Morgan Trade Leaves More Questions Than Answers

Posted by Dave Nichols | Sunday, March 27, 2011 | , , , | 20 comments »

(C.Nichols/Nats News Network)
Well, Mike Rizzo was right about one aspect of it when he said, "It was Ankiel winning the job, not Nyjer losing the job.”

Because on Dec. 21 -- the day the Washington Nationals signed Rick Ankiel -- he "won" the job and it was the last day Nyjer Morgan was in their plans, in my humble opinion.

Morgan's comments to the media earlier last week about his impending departure were only the final few taps on the nail that had already been driven.

Morgan's history in D.C. is well-told at this point.  For ten weeks in the summer of 2009, upon his joining the Nats via trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was the second coming of Lou Brock.  Morgan got on base, created havoc once he got there, played stellar center field defense, and as a bonus, he had a larger-than-life alter ego named "Tony Plush" that endeared himself to the fans of NatsTown.

But all that came to a crashing halt on Aug. 27 that season when he broke his hand sliding headfirst trying to steal third base against the Chicago Cubs.

He was never the same player again.

Though the team touted him that off-season as one of the cornerstones of the franchise, proudly proclaiming they had their center fielder of the present and future, Morgan could not deliver on those promises in 2010, batting .253/.319/.314 and leading the N.L. in caught stealing for the second consecutive season. 

He also had regular breakdowns in center, taking bad routes, throwing to the wrong base or missing the cut-off man with his wet noodle of an arm.

On top of the on-field performance issues, Morgan was distraction off the field as well.  He threw a temper tantrum on a ball in play that led to an inside-the-park home run, twice unnecessarily instigated contact on opposing catchers, and incited a brawl against the Florida Marlins.  He was suspended twice; one of the suspensions was upheld and he missed eight games at the end of the season as a result.

The Nationals, GM Mike Rizzo and Manger Jim Riggleman, both talked Sunday about how hard Morgan played in this camp, that he was a model citizen, and that the decision to send him packing was based on Ankiel rather than Morgan.

“It wasn’t really what [Morgan] didn’t show as much as what Ankiel did show,” Rizzo told reporters Sunday morning. “He could go get the ball in the outfield. His arm was really a weapon. He can create a lot of damage with one swing of the bat. I focus it more on what Ankiel did than on what Nyjer didn’t do. After the first week, he played really well. He did everything he had to do. It was Ankiel winning the job not Nyjer losing the job.”

To which I respectfully say: hogwash.  Ankiel has hit .218/.271/.455 this spring.  That doesn't beat anyone out of a job.  Those are spring numbers of a guy that's had a job the whole time.

This move makes the Nationals a worse team.

Morgan has a lifetime .308/.361/.387 line against right-handed pitchers.  That's perfectly acceptable for a leadoff hitter. If the Nats had tried this off-season to find a right-handed hitting platoon partner for Morgan in center, they would have had a complete player in the position.

Instead, they loaded up on left-handed hitters to try to replace him.  Roger Bernadina was the in-house candidate when he lost the starting left field job to Michael Morse, but Riggleman is perfectly happy giving the job to Ankiel, a player that he and hitting coach Rick Eckstein were already familiar with -- and fond of -- from their time in the St. Louis organization together.

Now Bernadina, a player entering his prime who had double digit home runs and steals last season, finds himself battling journeyman Laynce Nix for the reserve outfielder slot.

But let's be clear -- Ankiel can't really hit.  He's got some pop when he makes contact, but he does so so infrequently (.248/.312/.441) that it really doesn't matter.  Ankiel's claim to fame is a 25 home run season in 2008, but he hasn't hit 25 home runs combined since that season.

And he's even worse than Morgan against lefties (.232/.282/.386), so Jerry Hairston, a second baseman by trade, will play center against southpaws.

Plus, Morgan was the only option to lead off for this team.  With him gone, and Ankiel hitting sixth or seventh, Ian Desmond will be forced into a role that does not suit him and could potentially ruin his value with the bat if he allows the pressure to dictate what type of player he "should" be.

No, if this decision was about what makes this team better, Morgan was the answer.  Many fans, tired of his antics, will not be sorry to see Morgan go.  But his leaving has ramifications throughout the Nats lineup.

And casts even more doubt on the decision-making process in NatsTown.

(C.Nichols/Nats News Network)

20 comments

  1. Tom Bridge // March 27, 2011 at 8:31 PM  

    There was a fairly harsh quote out there from a scout who called this "addition by subtraction." While I find the choice of Ankiel as the starting CF to be uninspired, I certainly won't miss anything about Nyjer Morgan. Between his disastrous base-running and his frequent mental misplay in the field, and his off-field frustrations, it's hard to say he was a guy to like in the lineup every day.

    What I don't understand is, if this decision was really made when they signed Ankiel, why the hell didn't they sign someone better than Ankiel to fill that role?

  2. Dave Nichols // March 27, 2011 at 8:36 PM  

    Tom, that question (why Ankiel?) is one of the biggest that surround this whole escapde.

    And why did they bother to bring Morgan to camp? As Mark Z. points out in his blog this evening, this move reeks of the way they cut Dukes 2/3 of the way into ST last season without a solid plan behind the move, when they should have handled that situation in the off-season as well.

  3. Donald // March 27, 2011 at 8:43 PM  

    Bryce Harper will be the starting center fielder by September, or opening day 2012. All they need is a stop-gap and Morgan is more distraction than help in that regard.

  4. Dave Nichols // March 27, 2011 at 8:52 PM  

    @Donald: i think the organizational hope is that Harper ascends that quickly, but they still have to play the games this year, and for all the Nats talk about wanting to be competitive to settle on Ankiel in center is a little disconcerting.

  5. Rick Ankiel's Mom // March 27, 2011 at 8:59 PM  

    Rick is a career .254/.323/.462 hitter vs. RHP. Sure, he's a platoon guy, but he'll be more than serviceable against RHP.

    Morgan > Ankiel as a baseball player, but I don't think the gap is nearly as big as you're making it out to be.

  6. jcj5y // March 27, 2011 at 9:14 PM  

    Look at the first isssues Rizzo mentioned---this move was ultimately about defense. Morgan has value if he plays plus-plus centerfield. For whatever reason, he seemed to lose that ability last season. I'm guessing the Nats' scouts saw Ankiel as a steadier defender with a much better arm, even if he has less range. The offense is a wash.

    I think the signing as a backup plan for both Morgan and Bernadina, and as a bat off the bench. When Morse won left field outright, that forced them into this decision. Maybe they should have looked harder for a righty bat (although I don't have a name in mind), but I'm more inclined to give them some credit for having a contingency plan.

  7. Anonymous // March 27, 2011 at 9:31 PM  

    Look at the first isssues Rizzo mentioned---this move was ultimately about defense.

    Nope, as Mr. Nichols inferred (and what I've been saying) its about Jim Riggleman's philosophy of playing favored veterans even when their performance doesn't bear out that decision.

    Given the web gem Bernadina had the other day are you seriously going to tell me that Ankiel is better out there than Bernadina? And Bernadina is a part of the future even if its as a 4th outfielder while Ankiel is not.

    No, this is not Rizzo's (Mr. Pants) FAIL. He shored up the centerfield position by acquiring sleeper prospect Corey Brown for Willingham and then there's Bryce Harper. Plus if Eury Perez can be motivated enough to improve his game? There you have three decent in-house candidates. Plus if Chris Curran can find his bat he too would be a excellent utility fielder who plays a very good center field?

    So, with the addition to Ankiel and Laynce Nix to Bernadina Rizzo produced alternatives to Morgan in center field ... more importantly for the future.

    Its Riggleman's choices in the present. Its pretty clear it was his idea to bring in Ankiel, Stairs, Cora and perhaps to a lesser extent Hairston and Rizzo obliged. Replacing three favorites of his: Guzman, Harris, and Maxwell.

    If it fails the hammer should fall swiftly on Riggleman. But, yes, some of the responsibility should also be Rizzo's.

  8. jcj5y // March 27, 2011 at 9:54 PM  

    Bernadina definitely makes spectacular plays with regularity. My guess is that the Nats are looking at steady play and fewer mistakes (Ankiel) versus more bad routes and more great plays (Bernadina). Not to mention that Ankiel has a game-changing arm.

    If you don't like the acquisition of Stairs, Ankiel, etc., I think that's on Rizzo, not Riggleman. I have never seen anything to suggest Riggleman has significant input in player personnel decisions.

  9. bdrube // March 27, 2011 at 10:00 PM  

    I actually think this ST was Nyjer's last chance to show he could be more like the player of 2009 than 2010. But he came out the gate stone cold and that sealed his fate. The Ankiel signing screams of "back up plan" rather than "he's the guy."

  10. Anonymous // March 27, 2011 at 10:27 PM  

    If you don't like the acquisition of Stairs, Ankiel, etc., I think that's on Rizzo, not Riggleman. I have never seen anything to suggest Riggleman has significant input in player personnel decisions.

    I have and on many occasions so I guess we disagree. In point of fact in Adam KIlgore's post on "What about Gonzalez" Riggleman almost comes out and says as much when he says that "Cora was brought here for a reason".

    Sorry, the present is definitely squarely on Riggleman with Rizzo's acquiescence. But the future, that is Rizzo's domain.

  11. Kev // March 28, 2011 at 8:57 AM  

    I disagree that Morgan couldn't have won the job if he showed up in camp playing like last-half-of-2009 Morgan. He was probably on thin ice, though.

    Plus, Morgan was the only option to lead off for this team. With him gone, and Ankiel hitting sixth or seventh, Ian Desmond will be forced into a role that does not suit him and could potentially ruin his value with the bat if he allows the pressure to dictate what type of player he "should" be.

    I don't think Morgan is a good option for lead-off. His OBP has been far too low.

    As for Desmond, I don't think he's a lead-off batter either. However, in terms of his development, batting lead-off could be a good thing. Having to focus on working the count and getting on base could help him get over his free-swinging ways. He was quoted last year as learning his plate approach from Guzman... which is a horrible idea and has shown over the last year.

  12. Dave Nichols // March 28, 2011 at 10:18 AM  

    thanks all for the comments.

    I think Rizzo is shaping this team in the mold that he thinks will be a winner. I'm sure Riggs had some input on Ankiel and Cora, preferring them over the incumbants, but it's still Rizzo's call to acquire the players.

    ultimately, it's on Rizzo as to the roster construction. Riggleman's job is to motivate the players he gets. that's why he's on the hot seat, especially since they haven't picked up his option for 2012 yet.

    but all Rizzo's done since he got here was preach defense and athleticism, and by ditching Morgan and benching (or demoting) Bernadina and going with Ankiel, Nix and Stairs, he's going against everything he's preached, IMO.

  13. jcj5y // March 28, 2011 at 11:14 AM  

    I think it's reasonable to view Ankiel as a better athlete than Morgan. Morgan has plus speed, at least for now (he's over 30), but Ankiel is probably more athletic overall, especially given his size advantage.

    Stairs is a special case that I'm not particularly inclined to defend, but I don't think we'll see him in the field.

    If Nix makes the team over Bernadina, I'd say that's choosing an inferior athlete. I would point out, however, that Nix has a career 9.2 UZR/150, while Bernadina's is -4.6.

    Also, I suspect that Stairs and Nix are mainly trade bait. In the Nats' position, I think that's defensible when you're talking abotu the 24th and 25th men on the roster.

  14. bdrube // March 28, 2011 at 11:15 AM  

    I hear the argument that dumping Morgan goes against the stated mantra of defense/athleticism. But let's face it, Morgon is a terrible ballplayer even without all the antics. His speed is all he really has and he negates that by running bad routes in the outfield, not being able to get bunts down and constantly getting caught stealing or picked off.

    I'll be much more annoyed if Bernadina gets sent down in favor of Nix. Bernie didn't step up and sieze the CF job when the opening was there and doesn't have the bat to play corner outfield every day, but he appears to be a very good fourth outfielder option.

    But they haven't demoted him yet so let's keep our fingers crossed.

  15. Anonymous // March 28, 2011 at 11:18 AM  

    "Bryce Harper will be the starting center fielder by September, or opening day 2012. All they need is a stop-gap and Morgan is more distraction than help in that regard."

    No way is B Harp coming up that early short of a miracle playoff run for the Nats. A)The Nats don't want to use up service time. B)He's only 18, hasn't even play minor league ball. Who was the last 18 year old to play baseball (he should be a high school senior after all). C)He's learning a new position.

    I think at best, he'll be up here after Memorial Day 2012, so the super II doesn't kick in a la Stras.

  16. Dave Nichols // March 28, 2011 at 11:21 AM  

    @bdrube: not sure Bernie really got a fair shake in the CF "competition" this spring, but i do agree with you that his ceiling probably is 4th OF. but i still maintain he's the Nats best option in CF right now.

    @jcj: not sure about trade value of vets v. developing younger players at MLB level. the possibility of trading veterans, IMO, is widely overvalued by fans.

  17. Dave Nichols // March 28, 2011 at 11:22 AM  

    @anon re: Harper: I tend to agree with you, but Harper is a special case and with a full minor league season under his belt, he could very well contend for the roster next spring as a 19 year old.

  18. jcj5y // March 28, 2011 at 11:33 AM  

    I agree that Nix and Stairs don't have huge trade value, but the value of the younger players who aren't making the team (Bernadina) is also pretty small.

    You could argue that Bernadina will have a chance to develop more if he's a starter in Syracuse than a 4th outfielder in DC---to the extent that Bernadina is ever going to develop more at age 26.

  19. Dave Nichols // March 28, 2011 at 12:03 PM  

    @jcj: like I said, my personal opinion is that Bernie is a 4th OF, but you'd think the Nats would owe it to themselves to confirm that at the major league level. we know he can play at the triple-A level. either way, it's only a matter of time before Ankiel works his way out of the job through injury or lack of production and Bernie is the only option they have in center, short of making an emergency trade.

  20. Deacon Drake // March 28, 2011 at 1:23 PM  

    I think that the problem is that Bernadina shows that flash of brilliance that gets everyone excited, but he is out to lunch most of the time in the outfield.

    I think that management was worried about Morgan becoming a distraction even if he won the job.

    Ankiel is not a starting center fielder, but can play the position better than some of the other slugs the Nats have trotted out there (Milledge, Dukes, Bernadina).