There is no way around it: No matter what the Nationals have to do next year, they will find a place for Michael Morse on the field. If that means he shifts back to left field when a presumably healthy Adam LaRoche returns from shoulder surgery, that’s what it means and that’s what they’ll do.
They simply can’t justify putting their best hitter of 2011 — for average, power and to all fields — into any kind of a position battle. Morse is an every day player. He’s been an every day player since the middle of May and one of the most productive ones in all of major league baseball in that time. He’s hitting .323, slugging .566 and getting on base at a .372 clip.
But the fact of the matter is, when LaRoche does return healthy and provide the Gold Glove caliber defense at first base along with the type of hitter the Nationals were expecting when they signed him to a two-year $16 million deal, Morse will be forced out of the position he’s finally thrived in.
Morse insists it won’t affect him — and it shouldn’t. “I look at the lineup,” he said Tuesday night. “And whatever it says, I play. I like the infield, I’ve always liked the infield. If I’m in the outfield, I’m in the outfield. If I’m catching, I’m catching.”
But with the Nationals 20 games out of first place in the National League East, 12 1/2 out in the NL Wild Card and four games under .500 at 58-62, the eyes have begun to shift toward the future. With that in mind, Morse may see some more time in left field during September when Triple-A first baseman Chris Marrero is part of expanded rosters and the Nationals bench grows in both volume and versatility.
“I think at some point in time this season, I might move (Morse) back out (to left field) and see how he does out there,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Ideally, when LaRoche comes back, we’ll have LaRoche at first and probably him in left field. But definitely, we’ll have him somewhere every day.
“He’s just a good hitter. I mean, he hits the breaking ball, fastball, it doesn’t matter what they throw him. Just a good hitter.”
Before Tuesday’s game, Johnson also tossed out the names of several other possible call-ups: outfielders Corey Brown and Roger Bernadina, infielder Steven Lombardozzi and pitchers Tom Milone, Brad Peacock, Craig Stammen, Yunesky Maya and Atahualpa Severino all included in the mix.
The Nationals have seen this movie before, calling up the younger players to get a shot in the big league down the stretch and get their feet wet in this level of competition. But this time, it feels different. The Nationals, while not contenders in a pennant race, are angling for their first-ever winning season. They need to develop their players for the future, but they also need to win.
“I think the importance of just the last month-and-a-half is kind of what we’ve been preaching around here,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “The last couple years, we’ve done whatever our record is, but our last month-and-a-half has always been bad. I think we need to concentrate on kind of finishing on an upswing instead of a downswing. Not that that really matters once you get to spring training but for our confidence and for our team chemistry to know that we can continue to win I think is important for us.
Zimmerman is right. In the last three years combined, the Nationals are 50-87 from August 15th on. They’ve never won more than 18 games once the 15th passes, in what is usually six full weeks of games. In order to finish with a winning record, they’ll have to go 24-18. The key will be to be able to do both: develop their youth and continue to win games.
Johnson believes it’s possible.
“There’s some guys that have earned the right to come up here and compete,” Johnson said. “But I think one of the things about development: If you develop properly, the byproduct is winning. I think if anything we’ll take a big step forward.”