Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Michael Morse's hot bat hasn't landed him an everyday job yet.
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.