Throughout the course of a season, there is always a handful of players like Mike Morse that become available on waivers (Morse in fact passed through waivers himself in April 2009). The Nationals had traded outfielder Ryan Langerhans, another replacement type outfielder, to the Mariners last season for Morse and during September of last season he batted .262/.311/.524 in 45 PA for the Nationals. That line gained Morse the attention of many D.C. fans and his line this spring has augmented that attention. The question is, though, what is Morse's value to the Nationals?
So far this spring training Morse is 6 for 21 with a double and two home runs. He has been one of the few Nationals hitters to come out of the gates hot, but spring training numbers are less than reliable. During spring training 2008 for the Mariners, Morse put on a monster showing, but failed to carry it into the regular season before getting injured on a fielding play (more on this later). While his ST numbers are most likely a fluke right now, they do back up comments made by coaches that Morse stays in baseball shape nearly the whole year, always a plus, and provides one example of a reason why a player may excel in spring training. Expect his numbers to drop as spring progresses into summer.
At the plate, Morse is a pretty good hitter with average power. He does not take walks very often and his OBP (.355) for his major league career seems to be a bit too high compared to his minor league OBP (.329), which consists of nearly nine times as many plate appearances. He does not have much speed on the base paths (4 stolen bases in his career) and, if he was regular, would be a type of guy that batted towards the bottom of the lineup.
As for his defense, much has been made of Morse's ability to play multiple positions, an ability that will increase his value to the Nationals. Morse came up through the minors as a shortstop and has been one of the major roadblocks in him getting playing time over the years. He made it to the majors with the Mariners in 2005 as a shortstop, but was bumped from the position in favor Yunilesky Betancourt, who was a much better defender. Morse seemed to have a good feel for the position, but at 6'5 he never had the range to be able to last in the middle infield. The Mariners tried him at nearly every position from 2005-2009, never finding him a position that he could stick at (or that was open). When he played secondbase and in addition to range problems, Morse struggled with playing with his back to first base and had difficulties turning double plays. Riggleman has already hinted that Morse will not be playing either SS or 2B for the Nationals this season. He has also been getting some reps in practice as catcher with the possibility of him becoming an emergency option during the season.
Last season for the Nats he played at first, third, right field, and left field. In the outfield, Morse lacks range, but his arm translates pretty well to right field (he has 3 outfield assists in 16 games at the position). His major weakness in the outfield is his ability to judge fly balls, a common knock that I heard from various Mariner's fans I talked to. In fact, in 2008 he misplayed and then dove for a ball which ended in him tearing his labrum and missing the remainder of the season. First base is probably the ideal position for him nowadays due to his height and infield experience, but that spot is already occupied by slugger Adam Dunn. He has experience at third as well, but the "hot corner" is also a position that is unavailable on the current Washington squad (see Ryan Zimmerman).
What is his value to the Nationals team this year? Most likely a right-handed bat off the bench and a late-inning replacement for Adam Dunn. Like his situation with the Mariners, there is no place for Morse in the starting lineup, but he does provides good insurance to the team in the event that Ryan Zimmerman or Adam Dunn happen to succumb to injury. Beyond that, though, his value to the Nationals will almost exclusively be tied to his ability to carry his hitting explosion from spring training to the regular season.
Phil Naquin is a guest writer for The Nats Blog who will be be appearing weekly with analysis of the Washington Nationals using sabermetrics, pitch f/x tools, and scouting observations. He also runs a blog, Half Street High Rise
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