Reporting David Elfin
Let me get this straight.
The Washington Nationals are shopping outfielder/first baseman Michael Morse, who slammed 31 home runs with 95 RBI, 73 runs and a .303 batting average just two years ago, because they have nowhere to play him after acquiring center fielder Denard Span from Minnesota and re-signing first baseman Adam LaRoche.
At the same time, Washington, whose bullpen thrived the past two seasons with Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard as its closers – before the former’s ninth inning meltdown in Game 5 of the NLDS – just signed yet another right-handed closer.
That would be Rafael Soriano, who replaced injured Cooperstown cinch Mariano Rivera as the top reliever in 2012 for the ever-formidable Yankees for whom he saved 42 games with a 2.26 earned run average. What’s more, the Nats gave the 33-year-old Soriano (yet another Scott Boras client in the clubhouse), a reported two-year, $28 million contract that will make him baseball’s highest-paid reliever. Washington also surrendered its first-round choice in the June draft because New York had given Soriano a qualifying offer.
Clippard, who turns 28 on Valentine’s Day, had 32 saves last year (with a 3.72 ERA), after replacing the 25-year-old Storen, who had 43 (with a 2.75 ERA) in 2011 before missing much of 2012 after elbow surgery.
So the Nats can’t find room for slugger Morse in a lineup that features four regulars who spent up to half of 2012 on the disabled list – himself, right fielder Jayson Werth, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and shortstop Ian Desmond – as well as devil-may-care outfielder Bryce Harper, but they’ll be able to keep Soriano, Storen and Clippard, who combined for 174 saves over the past three seasons, all happy? That crowded bullpen, by the way, still doesn’t include a left hander other than Zach Duke, the failed former Nats starter who pitched all of 13-2/3 innings in the majors last season. Only the Republican House is more tilted to the right than Washington’s relief corps.
Morse doesn’t have Span’s glove or speed, but after recovering from a strained back muscle which cost him the first 50 games last season, he hit 18 homers with 62 RBI, 53 runs and a .291 average, proving that his career year in 2011 was no fluke.
Span, who’s two years younger than the 30-year-old Morse, had his best season for the Twins in 2009 with eight homers, 68 RBI, 97 runs, 23 stolen bases and a .311 average but was significantly less productive in 17 fewer games last year: four homers, 41 RBI, 71 runs, 17 steals and a .283 average.
Sure Morse has just one year left on his contract so the Nats would get nothing for him if he departed as a free agent next winter, but his $6.75 million salary is in the same ballpark as Span’s two-year, $11.25 million deal with a $9 million team option for 2015.
The Nats received plenty of timely hits from their “Goon Squad” bench, led by Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy, as they won a major league-high 98 games in 2012. Wilson Ramos will join that group this year assuming that the former starting catcher is fully recovered from last June’s knee surgery. However, none of those players has Morse’s proven pop. “The Beast” scares opposing pitchers. Of the others, only Moore has the potential to do so.
Washington’s lineup of catcher Kurt Suzuki, LaRoche, second baseman Danny Espinosa, Desmond, Zimmerman, Harper, Span and Werth is set. So is manager Davey Johnson’s rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, newcomer Dan Haren and Ross Detwiler. The deep bullpen lacks a lefty, but Soriano, Storen and Clippard have all been effective against hitters on both sides of the plate so that’s not as big a priority as might be expected.
So why trade the talented Morse – who wants to stay put — for an extra piece because he would be a part-timer and is unsigned beyond 2012?
Before signing Soriano, Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said money wasn’t a reason to trade Morse and that he wouldn’t make a deal just to move him. So don’t. Keep the Beast in Southeast. If Harper, LaRoche, Werth or Span go down for a serious chunk of time, the Nats, a serious contender to win it all, would seriously regret trading Morse.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin