What if the Nationals had kept Michael Morse?


(Jeff Roberson/AP)

In the winter, the logic of the Nationals signing Adam LaRoche, trading for Denard Span and dealing Michael Morse made perfect sense. They were keeping respected a left-handed bat for the middle of the order, adding an elite center fielder who provided top-of-the-order on-base and using an apparent roster redundancy to restock their minor league pitching depth.

The season has not yet hit the one-third mark yet, but enough of the year has passed to lend hindsight to a pertinent question: What if the Nationals had executed their offseason the same way and simply kept Morse?

Hindsight shows Morse could have played a key role, even without an everyday job opening day. Add up only the at-bats Morse would have received filling in due to days off or injuries in the outfield and first base. Then give him the pinch-hit appearances Tyler Moore has seen. Morse would have already taken 112 plate appearances, and that’s with zero effort to give an occasional day off to LaRoche, Span or Bryce Harper against a tough lefty.

It would have been fascinating if the Nationals had kept Morse, if only because he would offered such a unique weapon – an over-qualified super-sub who can fill in at multiple positions and mitigate long-term injuries or provide thunder off the bench. He would have given the Nationals an answer to the Braves’ Evan Gattis.

Just because Morse would have helped does not mean the Nationals made the wrong call. First, they did not have the benefit of hindsight when they dealt Morse to the Mariners in a three-team deal that netted them three pitching prospects. Morse has 10 homers with a .744 OPS in 171 plate appearances for Seattle, but who knows how he would have responded to a part-time role?

At the winter meetings, Manager Davey Johnson laid out the issue with bringing Morse back to a team without an everyday job for him. “Once you have everyday players that have established their credentials in the major leagues are pretty good, it’s hard to start sharing roles,” Johnson said then.

The Nationals also had reason to expect their bench would have struggled as it has – Tyler Moore appeared to be headed for a season in which he could approximate Morse’s slugging. Injuries happen every year, but the Nationals could not have been certain their health would take such a hit early in the year. If Werth had stayed healthy, the Nationals would have an asset worth $6.75 million stewing on their bench.

The Nationals’ return in the deal shouldn’t be discounted, either. Lefty reliever Ian Krol, the player named later in the Morse trade, has been nasty at Class AA Harrisburg — he’s yielded two runs in 26 2/3 innings. Krol has a strong chance to make an impact in the majors this year, as a September call-up at least. If either Blake Treinen or A.J. Cole becomes a solid, mid-rotation major league starter with six years of team control, it would surpass the value Morse could have provided in one season.

Surely, Morse would have helped the Nationals this year. That much is simple. The question of whether the Nationals should have kept him, even with the benefit of hindsight, is far more complicated.

As the Nationals prepare to start a three-game series against the Phillies at Nationals Park tonight, here are a few more leftover nuggets:

>>> It did not make a major impact Wednesday, but Danny Espinosa walked and smacked an opposite-field single batting left-handed. He said he executed his approach precisely as he wanted on the hit, just his second on the 10-game West Coast trip.  Maybe it wasn’t much, but if he’s going to breakout it has to start somewhere.

“Espi is probably so happy to get that knock from the left side,” shortstop Ian Desmond said Wednesday after the victory. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him with such a good clap for a single. We took a lot of steps in the right direction today.”

>>> The Nationals have targeted June 3, a week from Monday, for Werth’s return, General Manager Mike Rizzo said. Werth has been out since May 3 with a strained right hamstring.

>>> The Nationals have not made it definite, but Ross Detwiler is on track to return to the rotation Tuesday, the first day the team would need him back in order to prevent any starters from pitching on short rest. The Nationals’ rotation for the weekend is Jordan Zimmermann, Dan Haren and Stephen Strasburg, followed by Gio Gonzalez on Monday.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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James Wagner · May 24, 2013

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