More than a few Nationals fans likely read with yearning that former fan favorite and slugger Michael Morse clubbed two moon shots for the Seattle Mariners in Tuesday’s win in cavernous Oakland. Morse, 31, is still in his traditional peak years and, if he remains healthy, could be headed toward a big season. The fences at Safeco Field have moved in. He has among the best raw power in baseball, particularly the other way, or oppo taco, as Ian Desmond called it last night. Morse is also in a contract year.
An early theme of the 2013 Nationals will be the loss of power without Morse’s bat in the heart of the order. He slugged 67 home runs in four incomplete seasons with Washington, but his shining moments were his 31-homer 2011 season and the 18 he smacked in only 102 games through lingering hand and wrist injuries. The Nationals traded away Morse, a surplus, after re-signing Adam LaRoche and acquiring the leadoff hitter they long coveted, Denard Span, who has 23 career home runs in six years.
Last season, after a second-half surge, the Nationals smacked 194 home runs, good for second most in the National League and eighth overall. Subtract Morse’s output, and Jesus Flores (six home runs) and Rick Ankiel (five), and the Nationals have 165 home runs returning to this year’s lineup. But LaRoche had a career year with 33 home runs, and at 33, he could be facing a slight regression. So could others who enjoyed career seasons last year.
The Nationals were willing to part with Morse because left-handed LaRoche provided the desired balance in the lineup and stellar fielding at first, and in part because they still have plenty of young hitters with power. They also wanted Span for his career .357 on-base percentage. (Last season, the Nationals’ leadoff hitters combined to post a .325 on-base percentage, in large part because of Jayson Werth.) But a lineup without a power hitter like Morse, still in his prime, certainly removes some luster from the lineup.
In the best-case scenario, the Nationals could help make up the difference by sheer presence. Danny Espinosa improved his swing while rehabbing his rotator cuff this winter. Bryce Harper is unleashed for his first full season in the majors and hitting third, and if his exciting opening performance is any clue, he could likely hit more than 22 home runs. Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder is healthy after offseason surgery. Werth is still building strength in his left wrist after missing nearly three months last season. Ian Desmond missed 25 games with an oblique injury that sapped some of his power. It may be hard to get Tyler Moore 171 plate appearances again if everyone stays healthy, but ideally Davey Johnson will work Moore in just as much, if not more than last season, and he could hit more than his 10 home runs as he develops.
The biggest factor in replacing Morse’s power, however, could be the presence of Wilson Ramos. He provides more power than Kurt Suzuki, Jesus Flores and the group of backup catchers last season. In his best season, Ramos hit 15 home runs in 435 plate appearances in 2011. Tweaking his swing after arriving in Washington, Suzuki hit five home runs in 164 plate appearances (a home run rate of 3.1 percent).
So let’s imagine what could be produced from the catcher spot in the most ideal scenario. The Nationals will lean equally on Ramos and Suzuki to start the season, but ideally, the hope is that Ramos will be carrying the larger load near the end of the year. For these purposes, let’s imagine they split 650 plate appearances. Given their career home run rates (Ramos 3.1 percent and Suzuki 2.1 percent), Ramos would hit 10 home runs and Suzuki would add nearly seven. That’s a combined 17 home runs and potentially the replacement for Morse’s production from last season.
The Nationals will miss Morse’s bat and they may not find a replacement for a full season of his production. Should the development of their younger players continue and with the return of Ramos, the blow of the loss could be softened.