VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals traded center fielder Nyjer Morgan to the Milwaukee Brewers for a minor league infielder and cash, ending a union that began with brilliance, proceeded with turbulence and ultimately fizzled when the Nationals decided they had brought in someone better to replace him.
The Nationals decided early last week that Rick Ankiel, an offseason free agent acquisition, would become their regular starter in center field, making Morgan expendable in what General Manager Mike Rizzo described as a “logjam” of center fielders. Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin initiated discussions late last week, and they finalized the deal for infielder Cutter Dykstra — the son of former major leaguer Lenny Dykstra — and $50,000 late Saturday night.
“It wasn’t really what he didn’t show as much as what Ankiel did show,” Rizzo said. Ankiel “could go get the ball in the outfield. His arm was really a weapon. He can create a lot of damage with one swing of the bat. I focus it more on what Ankiel did than on what Nyjer didn’t do. After the first week, he played really well. He did everything he had to do. It was Ankiel winning the job, not Nyjer losing the job.”
After batting practice Sunday morning, wearing gray sweats and a white long-sleeved shirt, Morgan made one final lap through the Nationals’ clubhouse. He tossed his belongings into a cart, smiling as he embraced teammates and they wished him luck. He hugged base running and outfielder coach Bo Porter and told him, “I want to thank you for everything.”
At no point, Rizzo said, did the Nationals not consider bringing Morgan to spring training. There were, however, some in the organization who believed the Nationals would have been better off cutting ties with him in the offseason. Morgan’s poor performance last season — he hit .253/.319/.314 (average/on-base/slugging) while leading the league in caught stealing — coupled with several on-field transgressions made it at least an outside possibility.
But Morgan was still making the major league minimum, and the memories of 2009 were not far off. Morgan caught fire the day he arrived in Washington, hitting .351/.396/.435 over two months and injecting joy into a clubhouse mired in losing. His speedy base running, magnificent defense and Tony Plush persona made him a quick fan favorite.
The act lost charm last season, when Morgan’s play worsened and he earned a suspension for his part in the Marlins-Nationals brawl in early August. He also earned a suspension for throwing a ball into the stands, which was revoked, and engaged in a public spat with Manager Jim Riggleman following his odd, inexplicable running over a St. Louis Cardinals catcher after he’d been moved to the bottom of the order.
The Nationals defended Morgan’s reputation when the dust settled, and this spring he made a good impression, hitting reasonably well after a 1-for-16 start. He showed up early day after day, working with Porter and hitting coach Rick Eckstein. “I saw great strides being made,” Porter said.
“A model citizen” this spring, Riggleman said. “Upbeat, bounce in his step, smile on his face. One of the hardest workers in camp.”
Rizzo also said Morgan’s recent comments about leaving the Nationals had nothing to do with the move.
“Players say things out of frustration a lot of time,” Rizzo said. “I just had a great meeting with Nyjer. He’s comfortable. He feels good about himself. That didn’t play into it at all.”
Around the the league, Morgan had trouble outrunning the reputation, fair or not, attached to him last season. “Addition by subtraction,” one National League scout said. “They had to get rid of him.”
The Nationals originally acquired Morgan in June 2009 from the Pittsburgh Pirates, also receiving Sean Burnett for Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan. At one point, Rizzo called the trade “a watershed moment for the organization and for my regime.” It was the first major roster decision he made as interim GM.
Milledge has since moved on to a new team, while both Hanrahan and Burnett have excelled as late-inning relievers. Morgan out-performed Milledge while with the Nationals, and they still have Dykstra — who likely will begin this season at Class A Potomac — to show for the trade.
“I would do that trade again today if I had to do it again,” Rizzo said. “If he would have played like he played that half-season, it would be great for the ballclub. I don’t find it disappointing at all. Nyjer was a good piece for us the year and a half he was here. Combined with what we gave up in the deal and what we got back in the deal, I’m still satisfied with it.”
Dykstra — “an athletic kid,” Rizzo said — ranked fourth in the low-Class A Midwest League with a .416 on-base percentage and a .312 batting average last season while playing for Wisconsin. Dykstra, 21, was a second-round pick by the Brewers in the 2008 draft.
Fans will have another chance to let Morgan know their feeling about him. The Nationals will host the Brewers at Nationals Park in a three-game series April 15-17. It may be a mixed reception. There is not a completely clear way to summarize Morgan’s time in D.C. It was often strange, and it was not boring.