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With dollars and Morse, what makes most sense for Nats?

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NEW YORK — Last winter, as Michael Morse and the Washington Nationals attempted to hammer out his first salary arbitration contract, they took the negotiations to the deadline before agreeing on a deal for the 2011 season valued at just over $1 million.

In what was considered then to be his breakout season, Morse hit .289 with 15 home runs and slugged .519 in limited playing time and just 266 at-bats.

According to Fangraphs.com, Morse's value last year was comparable to that of Florida's Chris Coghlan, who's yet to reach salary arbitration but is hitting .230 this year, and Arizona's Gerardo Parra, batting .292 with seven homers.

It's no secret that Morse's 2011 blows away almost every hitter nearest to him in statistical value after the 2010 season. So when the Nationals and Morse head to salary arbitration this season, they're going to have a whole different animal on their hands.

"He's in uncharted waters," one Nationals player said. "What other utility guy hits 30-40 home runs?"

Morse may not fit the bill of your traditional utility man, but he'll play just about anywhere the Nationals put him. While he's adequate in left field, Morse was extremely strong at first base after Adam LaRoche underwent season-ending labrum surgery. He also has solidified himself as their cleanup hitter to the point where his defensive position has become a secondary concern.

"I think it's a learning experience for him, and he's had several learning experiences [this year]," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said of Morse's performance in the outfield. The truth of it, though, is what Johnson has said on several occasions: The recent switch back to left field hasn't affected his hitting and that, to a certain extent, is the important takeaway from the change.

In the meantime, he has the sixth-best batting average in the National League and the third-best slugging percentage, behind only Milwaukee's Ryan Braun (who recently signed an extension through 2020 that will guarantee him $131 million in the next 10 years) and Los Angeles' Matt Kemp, an MVP and Triple Crown threat this season.

The comparisons will be difficult to find for Morse this season, and chances are he'll be on track to earn a significant raise over his 2011 salary. So much so that there is a possibility, although slim that the Nationals may forgo the arbitration process altogether and explore an extension with Morse. With two years remaining (including the upcoming one) to go to arbitration with him, it may be in their monetary interest to buy out his first year of free agency, along with the two remaining arbitration years, and lock up their cleanup hitter past the 2013 season.

One Nationals official, however, speculated that while an extension - similar to the two-year, $10 million one the Philadelphia Phillies worked out with Jayson Werth for his final year of arbitration and first potential year of free agency - could be explored, it'd be unlikely.

The Nationals have several top priorities this offseason, including working out an extension with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who also will become a free agent after the 2013 season.

Morse already is sure to be in the fold through then. Thus, Washington gets two more years for him to prove that he can continue to be the player who has hit .303 with 32 home runs and 95 RBI in his past 149 games.

One party, however, already is convinced.

"It's real," Johnson recently said of Morse. "He knows what he's trying to do. He knows his approach. He knows how they're trying to pitch him. He's got tremendous power the other way, and obviously they're going to try to pound him in. He knows how to get at it. He knows the strike zone.- To me, it's real."

Notes: Outfielder Corey Brown did not make the trip with the team to New York, staying behind with an infection in his knee that doctors were concerned could evolve into a Staph infection. There was no immediate timetable for him to joint the team on the trip.

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