The Nationals rewarded Michael Morse for his breakout 2011 season today, signing the right-handed slugger to a multiyear agreement, the team announced. The sides agreed on a two-year extension, a person with knowledge of the deal said, avoiding arbitration through the 2013 season, at which point Morse will be eligible for free agency. Update, 7:26 p.m.: Another person with knowledge of the agreement said the deal is worth $10.5 million.
Since the Nationals only bought out Morse’s remaining arbitration-eligible seasons, the contract does not significantly change the relationship between the team and Morse. Morse’s deal should also have little-to-no effect on the status of the Nationals’ pursuit of Prince Fielder.
That does not minimize the accomplishment for Morse, whose late-20s rise earned him considerable financial security. When the Nationals traded light-hitting outfielder Ryan Langerhans to the Seattle Mariners for Morse in the middle of the 2009 season, they couldn’t have envisioned what Morse would become.
After struggling with injuries and lack of opportunity for most of his career, Morse blossomed in Washington. Morse, who will turn 30 in March, received only 55 big-league plate appearances in 2009. He closed the 2010 season on a tear and then forced his way into playing every day last year. He hit 31 homers with a .360 on-base percentage and a .550 slugging percentage in 2011, emerging as one of the top sluggers in the National League.
The quirky slugger also emerged as a fan favorite, for both his towering home runs and his trademarks — his “Beast Mode” T-shirt, his high-knee flex at the plate, his “Take On Me” warmup music. He usually selects the music in the Nationals’ clubhouse.
Morse started last year as the Nationals’ left fielder but played the majority of 2011 at first base, taking over for Adam LaRoche after LaRoche underwent shoulder surgery. With LaRoche returning this season, the Nationals plan to move Morse back to left field to start the year.
The Nationals have made it a point to find a spot for Morse, but even with his new contract that doesn’t mean the spot will be permanent.
The Nationals have had slow-moving discussions with Fielder, one of the best hitters in the game. They could also find themselves flush with outfielders after 2012, when they will have Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and, they hope, a long-term solution in center field.
General Manager Mike Rizzo has called Morse a piece of the team’s foundation, and now they have him under a cost-controlled deal for two years. He could play first base in 2013, once LaRoche’s contract lapses. But, if their roster construction unfolds in a certain direction, he could also become a valuable trade chip.
The Nationals and Morse filed salary arbitration figures Tuesday, with Morse requesting a $5 million salary for 2012 and the Nationals countering with $3.5 million. It turned out the sides had agreed to the multiyear deal, and they filed figures as a formality while Morse underwent a physical.
General Manager Mike Rizzo did not return a request for comment.