When the season started, Michael Morse looked absolutely lost in left field. The first 27 games of the season we saw ball after ball sail past Morse only to roll to the fence. His newly filled-out frame simply didn’t afford him the explosion he once had as a shortstop in the Seattle Mariners system, and his routes to balls often reflected that fact.
At the plate, things were not much better. The man who had earned a starting position early on in Spring Training hit just .224/.267/.284 in April, and his powerful stroke had vanished, as he swatted just one home run in the season’s first month. Morse’s 6’5” shoulders seemed to be carrying a world of frustration, and the slugger inevitably lost his starting job to Roger Bernadina and Laynce Nix.
When another struggling slugger, Adam LaRoche, went down with a season ending injury, the opportunity presented itself for Morse to gain redemption, and the league has now taken notice of his remarkable turnaround.
Since switching from left field to first base, Morse has hit .331/.389/.634 with 13 home runs and 39 RBI in 46 games. While the sample size is pretty small, it is worth noting just how good that quarter-season stretch has been. Over the course of a full season his numbers at first base would project to him hitting .331/.389/.634 with 45 home runs, 136 RBI, and 112 runs scored. Put simply, Morse has had just about one of the best 46 game stretches that any slugger could have.
While there is no real tangible evidence that the position change has had an effect on his production at the bat, it certainly is possible that as a career infielder Morse had trouble staying involved with the pace of the game. His poor play in the outfield can’t be ignored either, as there is a good chance that the failure in his game in left-field very well could have caused a mental block at the plate. It should be noted, however, that Morse did hit .283/.355/.516 in 72 games in right field last season, in much lower pressure situations.
Last season Morse’s offensive output had many calling for more opportunities for him to get playing time. Many wondered though if he would be able to produce such numbers over an extended period, as he had never really produced at an exceptionally high level in his career. If you combine the past two seasons with the Nationals, however, you see that in a full season Morse is more than a good cheap find by Mike Rizzo, he’s an elite hitter:
Last 2 Seasons: 530 AB, .296/.350/.527 with 30 HR, 90 RBI, and 73 R.
This offensive output should make Mike Morse a staple moving forward in the Nationals organization, but one has to wonder exactly how he will fit in. He has proven that he is not an adequate outfielder, if not only with the glove, but also at the plate. To compound problems, the Nationals have Adam LaRoche still on the roster for next season, and he is scheduled to make $8 million next season. They also have 2006 first round draft choice Chris Marrero producing at a high level in Triple-A Syracuse right now, and one has to think the club would want to find a place to at least give him a shot at playing at the MLB level.
Morse is making just $1.05 million this season and is under team control for next year, with a slight raise likely to come after this tremendous season. The club needs to decide if he is their first baseman for the near future, and if he is they need to decide what to do with the other two players.
If it is about money, the answer is easy, the Nationals will have to chose LaRoche as they made a $16 million investment in him this winter as a last case scenario to find an everyday first baseman. It’s unfortunate that it ended up being that the player they had spent all winter looking for was already on their roster.
If it’s about the future, then the line gets a little bit blurrier. The team has invested a great amount of time and money in Marrero, and while his ceiling seems to be a bit lower than when they initially drafted him, some may argue he deserves his fair shot in the majors. He is currently hitting .299/.371/.430 in Syracuse, but has not developed the raw power that the Nationals had hoped and analysts had projected. Of course he’s only 23.
Morse on the other hand is 29-years-old, with very little wear and tear. That means he probably has another three-to-five years of producing at this level under his belt. To a playoff team he may not be a franchise changing talent, but he certainly could be a rock in a lineup that wants to produce at a high level.
The question then should ultimately come down to this; can Chris Marrero ever hit at the level that Morse is hitting at currently? Can he ever be a 30+ home run guy who will post OPS numbers close to 1.000? I do not believe so, but it is up to the Nationals to decide whether or not to give him the chance to prove me wrong.