Today is something of a deadline for major league teams. By the end of March 13, if teams release a player not on a guaranteed contract - which covers most players with less than three years of major league experience -they will then owe that player only 30 days of his major league salary. (If they release the player before March 28, then it’s only 45 days’ pay.)
So, if a surprise release were going to come out of the blue - like Elijah Dukes last season - chances are good it would happen today. As it pertains to this year’s Nationals, the deadline is basically irrelevant. From what I’ve been told, they’re not planning on releasing anybody.
Several readers and commenters have wondered if Nyjer Morgan might meet a fate similar to Dukes. It’s not happening, and it wouldn’t make any sense if it did. The reason teams release players is if they need a roster spot or if they simply don’t want a corrosive player around. That doesn’t apply to the Nationals and doesn’t apply to Morgan.
Morgan declined last season, when he hit .253 with a .319 on-base percentage and a .314 slugging percentage while leading the league in caught stealing and running into numerous on-field controversies. He’s off to a slow start this spring, hitting .192 (5 for 26) with a .300 on-base percentage and a .231 slugging percentage. Yesterday, General Manager Mike Rizzo implied Roger Bernadina and Rick Ankiel are deadlocked with Morgan for the center field competition.
None of that is reason to flat-out release a player, particularly one with a minor league option remaining who has experienced previous success. In 2009, Morgan hit .307/.369/.388 and played defense at an elite level. He notched 4.9 Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs.com, virtually the same value Jayson Werth produced each of the past two seasons. The Nationals believe the real Morgan lies somewhere between the star of 2010 and the debacle of 2010.
The Nationals possess a crowded outfield with Michael Morse, Rick Ankiel, Jayson Werth and Roger Bernadina likely to make the team, with veteran pinch-hitter Matt Stairs also in the mix. If Morgan does not improve his play as the regular season advances, the Nationals could still option him to the minors. It would be and unlikely and somewhat extreme measure for a player who, at 30, has probably reached the end of his development. But the Nationals have the choice.
Coaches and officials have praised Morgan’s attitude this spring. He arrived in Viera two weeks early already in shape, with what he described as a fresh mindset. Every morning before batting practice, Morgan works on base running, defense or both with new third base coach Bo Porter. Morgan might not be playing well (which is hardly tell-tale 14 games into spring training). But he is giving the Nationals no cause to just give up on him before the season starts.