The Washington Times - January 17, 2012, 07:08PM

The Nationals avoided arbitration with five of their seven eligible players, coming to terms with Jordan Zimmermann on a $2.3 million contract for 2011, with Tom Gorzelanny for $2.7 million, with Jesus Flores for $815,000 and with Tyler Clippard. They also bought out Gio Gonzalez’s arbitration years while signing him to a five-year contract extension worth a guaranteed $42 million. The terms of Clippard’s contract are not yet known.

They did not, however, reach deals with left-handed starter John Lannan and slugger Michael Morse. Both filed arbitration numbers with the league office, along with the numbers filed by the Nationals, and it doesn’t appear the sides are far apart with either player.


Lannan, who is in his second year of arbitration and made $2.75 million in 2011, filed for $5.7 million and the Nationals countered with $5 million. Morse, also in his second year of arbitration, filed for $5 million and the Nationals countered with $3.5. Morse made $1.05 million in 2011.

In the past, the Nationals were one of a select number of teams who employed a “file and trial” strategy when it came to arbitration, meaning that if the two sides reached a point where they had to file numbers with the league office, that would be the end of the negotiation process and they’d let things be decided by an independent arbiter at a hearing in February. It is unclear if the Nationals, who did not employ this strategy last year, will go that route this season.

If not, it seems as if it’d be relatively easy for them to reach agreements with both players. Lannan and the Nationals are separated by just $700,000 — a relative pittance in the world of major league baseball — so it should be relatively easy to find a middle ground. The same goes for Morse. Though $1.5 million is a larger gap to bridge, it’s not unthinkable that the teams could find a happy medium without needing to take things to a hearing. 

Lannan, who won 10 games to lead the Nationals staff in wins in 2011, put together arguably his finest season as a professional and, either way, he’ll earn a significant raise. His 3.70 ERA was the best mark he’s posted during his career and he also threw a team-high 184 ⅔ innings.

It was a year full of firsts for Lannan, who broke the 10-win threshold for the first time in his career, hit his first career home run, picked up his first career victory over the Philadelphia Phillies — in 10 tries — on June 1 and added his first victory inside Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Park on Sept. 21. But it wasn’t just the Phillies against whom Lannan matured.

During a stretch from the end of May through the start of July, Lannan made eight starts, threw 51 ⅔ innings and allowed just 11 earned runs, good for a 1.92 ERA. He embraced his sinker after some soul searching and advice-seeking and improved his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio to the best in his career (1.25) and highest mark he’d had since his impressive 2008 season.

Due to the addition of Gio Gonzalez, the return of a fully healthy Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang, Lannan’s position in the rotation has been pushed back a bit but even he’d admit that while he’s not the type of Opening Day starter the Nationals have asked him to be in the past, he’s still a valuable member of the staff.

Morse was the Nationals best story of 2011. He hit 31 home runs in a season that saw him open the year as the team’s starting left fielder, lose his job there due to a lack of production and strong play from Laynce Nix, and become reborn at first base when Adam LaRoche underwent season-ending labrum surgery. The one-time shortstop’s defense at first was solid and his bat never slumped again. 

He hit .403 in the month of May with six home runs, .299 in June with eight home runs, .344 in July with two home runs, .333 in August with seven home runs and even when his averaged dipped, to .237 in September, he still rounded things out with seven more home runs.

He finished the season with the ninth-best batting average in the National League (.303) and the fourth-highest slugging percentage (.550) behind only Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp (who finished 1-2 in the NL M.V.P voting, and Prince Fielder. He got one seventh-place vote and one 10th-place vote to give him five points and a 19th-place finish in the NL M.V.P voting, then went to Taiwan and soaked in the feeling of being an international superstar with teammate Chien-Ming Wang. 

“Just being in the lineup everyday was my biggest accomplishment,” Morse said in September. “I kept telling myself, ‘Go out and get three hits today. But if you don’t guess what: you’ll be in there tomorrow.’ That would always put a smile on my face.”

He too will be in line for a handsome raise regardless of whether he ends up with the Nationals’ figure, his figure or if the two sides find a middle ground.