Last year, the Washington Nationals got an unexpected boost at first base from Michael Morse. The team expected Adam LaRoche to be at first base while earning $8 million, but he missed most of the season after rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder. Morse won't step in for LaRoche this spring, though.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson clearly stated that Morse won't earn any time at first base during Spring Training in Florida, which may surprise some fans in NatsTown. However, look no further than veteran infielders Mark DeRosa, who has a major league contract, and Chad Tracy as reasons why. As the 2012 season continues, both in Spring Training and during the regular season, Morse will get significant time in the outfield to work on his defense as much as possible. If he's able to become a capable left fielder, and he keeps some semblance of his 2011 offensive numbers, he could be an important piece as the Nationals push for their first ever playoff spot. What about beyond 2012? What affect will Morse have on the Nationals?
Adam LaRoche's contract ends at the end of this season, and the team can either buy his contract out for a cool $1 million or pick up his option at $10 million for 2013. It doesn't seem like rocket science, but it's unlikely that GM Mike Rizzo and the Lerners will be willing to dish out the money to pick up LaRoche's option, which leaves Morse in a nice situation. Under team control through 2013 after the Nationals bought him out of arbitration for $10.5 million in 2012 and 2013, Morse is the next logical step at first base for the Nats.
Though it's hard to imagine Morse replicating his 2011 batting average in 2012, he could certainly hit more home runs and drive in more runs now that he's the team's bonifide clean up hitter. If he's able to fulfill the rather lofty expectations that he put upon himself last year, there are really two options for the Nationals with Morse as they move forward. They can either re-sign him or trade him.
If he can prove that 2011 wasn't an anomaly, signing Morse to another contract to lock him up for a few more years might be in both parties interests. Morse has established his identity in DC, and the Nationals could use a real solution at first base for a few years. However, Morse has never been more valuable in his entire career than he is at this moment, and if he has another strong year, it will only get more expensive for the Nationals to try to re-sign him. That may drive the price artificially high if he and his agent are looking for a multi-year, relatively long-term deal. As an alternative, the team could decide to trade him at the deadline in 2012 or 2013, while he's at the peak of his career. Doing so could bring some key parts back to the Nats, perhaps even the center fielder they've always coveted.
The big problem with trading Morse lies in Chris Marrero. Marrero hasn't turned into what former-GM Jim Bowden hoped he would when he drafted him in 2006, and he'll miss at least half a season with a torn hamstring. If the Nationals don't think Marrero is going to be their long-term first baseman, they have an obligation to lock up Morse to play the position for a few more years. If they lose Morse at first base for a strong center fielder, but then there's a huge gap at first base, the team might move laterally rather than forward. There's not much depth left at first besides Marrero and Tyler Moore, who is still just a prospect.
If I had to put money on it, I'd guess we'll end up seeing Morse back at first base before the 2012 season ends and certainly as the starting first baseman on Opening Day 2013. While he's come into his own a bit late in his career, Michael Morse still has the ability to be an outstanding offensive first baseman and clean up hitter than can help push the Nats toward their ultimate goal: producing a winning baseball team.