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. The Nationals began discussions with the Brewers late this week and finalized the deal, which also included the Brewers sending cash, late last night.
“It wasn’t really what he didn’t show as much as what Ankiel did show,” Rizzo said. “He 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 this morning, wearing gray sweats and a white long-sleeved shirt, Morgan made one final lap through the Nationals’ clubhouse, smiling as he embraced teammates and they wished him luck. He hugged baserunning 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 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 and injecting joy into a clubhouse mired in losing. His speedy baserunning, 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 He also earned a suspension for throwing a ball into the stands, which was revoked, and engaged in a public spat with Manager Jim Riggleman following his odd, inexplicable running over a St. Louis Cardinals catcher after he’d been moved to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 base running and outfield coach Bo Porter and hitting coach Rick Eckstein. “I saw great strides being made,” Porter said. Rizzo called Morgan’s demeanor “terrific” in the clubhouse.
“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 his 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 out running 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.”
In Milwaukee, Brewers GM Doug Melvin told reporters he had researched Morgan’s personality and was satisfied with what he learned. “We made some calls and people came back and said he's a good guy,” Melvin said. “He's a hockey player. They play with emotion. He might have learned from what happened last year. He's not a bad guy.”
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 will likely begin 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 ball club. 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, 21, 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 was a second-round pick by the Brewers in the 2008 draft.
“He’s an athletic kid,” Rizzo said. “He’s a good offensive player. Has a little pop and speed and really commands the strike zone.”
In the outfield, the Nationals have to decided between Laynce Nix and Roger Bernadina for their final spot. Bernadina, 27, has options remaining and Nix, should he not make the team, would be able to choose between accepting his assignment to the minors or asking for his release. This morning, Nix politely declinded to speak about the choice.
While Ankiel will be the regular starter, Riggleman today reaffirmed his commitment to starting Jerry Hairston in center field against left-handed starting pitchers.
The Nationals will host the Brewers at Nationals Park in a three-game series April 15-17.