morse has yet to make an error in the outfield.
No, he doesn’t have the range of the other two, but he is in no way a liability in left field.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo recently said that the team believes that Bernadina has star potential as someone who can eventually hit for power as well as average.
Maybe he’s hoping that Bernadina can one day hit .290 with 25-30 home runs and 90 RBI. He might, that’s true.
But it’s also true that right now—today—the Washington Nationals have a player in Michael Morse who has already shown that he can.
All he needs is the opportunity to play every day.
If the Nationals just take Morse by the hand, walk him out to left field and tell him “stay here,” the team has the chance to have "bookend Jayson Werths" by the end of the season.
Morse and Werth are the same height and weight. They even look a little alike.
During that time, he wasn’t nearly as good a hitter as Morse, hitting just .259/.352/.430 (compared to Morse’s .300/.365/.397 as a part-time player).
Over his last three seasons, Werth has averaged .279/.376/.513. Morse has hit .283/.342/.513.
Playing full-time, Werth has averaged 32 homers and 91 RBI. If Morse had been playing full-time, he would have hit 32 home runs and 92 RBI.
If the Nationals can add a fourth middle-of-the-lineup bat, the team will be able to at least approach a .500 record.
But if left field becomes a cesspool of part-time players, 2011 will be another difficult year.
Michael Morse is the answer. Here’s hoping the Nationals can figure out the question.