Nationals’ Michael Morse may be the best bargain in baseball


Washington Nationals' Michael Morse celebrates with teammates in the dugout last month. (Ann Heisenfelt/AP)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist July 22, 2011

When Michael Morse awoke in Los Angeles on Friday morning, he stood 10th in the major leagues in slugging. Four other first basemen surrounded his mark of .553. Adrian Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera a bit above, Prince Fielder and Paul Konerko a smidge below. Nice company. They make $69 million combined; Morse, $1 million.

The Nationals may have baseball’s most expensive anchor so far this year in Jayson Werth, with the fifth-worst batting average of any regular in the sport, but they also may have the best bargain in Morse, 29, who entered Friday in the top eight in the National League in batting (.312) and on-base plus slugging (.959) as well as fifth in slugging.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

To add to the irony, Morse has consciously modeled his career on Werth ever since a Seattle teammate in ’07, Raul Ibanez, who went from nobody-to-star at age 30, told Morse: “You remind me of Werth. We’re all late-bloomers.”

Morse was so psyched he switched to No. 28 like Werth in Philly. This spring, when Werth arrived in D.C., Morse gladly relinquished the number to his shaggy new buddy, who has also become his weightlifting mentor.

“Morse has proven what he can do over a long-enough period that he is now a fixture for us as a corner player,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said Thursday. “Michael has improved here in all facets: defense, base running, even throwing. He’s an extremely hard worker. The knock on him was that he had a hole in his swing, fastballs upper-middle-in. But he’s worked with [hitting coach] Rick Eckstein so he can hit it or not swing at it.

“Supposedly, he couldn’t hit top starters or the back of the bullpen. Well, those guys get everybody out. This year, Morse has hit everybody.”

Coming off a blazing 7-for-12 series in Houston that included two homers, one a monstrous above-the-train-tracks blast, Morse may be at a peak. So, hold the Fielder-Cabrera comparisons. But the proper career analogy may be closer to home. Maybe Ibanez really is a prophet.

In 2009-10 in Philly, Werth averaged 664 plate appearances with 32 homers, 36 doubles, 92 RBI, a .282 batting average, .380 on-base percentage and .519 slugging percentage. As a Nat, in 672 plate appearances, Morse has 35 homers, 35 doubles, 103 RBI and a slash line of .297/.351/.532. Can you say stat clone?

Morse is under Nats’ control through 2013, so a contract extension now, before he ever puts up one successful full season, would be unconventional. But it may cost the Nats plenty if they wait. Ibanez caught fire later than Morse and strung together eight years that earned $48 million.

“He’s part of our plan,” said Rizzo, knowing Morse could slide to left field next year, where he’s adequate, when Gold Glove-quality first baseman Adam LaRoche returns from shoulder surgery. “But the ‘futures market’ is dangerous.”

So, don’t expect a lock-him-up-quick deal. The pressure of expectation has bothered Morse in the past. After leading MLB in homers in spring training, he won a starting job for the first time in April. He slumped so badly, he was back in a platoon by May. But LaRoche’s injury opened a spot at first base and, with no competition in sight and four months open in front of him, Morse exploded, hitting as well as anybody except Jose Bautista.

Many assume the jury is still out on the full-season Morse. Will he fold? The view here: No. Have slumps, sure. But once Morse gets comfortable in a league, he has been the same 6-foot-5 force everywhere he’s been from Class AA in 2004 (.837 OPS) to AAA in ’09 (.894) to Washington last season (.871).

Rest assured, there will be doubters, even though Morse was on the five-man ballot for the last spot on this season’s NL all-star team. Morse always has skeptics. When Nats scouts, including Kris Kline and Rizzo, begged to trade Ryan Langerhans for Morse in 2009, the team’s stat mavens demurred.

“His overall minor league numbers were a sabermetric nightmare,” a Nats scout said. “That was one time we had to squash ’em and just do the deal.”

Instead, Nats scouts thought they saw a potential power hitter who was playing out of position at shortstop and needed to think (and swing) for power, not try to fit a middle-infield prototype.

By this time next year, best case, the Nats may have two Jayson Werth-level slugging stars in their outfield, the one they paid $126 million and the one named Morse that they stole for Langerhans.

Or, worst case, Morse may not capitalize on his chance to be an Ibanez. And Werth could be the next overvalued Vernon Wells. The latter outcome would leave a cloud over Rizzo. So there’s only a big chunk of the franchise’s future at stake.

On Wednesday, Werth followed Morse’s single with his first home run in more than a month. In that game, Werth also had two other 400-foot doubles that would have given him a three-homer day in most other parks, including those in Washington, Baltimore and Philly.

Morse’s home run signature is to smash himself on the top of his helmet with his right hand as he rounds the bases. As Werth crossed the plate, finally back on the home run train, Morse greeted him with exactly that cheerful blow to the head. So, Werth slugged himself in the noggin, too.

Then they ran off together, two 6-5, late-blooming bombers, one wearing No. 28, the other No. 38. Their pasts symmetrical, their futures linked, they sure looked an awful lot alike.

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