Morse: Much-needed muscle for middle of Nationals lineup

Saturday June 2nd, 2012

Mike Morse led the Nationals in home runs and RBIs by wide margins in 2011 but hasn't played yet in 2012. (AP)

They're one of the year's biggest surprises, narrowly clinging to a half-game lead in the NL East, and so far they've withstood injuries to their two most expensive players, not to mention their starting catcher. Now the Nationals are getting a boost, as Mike Morse has been activated after missing the season's first 50 games due to a strained latissimus dorsi behind his right shoulder. Morse, who led the Nationals with 31 homers and 3.7 Wins Above Replacement Player last season, will bat cleanup as Washington kicks off a weekend series against the Braves, and should provide a major boost in a division race where all five teams have winning records and are separated by just three games.

The 30-year-old Morse is something of a late bloomer, so it seems somewhat fitting that he's late to this year's party. A third-round pick by the White Sox back in 2000, he was traded to the Mariners in mid-2004, but his progress was slowed by a trio of suspensions for violating baseball's steroids policy, two at the minor league level in 2004 (one before the trade, one after) and one at the major league level in 2005. Morse claimed that all three violations stemmed from the same cycle that he began in November 2003, when he was healing from a torn thigh muscle. From 2006 through 2009 (the year he was traded to the Nationals for Ryan Langerhans), he made just 135 major league plate appearances while missing time due to knee and shoulder surgeries, though he did hit when he got the chance. After missing the first five weeks of the 2010 season due to a calf injury, he emerged as a force, hitting .289/.352/.519 with 15 homers in 293 PA and splitting time between rightfield and first base. Last year, he finally became a regular, making over 300 plate appearances in a big league season for the first time and hitting a robust .303/.360/.550.

The Nationals could use that kind of middle-of-the-lineup bat. They currently rank 13th in the league in scoring at 3.84 runs per game, with their batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage (.244/.313/.394) all below the league averages. Among their active players, only two are slugging .450 or above, namely Adam LaRoche (.287/.381/.527 with eight homers, tied for the team high), who has bounced back nicely from shoulder surgery, and 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper (.274/.357/.504 since debuting on April 28). Meanwhile, Jayson Werth is out until at least the All-Star break due to a fractured radius; he had rebounded from a lousy 2011 and was hitting .276/.372/.439 before he went down on May 7. Ryan Zimmerman has hit a disappointing .246/.329/.352, numbers that haven't improved substantially since a 17-day stay on the DL due to a right shoulder problem.

Back in the spring, the Nats brass envisioned an outfield of Morse, Harper and Werth, but injuries have prevented that from happening, and in the meantime, the team has gotten less than nothing (.173/.249/.265) from their leftfielders, even with manager Davey Johnson trying just about every option within a long toss of the Jefferson Memorial. Xavier Nady is just 4-for-52 while filling that role, and overall is hitting .145/.193/.277, with one more extra base hit in 88 PA than Stephen Strasburg has in 19. Mark DeRosa looks done at age 37, and Roger Bernadina doesn't have a bat suitable for a corner job. The most successful player there has been 23-year-old switch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi, a rookie infielder playing the outfield for the first time in his professional career; he's 10-for-30 in the role and hitting .320/.381/.388 in 116 PA overall.

Morse's return might force Lombardozzi to return to a utility role, where he could help offset the uneven production of Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa (.220/.310/.364) and Ian Desmond (.264/.292/.449) by spotting at third base, second base and shortstop. But his recent emergence as a capable leadoff man may have Johnson thinking of extending his stay in leftfield, testing Harper in center — where he would supplant the struggling Rick Ankiel (.230/.281/.397) — and using Morse in right. That could make for an adventurous outfield defense, but fortunately for the Nats, Edwin Jackson is the only flyballer among their starters. Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang and displaced fifth starter Ross Detwiler all generate far more grounders than they do flyballs. In a race this tight, every edge counts, and the ability to squeeze an extra bat into the lineup, even at an unfamiliar position, might make all the difference.

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