The way Nyjer Morgan introduced himself to Washington, D.C., in 2009, it would have been hard to envision the center fielder’s tumultuous tenure ending unceremoniously less than two years later.
But when Morgan’s time in a Nationals’ uniform officially came to an end Sunday morning, with the enigmatic center fielder traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for minor league infielder Cutter Dykstra - the son of former major leaguer Lenny Dykstra - and cash considerations, that’s exactly what happened.
In the absence of a true top-of-the-order bat with a track record, shortstop Ian Desmond becomes the likely leadoff hitter against right-handers while Ankiel, a hitter who has displayed devastating power, bats sixth. Against left-handers Hairston will take Ankiel’s place in center field and drop Desmond to sixth or lower in the order while the veteran utility man bats leadoff.
The trade also allowed the Nationals to rid themselves of a player who had fallen in both esteem and production since they acquired him from the Pittsburgh Pirates at the trade deadline in 2009.
By the time Morgan packed his things in the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, the optimism and excitement that a .351 batting average, .396 on-base percentage and 24 stolen bases in his first 49 games as a National was gone. It was replaced by the controversial reputation he built last year with declining production and a series of on-field incidents that sullied his image.
Regardless of how often Morgan pledged this spring to have turned a corner from those issues, he simply became expendable with Ankiel, Hairston and Roger Bernadina all capable of taking his place in the Nationals’ outfield.
“Given the state of the roster and the players we have on it, I thought it was a prudent move to get a young player in here that we really like and kind of break the logjam that we had in the center-field position,” general manager Mike Rizzo told reporters in Viera, Fla.
The Nationals and Brewers were rumored to be in talks for the center fielder late last week, but Brewers GM Doug Melvin shot those rumors down Friday afternoon - the same day Morgan told MLB.com he felt his time with the organization was surely dwindling and he wouldn’t be on the roster by Opening Day.
It was a prophecy that was fulfilled Sunday, though Rizzo said neither those comments nor Morgan’s past issues played into the decision to move him and, by extension, award the center-field job to a platoon of sorts between Ankiel and Hairston.
“It wasn’t really what he didn’t show as [much as] what Ankiel did show,” Rizzo said. “Ankiel showed us he can go get the ball in the outfield. His arm is really a weapon. When he’s out there, very few players are going first-to-third, second-to-home, and he can create a lot of damage with one swing.
“I focus it more on what Ankiel did than what Nyjer didn’t do. Nyjer had a nice spring training. After the first week, he played really well, and did everything he had to do. I feel it was Ankiel winning the job, not Nyjer losing the job.”
After endearing himself to the Nationals fan base with an up-tempo style of play in 2009, Morgan hit just .253 with a .319 on-base percentage in 2010 and was caught stealing a league-high 17 times in 51 tries.
He was also mired in several on-field incidents: allowing an inside-the-park home run to Baltimore’s Adam Jones after angrily throwing his glove to the grass when he erroneously thought the ball had left the park; plowing into two different teams’ catchers at home plate somewhat inexplicably and with obvious intent - issues that were still fresh this spring for the Marlins and Cardinals - and inciting a bench-clearing brawl with the Marlins that resulted in several suspensions, including eight games for Morgan himself.