Heading into spring training, Michael Morse had already proven that he was a major league hitter. In parts of seven seasons, the 29-year-old had batted .284/.347/.440 with 21 homers and 92 RBI in 661 at-bats.
If he had a good spring, he had a lock on at least half of the left field job, likely platooning with Roger Bernadina. His spring however, was a knockout. Morse batted .364/.421/.818 with nine homers (second in the Grapefruit League) and 18 RBI.
He won the left field job outright.
Since the season started though, Morse has been horrible, hitting just .186/.260/.209 with no homers and four RBI.
Most in the organization—including Morse himself—believe the slow start is the result of the pressure he is placing on himself to perform. Sooner or later, most think he’ll begin to hit like he has since 2005.
Jayson Werth, after all, is batting just .206/.296/.365 and his job is safe. Time is all he needs.
But how much time?
The Nationals are at .500 18 games into the 2011 season with multiple hitters starting slowly. At some point, the team may consider replacing some of these players before hopes for a transitional bad-to-good-team type of year fade away.
But if not Morse in left, who? And perhaps more importantly, when?
Roger Bernadina seemed to be “Plan B” in left, but rumblings within the organization suggest that the team has soured on the 27-year-old. He is currently batting .290/.333/.429 for Triple-A Syracuse.
Corey Brown, obtained in the Josh Willingham trade, is hitting just .222 for the Chiefs and has yet to produce above the Double-A level.
Jerry Hairston Jr. is now 35, and has a career average of just .256/.324/.370.
That leaves Laynce Nix as the only real solution.
The 30-year-old isn’t an everyday answer, but could be a viable platoon option against right-handers. So far, Nix is hitting .320/.346/.560 with a couple of home runs in just 24 at-bats against righties.
If you adjust Nix’s career numbers against right-handers for a 550 at-bat season, it would include 26 doubles, three triples, 24 home runs and 84 RBI to go along with a .252 batting average.
In other words, he can provide the Nationals enough punch from the left side of the plate until Morse can get his act together.
Sure, the team can make a trade and bring in a veteran outfielder with enough left in the tank to fill the hole in left field, but would that player really be any better—in the short term—than Nix?
The Washington Nationals already have their long-term answers at catcher (Wilson Ramos), second (Danny Espinosa), short (Ian Desmond), third (Ryan Zimmerman) and right field (Jayson Werth).
If Adam LaRoche continues to show his defensive prowess at first and hits for his career average, I’d have to think that he might be offered a two-year extension, keeping him in Washington until 2014.
Bryce Harper is learning center field at Class-A Hagerstown, and will likely join the Nationals sometime in 2013.
That makes left field the only real hole in the team’s long-term lineup.
Based on past performance, there is no reason to believe that Morse won’t find his stroke and end the season hitting .275-20-75, give or take. But at some point, the Nationals may have to make a short-term move, perhaps sending Morse to Triple-A Syracuse to rediscover his swing.
Until then, Laynce Nix and Jerry Hairston Jr. could provide enough stop-gap offense until either Morse recovers or the team makes a trade to bring in another player.
As long as the Nationals remain a sub-.500 team, leaving Morse in Washington to find his stroke isn’t going to hurt the team. But if they continue to play well, and they keep bobbing just above and just below .500, they may need to make that move.
Josh Willingham, anyone?