Monday, June 21, 2010

Decisions, decisions

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Michael Morse's hot bat hasn't landed him an everyday job yet.
There may be no tougher challenge in sports than assembling a 25-man baseball roster and then choosing the nine men who will fill out a lineup card on any given day.

Not a day goes by in which a general manager doesn't evaluate his roster and wonder whether any changes might produce better results. And not a day goes by in which a manager doesn't scribble out lineups, either on napkins or in his head, trying to find the perfect combination that leads to success.

So understand that when the Nationals make changes -- and often when they don't make changes -- they aren't flying by the seat of their pants. They're agonizing over every possible move, debating them among the coaching staff and front office, trying to decide what decisions will best help the team both today and over the long haul.

Today, the Nats decided John Lannan needed to be removed from the big-league roster, a major change that was not made lightly but rather after some serious contemplation and hand-wringing.

They also decided not to fundamentally alter their daily lineup. Yes, Michael Morse is tearing the cover off the ball when given the opportunity to play. But, in Jim Riggleman's mind, that's not enough to send Roger Bernadina or Nyjer Morgan to the bench.

Both decisions could have lasting impacts on the club's fortunes. Both could be reversed sometime down the road. But today, these decisions make the most sense to the Nationals.

Let's start with Lannan, whose demotion to Harrisburg was probably several weeks in the works but still caught plenty by surprise when it was announced this afternoon. It's not often that a team sends its Opening Day starter of the last two seasons packing to Class AA, but the Nats felt it necessary given the left-hander's struggles. The guy did have a 10.38 ERA over his last three starts, putting an astounding 38 men on base over 13 innings.

"As I've said before, it's a performance-based business up here in the big leagues," Mike Rizzo said. "Yesterday's performance wasn't good. He wasn't satisfied with it, and I wasn't satisfied with it. We felt that he needed to go iron some things out down there. More importantly, we need a guy up who gives us the best chance to win every fifth day. It wasn't John at this point in time."

There's the key phrase: At this point in time. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone in a position of authority within the organization who doesn't believe Lannan ultimately will be a successful big-league pitcher over the course of his career.

"He's going to be a part of this rotation for a long time," Rizzo said. "Our expectations are he's going to be a consistent performer for us and be a 200-inning type of guy for us."

But right now, Lannan wasn't going to be that guy. He was pressing. He lost confidence in his ability to get big-league hitters out. So he's now got a date with Harrisburg pitching coach Randy Tomlin -- a guy who made a decent living as a crafty left-handed starter on playoff teams in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, by the way -- to try to get himself back on track.

It was a tough decision, but one that probably earned Rizzo and Co. some respect among fans who were growing tired with this team's recent struggles and wanted the front office to do something -- anything -- to try to jump-start the club.

Many of those same fans probably want Morse to be the everyday right fielder right now, and it's hard to dispute their logic. In the month of June, Morse is now batting .462 with three homers. His on-base percentage is .517. His slugging percentage is .846. His OPS is a gargantuan 1.363.

Yet Jim Riggleman insists there's no place for him in a starting lineup that has produced more than four runs exactly once in the last two weeks.

"I haven't been able to get him in there as much as I know I lot of people want him in there," the manager said after Morse homered during tonight's 2-1 win over the Royals. "And I like to have him in there. But I like Bernadina in there, too, and [Josh] Willingham and Adam Dunn and [Ryan] Zimmerman."

No one's asking Riggleman to bench any of those guys in favor of Morse. They're asking him to move Bernadina to center field and bench Morgan, whose .250 average and .313 on-base percentage look even worse when you throw in the fact he's been caught stealing a major-league-leading 11 times in 26 tries this season.

Doesn't matter. Riggleman is standing by Morgan, who admittedly has played much better in center field the last week than he has all year and tonight robbed David DeJesus of an RBI double with a lunging catch at the wall.

"That's about three of the last four days he's made some great plays in center field," Riggleman said. "I think we're seeing him get some better at-bats, play some great center field as of late. This is what we saw last year. We saw this the whole time he was with us. This is what he can do."

Because they've seen the difference a productive Morgan can make, both in the field and at the plate, the Nationals are sticking with him for now. He's still looked at as a key contributor, not just in the immediate future but down the road as well.

The odd man out, of course, is Morse, who to his credit keeps saying all the right things about his lack of playing time, even though he can't help but wonder what could be if he got a chance to play every day.

"You always think about that," he said. "But stuff like that, that's why we have coaches, managers. Let them deal with all that. Until otherwise, I know my job and I'm going to play to the best of my abilities."

The Nationals won a ballgame tonight, a much-needed win that snapped a six-game losing streak. But the outcome of this game may ultimately prove less important than the two decisions the organization had to make. A struggling pitcher was sent down. A burgeoning offensive force remains a part-time player.

It'll be some time before we know whether the Nats made the right call in each case. But you can bet Rizzo and Riggleman aren't going to stop contemplating changes tomorrow.

They'll go through the entire process again tomorrow, agonizing as always, trying to find the right combination of players that leads to success right now and in the future.

40 comments:

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_for_Me said...

Mark writes: "Because they've seen the difference a productive Morgan can make, both in the field and at the plate, the Nationals are sticking with him for now."

Key words: "for now."

As John Lannan and many others can attest under new Sheriff Mike Rizzo, that is subject to change. Fast change.

My own June 21, 2010 prediction:

Bernie in center, Morse in right by September.
Morgan becomes the fourth outfielder.

Dan said...

Nyjer Morgan is a terrible baseball player. There's not one thing he does better than a replacement level player. Fourth OF? Starting CF in Syracuse.

Jenn Jenson said...

I'm among those in favor of Bernie in CF, Morse in RF, and Morgan on the bench (or AAA). For me, a key issue is that Morgan makes a lot of mistakes that seem to be mental, as opposed to physical, errors.

I've read some things that talk about Nyjer's limited baseball experience because he focused on hockey as a kid, and it makes me wonder if a bit of minor league time would help him become a better ballplayer. If nothing else, it would send a message that position players will be treated the same as starting pitchers who aren't performing at their full potential.

catocony said...

Jenn, Morgan is 30 years old. He doesn't have time to learn the game anymore. I think that Knight said something to the effect that "he's still learning" when he was filling in for Dibbs back a few weeks ago. My question is, how much time can you give a guy who still needs to learn how to play the game when he's already a bit past his athletic prime?

If Morgan were 25, then yeah, it would be perfect since. At 27, you would say no, at 30, he is what he is.

Like getting picked off tonight, it's just bad, bad baseball. You don't need to be a student of the game from the age of 5 to understand that.

NatsJack in Florida said...

The reference Riggleman makes about Nyjer's defense recently dosn't hold water with me. Those catches, while nice are made ROUTINELY by QUALITY major league center fielders. I dare say Roger Bernandina woud have made the same plays with a little less effort.

Nyjer still plays dumb, has no arm and leads the league in getting thrown out stealing and being picked off. Those same qualities helped Elijah Dukes to get dismissed.

Give me Morse in right nd Bernandina in center everyday for 2 weeks and lets see what happens.

Les in NC said...

I agree NatsJack. Riggs should make the call to get Morse in the lineup for 2 weeks, just 2 weeks, lets see what happens. My guess, in those 2 weeks we would very likely find out that Berny should be in CF over Morgan and Morse in the lineup as a regular.

JayB said...

I agree with all of you. Riggs is talking but is Rizzo buying it. We found out with Lannan that Rizzo is the one that matters Mark.

Rizzo knows that Roger would make those plays in CF 10 out of 10 times. That is what is played in the minor leagues. He is learning RF for no reason. He can not hit enough to be the RF on a winning team.

Mark, please ask Rizzo, what Riggs thinks is pointless and often wrong.

MikeHarris said...

Let's buy the logic and the lineup just for fun, and ask this: Can we PLEASE see Morse all three games in Baltimore? Two at DH and one at 1B or something?

Anonymous said...

Morse will be playing. Willingham is going to be traded and Morse will be in the outfield.

joemktg said...

This is not hard: find the answer to the question "what works best beyond this year?" Remember: Morse is only in his late twenties.

You've got to try keep Morse's bat in the lineup, so rotate him in and out of RF as well as giving Dunn an occasional rest at 1B. Rotate Bernie in and out of CF, and ask if he's a future solution for that position. Rotate Nyjer in and out of CF: he's a professional, and he understands he has lost the privilege of full-time status.

The approach worked with Guzman earlier this year, i.e., kept his bat in the lineup by rotating him between 2nd, SS and RF. Ultimately, he earned the full time 2B privilege.

The question isn't about Morse's bat in the lineup. It's "can Bernie be a regular CF and hit above .280?" and "can Morse hit .300 from the regular RF position?"

Need to find solutions for the future today.

markfd said...

It is a simple game of options that Riggleman has with Morse on the bench, he can play multiple positions and Morgan and Bernadina are outfielders. Riggleman is always thinking of options from his bench with Harris, Kennedy and Morse able to play multiple positions in the field.

Anonymous said...

Mark's comparison of Lannan with Tomlin as a pitcher is interesting. Yes, Randy was a crafty lefthander on good Pirates' clubs in the early 1990s. Like John, Randy had two good seasons in the starting rotation. Tomlin was bounced from the rotation in his 3rd season, and had only one more year after that in the majors. Believe arm problems did him in, and all indications are that he's a very good pitching instructor, but let's not leave the impression that he was a crafty lefthander who survived on guile for years in the majors and can somehow impart this wisdom to John. Jamie Moyer he was not.

alexva said...

@markfd - that's the issue. Morgan has no value off the bench. If he's on the team he has to start in CF, he has no value as a PH and would never replace Roger in CF for defense.

Given what they saw last year, IMO they can't bring themselves to cutting him. I guess I understand, to a point.

HHover said...

There's a lot to like about Morse right now. Given his hitting, he needs to be in the line up more, esp. with the recent losing streak and the fact that this is a team in need of shaking up. I also like his attitude about the fact that he hasn't gotten more playing time.

That said, it's time for a reality check. Morse is 28 (less than 2 yrs younger than Morgan) and was drafted out of high school. He's spent bits of the last 5 seasons in the majors, more in the IF than the OF. If he was a starting major league outfielder, honestly, he would have become one by now. He's a short term but not a long term solution to what ails the Nats. By all means, Riggs should play him more now, but let's not kid ourselves about what he has to offer.

Andrew said...

Can Michael Morse be this team's Jayson Werth as some have compared him to?

That is the million dollar question. I think while Morse is hot you have to ride the hot hand and see if he can be this team's answer long term. Where Morse really kills it is in day games so you have to get Morse in on these day games and it is still perplexing why he wasn't in Sunday's day game.

Richard said...

Additional ABs for Morse are available at 3rd base, too, to give Zimm a rest. In his last 12 ABs Zimm has it the ball twice, struck out 7 times (4 times looking), and walked 3 times. He's 4 for 35 now. I'm concerned that there's something physically wrong with Zimm but probably not, probably just a deep dark funk, so some days off might help him and has been done in the past when Zimm has been in a funk. And Morse has played shortstop in his early career.

Bowdenball said...

One thing I want to stop and take note of here ... how awesome is it to have beat writer whose clientele is primarily the everyday fans like us, and who interacts with us regularly and is in a position to ask the team the questions we all bring up? In this case primarily why we haven't moved Bernadina to center and Morse to right.

As far as I know we're the only fans in baseball who have a blog like this run by a guy covering the team full-time like Mark. It's pretty great.

And like others have said, I think Morse to right and Bernie to center is just a matter of time.

Pauloyd said...

Seriously, good teams have a bat like Morse on the bench. What's the problem?

Bowdenball said...

Pauloyd, I think the problem is that good teams have more than 4 HRs combined from their full-time CFs and RFs. They also have leadoff men with OBPs higher than .313.

Morse to RF and Bernadina to CF/leadoff solves both of those problems.

Anonymous8 said...

Michael Morse is on a hot streak (a streak) so don't confuse this with thinking he will be a .333 hitter long-term but I do agree you have to ride the hot pony while he is hot.

I have been critical of Nyjer and do see him coming out of his funk although Mark correctly pointed out his value when you take his OBP and subtract the caught stealing/pickoffs. Nyjer's defense is getting better and we can all hope that Nyjer gets real hot as this team will take off.

Yes, Zim and Willingham are in mini slumps also. When these guys are all hitting in the same game, this team can get on a winning streak.

court said...

Some guys (like Werth and David Ortiz) are late bloomers - Morse could be that type of guy. While he's outgrown short, his problem is that he's never really had a position to call his own. I think Riggs needs to go to a three-man rotation between Morgan, Bernadina and Morse - like he did with Kennedy, Guzman and Desmond at the start of the year. Let the players decide who plays.

Simply benching Nyjer is not really an option, considering his track record and the lack thereof with Morse and Bernadina, but playing them all equally may help sort it all out.

I also agree that Morse should get a few spot starts at the corner IF postions to give those guys and occasional break. The most disappointing aspect of Nyjer's play this year is his mental breakdowns. Defense and speed should never slump, and maybe a little competition will give him the kick in the posterior he seems to need. Otherwise, Bernadina's skill set is better suited for CF than a the corner anyway.

NatsJack in Florida said...

Two things I've noticed lately. 1) When Zim swings, his head stays in at the start of the swing but turns toward the field as he continues through the swing. When he's hot, his head stays in throught the entire swing.
And 2) Opposing pitchers have to be hitting .300 aginst the Nats. I've never seen pichers get base hits as often as our opposing pitchers get. I'd love to know what their actual average is.

Andrew said...

JayB in Spring Training talked about off-season prep and especially players that came into camp ready to play as well as those who were not.

Bernadina's breakout season is no fluke. What Bernie learned after he broke his ankle last year was the hard work in the rehab so while he was rehabbing his ankle he started strength training and continued that with his own trainer in the off-season.

If you recall, Bernadina wasn't even on the Opening Day roster which he earned in my opinion so it has taken the Nats management a while to figure out that Bernie is a keeper.

While his power numbers are up, he is hitting all balls harder giving infielders less reaction time so those balls are going through the infield for hits now.

Bernadina will play any outfield position and while he isn't the prototypical corner OF, his power numbers are getting better.

Avar said...

We all seem to agree Morse and Bernie s/b in the OF w/ Morgan on bench or in AAA. I vote for AAA personally.

BUT, my beef isn't so much that. If Morse isn't going to be the full-time RF, then he should at least start every time we need a DH, or Willingham or Dunn get a day off. But that doesn't happen. We see Willie Harris as much as Morse on those days.

That is my biggest gripe. I can live w/ them deciding they want to see Morgan bounce back to last year. I don't agree but I can live with it. It's reasonable. But I don't see how they can defend not putting in Morse at DH or starting him whenever Dunn or Hammer sit. That is really hard for me to accept as a fan because it doesn't seem reasonable.

Jenn Jenson said...

Catocony, I like to believe that even people older than 30 years old can learn and improve, regardless of whether it would be easier if they were 25.

I don't know Nyjer, so I cannot comment on how teachable he might be, were he presented different incentives to learn.

Section 409 said...

Just to respond @Dan toward the top, I'd hardly consider Nyjer Morgan a TERRIBLE baseball player. Lastings Milledge is a TERRIBLE baseball player. Nyjer is not.

To the few others that support Nyjer to AAA... REALLY?! You'd rather the Nats 4th outfielder be Willie Harris? Who literally isn't hitting his weight? (He's hitting .152, weighs 191 lbs.) That's absurd.

That said, I am in the camp that thinks we should see Bernie in CF and Morse in RF sooner rather than later. But Nyjer isn't a terrible baseball player, and he's certainly a quality bench guy. He's hit an extended rough patch and deserves to be benched for it.

Matteo said...

Let me start off by saying I like Nyjer (typical words of death). That being said he has made some REALLY dumb play this year by not using his head. I don't see what the issue is of sitting him down more often, say 2 out of every 5 or 6 games instead of 1, and having one of the great outfield coaches we have work with him.

Mark- I have a question that you might have asked Riggs before but I'll ask you. Does Morgan have a green light most times that he gets on base? With his speed it is really the issue of mental mistakes that are is problem on the bases. An easy way to solve that is to red light him a bit more from the bench. Like most of use on this chat I never played past high school but I do recall coaches doing this sort of thing in school. Seems like this might cut down a bit on his mental on base errors in the short term.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Matteo: Pretty much everyone on the roster has the "green light" to steal. All that means is any player is allowed to take off for second base if they feel they can get a good jump and there's no other specific play on at the moment. Now, sometimes, Jim Riggleman (through 3B coach Pat Listach) will specifically call for a steal in a certain situation, or he'll specifically put the "red light" on for a certain situation. But there aren't special players who get the "green light" while others don't.

Anonymous8 said...

@Section409 - Thank you for stating what is fairly obvious that unless you want Justin Maxwell back or Willie HaHa playing a backup role, Nyjer is here to stay as I don't think the team will give Boomer Whiting, Lambin or Mench a promotion.

The team should DFA Willie and hopefully accept a trip to AAA to figure out what is ailing him. Willie is a great guy and needs a chance to get it together. You can see it in his body language that he is not a happy camper.

Kennedy is the more perplexing guy. I would rather see Josh Whitesell on the bench and backing up Dunn as Whitesell is a big defensive upgrade and gives the team a LH bat off the bench in the situation if you get rid of Willie and Kennedy.

Anonymous said...

Hats off to Guzman. Nice to watch a triple (6/20) and a homer (6/21) during this current 3-4-5 power outage.

Andrew said...

Yep, good point. Guzy took a walk and had a HR in the same game.

When was the last time that happened?

TimDz said...

Was at the game last night (section 212, gratis from a friend...awesome seats in the diamond club section) and watched the absoulute BOMB that came off of Morse's bat. Two words on that shot: Holy Crap!
The best part about that was watching the left fielder just turn and watch (ESPN replayed it on Sportscenter and placed an arrow pointing at the left fielder).
Two rows further up and it lands with Johnny and Ray in their perch)

Anonymous said...

Bernie in center, Morse in right by September.
Morgan becomes the fourth outfielder.
Harris off the team Riggleman!!!

You have 2 lefties in Morgan and Bernadina, 2 righties in Hammer, and Morse. You have 1 righty in Gonzalez and a lefty in Kennedy for the
infield. Both field better than Harris?

Anonymous said...

If he was a starting major league outfielder, honestly, he would have become one by now.

He was a starting major league shortstop. You have a shortstop moving to the outfield with a shortstop's arm. What's wrong with that.

Morse got bottled up in Seattle's system ... his original club. They weren't going to every use him in the majors again ... canny Rizzo saw that ... knowing that Langerhans would never make it in the bigs ... and went for it.

Its not Morse's fault that Seattle's GM isn't the one of the smartest.

Anonymous said...

Whitesell on the bench and backing up Dunn as Whitesell is a big defensive upgrade and gives the team a LH bat off the bench in the situation if you get rid of Willie and Kennedy.

So is Morse, yet Riggleman insists on using Kennedy instead? Riggleman and his idiosyncratic line up card ... have to wonder if he will be back after
this year.

Anonymous said...

Its time to bench Nyjer. Willingham, Bernandina and Morse in the outfield. Also, its time to try Desmond in the leadoff spot. He could not do any worse than Nyjer. Bat Pudge second, then Zimm, Dunn, Willingham, Morse, Guzman and Bernadina.

HHover said...

Anonymous @ 1:09 -

You blame the Seattle management for failing to develop Morse as an OF, but the Nats aren't seriously trying to develop him as one either--their use of him since last year seems pretty clear on that.

So either you see something that two different clubs failed to see in 5+ years, or they've seen him accurately for what he is--a AAA player who provides a solid option off the bench in the majors.

There's nothing wrong with him playing that role, as I said before, and I'd like to see him get more playing time. But it's not a role that offers a long-term solution for the Nats in the OF--which was my original point.

Slidell said...

@Natjack (8:43). saw in another blog that opp. pitchers hitting .354 in June!!! Every time Nyjer makes a creditable play, it buys him another week of starts. Maybe Riggs feels he is THE spark plug for the team; (I don't btw). Riggs managerial tenure will eventually be determined by the success or failure of his lineup decisions.

Nick said...

Something to think about if the Nats fall further out of contention than they already are: trading either Willingham or Dunn would free up a spot in the lineup, in two places where you could either slot Morse, or slide Morgan to left and Bernie to center. I'm not suggesting, of course, that the Nats should trade either of them JUST to get Mike in the lineup, but Rizzo should recognize that he has something of an heir to 1B/RF if he does choose to deal Dunn or Willingham (or Nyjer, for that matter).

catocony said...

Jenn, if Nyjer wants to go to law school instead of playing baseball, then your point of people can learn after 30 is valid. However, being a professional athlete is a pretty narrow window of time and at 30, Nyjer is well beyond the point where "learning" is acceptable. 30 is at best peak physical time and for most people, already a little past peak. So he won't be getting faster and jumping higher and seeing the ball any better, quite the opposite.

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