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Wednesday's brawl is just latest example of Nyjer Morgan's recent odd behavior and drop in performance

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 10:36 PM

Nyjer Morgan began this season as the Washington Nationals' center fielder of the future, their offensive green flag, their beloved clubhouse cut-up. With one month remaining, he has become something else - a snarling player in trouble with the league, a leadoff hitter who reaches base infrequently enough to be dropped to the bottom of the order, perhaps baseball's newest villain.

His transformation, highlighted by a week packed with controversy, established over a full season of regression in performance, has altered his reputation across baseball and forced the Nationals to face a question they never assumed they would need to consider: Will Morgan remain part of their future plans?

At the moment, Morgan must wait for the league to hand down punishment for his role in Wednesday's benches-emptying fracas with the Florida Marlins. Major League Baseball reviewed the brawl Thursday and will hand out any suspensions, which are likely, on Friday, according to a league official. The league office had extra time for the process, which includes reviewing video and speaking with the game's umpiring crew, because both teams had an off day Thursday.

The brawl capped an eventful, erratic week for Morgan, who ignited the brawl after Marlins starter Chris Volstad threw behind him two innings after drilling him with a pitch. Morgan is currently appealing a seven-game suspension - which the league announced and informed a stunned Morgan of Aug. 25 - for what a league official labeled an "ongoing dialogue" with a fan in Philadelphia that preceded Morgan hitting another fan with a ball.

In handing out any potential punishment for Wednesday night's ruckus, the league will treat the incident in Philadelphia and Morgan's role in the brawl as "separate incidents," a league official said.

The league considers a player's or manager's past when doling out suspensions. But because Morgan was not suspended for bumping into Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson last Saturday, the league is unlikely to hold that play against Morgan in their upcoming ruling, either. Before the league issued his recent suspension, Morgan had never been disciplined by the league.

Morgan's dearth of controversy prior to this season has made some of his recent behavior all the more puzzling. The joy Morgan played with last year has been overrun by defiance, if not anger. A video surfaced Tuesday of Morgan yelling obscenities, perhaps at a Marlins fan, while in the outfield. After he scored Wednesday night, he hollered at one heckler behind home plate. Morgan still flashes the charisma that made him an instant fan favorite in Washington, but he has worn a scowl more often than a smile this year.

Morgan's strange week - which also included a demotion to eighth in the batting order Saturday, a one-game benching Sunday and a public disagreement with Manager Jim Riggleman about it the next day - has tarnished his reputation among some inside baseball. Morgan is known for his aggressive play, but many believe he has crossed over into recklessness.

"I cannot stand when a guy shows somebody up," Marlins third baseman Wes Helms said Wednesday night. "There's no place in baseball for that. You're going to get what's coming to you if you do that. I can't really say anything good about a guy that doesn't play the game the right way and doesn't play for the integrity of the game."

Teammates and Riggleman defend Morgan as a player who plays with maximum effort, but one who must understand the game better. They believe his play Saturday night - when he ran into catcher Anderson despite the lack of a throw home, missed home plate and cost the Nationals a run - was unintelligent and inexcusable. They, unlike the Marlins, were fine with him stealing two bases down 11 runs in the fourth inning Wednesday night.

"People are going to have their own opinions," Morgan said Wednesday night. "I know what kind of player I am. . . . I'm not going to go out there and take anything for granted. I'm going to show that I'm a hard-nosed ballplayer and that's the way it is."

Riggleman - like the league disciplinary officials - did not lump together the events of Morgan's bizarre week. He faulted Morgan only for bumping into Anderson, and even then said the play was out of character. "Each situation is unique," Riggleman said. "They're separate."

Though Morgan's erratic conduct has drawn scrutiny, his yearlong on-field downslide may be more troubling. Put aside his recent attraction to controversy, and what's left is a diminished player.

According to the Wins Above Replacement statistic on FanGraphs.com - an advanced metric that measures how many wins a player produces through a formula - Morgan has been the eighth-least valuable player in the National League. His WAR is 0.3, which means, judging by one respected measure, the Nationals have used the rough equivalent of an unspectacular Class AAA player in center and leading off most of the season.

In 2009, Morgan hit .307 with a .369 on-base percentage and a .388 slugging percentage, and after being traded from the Pirates to the Nationals those numbers rose to .351, .396 and .435 during his 48 games with the Nationals. (Morgan returns to Pittsburgh this week as the National open a series against the Pirates on Friday.)

This season, Morgan's statistics have dropped considerably - .257, .317 and .318. - while he leads the league in times caught stealing (15) and times picked off (11).

Morgan's OPS+ - a measure of a player's slugging and on-base percentages adjusted for the ballpark he plays in, using 100 as league average - is 72, which ranks ahead of one qualifying player (Orlando Cabrera) in the NL.

Morgan's decreased production may owe in part to rotten luck. Morgan's career batting average on balls in play prior to this season was .357, well above the league average but not unusual for a player with his speed. This season, his BABIP dropped to .308 despite his strikeout rate remaining static and his line drives actually increasing.Morgan has not yet accrued enough service time to make him eligible for arbitration, which makes keeping him a small financial risk. But his drop-off this season has made the Nationals re-evaluate how vital he is to their building a winning team.

If Morgan's BABIP - which most statistical analysts agree is based primarily on luck - had remained at .357 this season, he would be hitting .297 with a .344 on-base percentage.

When the Nationals formally introduced first overall pick Stephen Strasburg in 2009, Rizzo included Morgan in a list of players the Nationals planned to build around. A year later, when the Nationals formally introduced first overall pick Bryce Harper last week, Rizzo mentioned Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Roger Bernadina, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Strasburg and Wilson Ramos as crucial players for the future.

Morgan's name did not come up.

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