Needing to shrink their roster back down to 25 after Sunday’s doubleheader allowed them an extra player for the day, the Washington Nationals chose to try to get one of their younger players back on track and optioned Tyler Moore to Triple-A Syracuse.
Moore, who has served primarily as outfield and first base insurance this season, was one of the brightest spots off the bench for the Nationals in 2012. He hit .263 with 10 homers and nine doubles in just 156 at-bats for the Nationals during their run to the National League East title, and they won the franchise’s first playoff game because of his key pinch hit.
But this season, Moore has struggled to duplicate that success. With a .158 average, just two home runs and 36 strikeouts in 94 at-bats, the Nationals decided it was time for one of their most promising players to get regular playing time and right himself at the plate.
“We just need him to get some playing time,” manager Davey Johnson said after the Nationals’ 5-4 win over the Twins on Sunday, in which Moore had a pinch-hit single. “He’ll be back soon. He’s an outstanding player, but I just want to kind of get him freshened up.
“He’s a great talent. I think he’ll go down there with a good frame of mind.”
Johnson said the team considered sending Moore to the minor leagues earlier this season in order for the 26-year-old to regain some confidence and comfort at the plate, but injuries prohibited them from doing so. With Bryce Harper hopefully close to returning from bursitis in his left knee, the team added first baseman Chris Marrero to the roster before Sunday’s doubleheader and opted to keep him for the time being.
“It’s tough leaving the team,” Moore said. “But I know Davey and (general manager Mike Rizzo) have the best interest in me and this team, and that needs to be the move right now. Hopefully (I’ll) just go down there, get comfortable, get some at-bats and come up here and hit. I’m not up here for my defense. I’m up here for my hitting, and I’m not doing it. There’s no excuses.”
Johnson said when he called Moore into his office to discuss the move with him, Moore was upfront and took responsibility for his lack of production.
“I know I can do it,” Moore told Johnson. “You’ve given me every opportunity and it’s all on me.”
“But we think so highly of him, that this is the best thing,” Johnson said later. “Just get him some regular playing time. Last year, he wasn’t down very long and came back. And I expect that to happen this year, too.”
The Nationals called Moore up for his major league debut last April but sent him back to the minor leagues about a month later when injuries necessitated they add a catcher to the roster. He returned on June 8 and stayed. He hit .277 in the 63 games that followed — and only 30 starts.
Johnson has said often that he was slightly uncomfortable having such young players like Moore and Steve Lombardozzi serve in bench roles because of the difficult nature of the job. But they’d been so successful at it in 2012, he was reluctant to change.
For Moore, that success didn’t come as easily this season.
Asked what he felt he was lacking this year, Moore was honest — and good-natured.
“Base hits,” he said, cracking a slight smile. “Swinging out of the strike zone a little bit. Stuff wasn’t falling like it usually does. I was striking out too much. I just had to make adjustments, and I didn’t make them quick enough.”
“I think second time around, you may overthink it,” Johnson said. “You may try to do too much. First time up, you’re just being aggressive looking for something to hit hard. It’s kind of like when you haven’t played golf very much and you just go out and play and try and hit the ball solid. And then once you start feeling like you’ve got it going, then that’s when it starts going sideways, because you’re not just thinking about hitting it solid. Same kind of approach.”
Moore will get a chance to play every day at Triple-A, whether at first base — where Marrero vacated — or in the outfield. And the Nationals still consider him integral to their plans.
That was a message his teammates tried to convey to him as well.
“I’ve told him over and over the last day or two that ‘If they didn’t care about you, you’d stay up here and get 4-5 at-bats a week or whatever it is,’” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “That’s the hardest thing, being a younger guy, getting sent down. It’s hard to see a positive in that. But they just want him to get at-bats, get his stroke back, get confident again.
“We’ve all known it since he’s been up here that he’s an everyday player for a lot of people. He’s proved that in the minor leagues, with what he can do with 500-600 at-bats, and he’s in a bad spot here. He just doesn’t get a lot of at-bats. You can’t expect a guy with not a lot of big league time to be productive off the bench. It’s just too hard. It’s hard to do when you’re playing everyday. When you sit two or three days, it’s just really hard to do. I hate it for him because I love having him in this clubhouse and I love having his bat, and the fact that he can play outfield and play first base. Selfishly, it’d be nice to have him up here — but there’s no doubt it’s the best thing for him.”
As the Nationals packed up their clubhouse following a doubleheader sweep and prepared to head to Denver, Moore packed his belongings in a large plastic bin ticketed for Syracuse. He put on a good face and he said he understood. He tried to focus on what the move could do for him, instead of what he was losing.
“It’ll be great (to play everyday),” Moore said. “The guys down there are great. The coaches are great. I’ve done it before. I did it last year for a little bit and came back up and was a lot more comfortable. Playing every day and knowing you’re going to play every day kind of relaxes you a lot. Even the last couple days and the last week, I felt a lot more relaxed. I think it’s going to be a good thing.”