File photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Sadly, this is likely to be the lasting image of Nyjer Morgan in a Nationals uniform.
So let's take a look at everyone's Grapefruit League stats through the weekend, throwing Jerry Hairston into the mix as well...
MORGAN: .241 AVG, .328 OBP, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 9 RUNS, 6 SB, 3 CS
ANKIEL: .218 AVG, .271 OBP, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 8 RUNS, 2 SB, 0 CS
BERNADINA: .255 AVG, .321 OBP, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 6 RUNS, 3 SB, 1 CS
HAIRSTON: .174 AVG, .235 OBP, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 4 RUNS, 0 SB, 0 CS
If this really was an open competition, and the player who best performed all spring was going to get the job, who would you choose? It's certainly nowhere close to as cut-and-dried as Jim Riggleman and Mike Rizzo tried to make it sound this morning in explaining why Morgan was traded to the Brewers for minor-league infielder Cutter Dykstra and $50,000 cash.
"Nyjer had a nice spring training," Rizzo said. "After the first week [when he went 1-for-16] he played really well and did everything he had to do. It's just that I feel it was Ankiel winning the job, not Nyjer losing the job."
Look, we all know you can't put too much stock in spring training stats, and the Nationals shouldn't have made their decision strictly on that. But to suggest Ankiel did anything exceptional to win the job over Morgan is misleading.
Let's be honest: The Nationals never had any real intention of keeping Nyjer Morgan.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Morgan's performance last season (in both baseball and other areas) certainly justified a change. And plenty of people in the Nationals' front office and on the coaching staff were pushing for a severing of the relationship over the winter.
Rizzo, though, insisted all along on bringing Morgan to camp. Perhaps he believed -- or hoped -- the enigmatic outfielder would rediscover some of the form that made him such a valuable presence in 2009. He might well have been the only one in the organization that felt that way, though.
Morgan's fate was sealed late last season, after a flurry of incidents damaged his reputation in the Nationals' clubhouse and around the sport. The run-in with Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson. The collision with Marlins catcher Brett Hayes. The exchange with a fan in Philadelphia. The cursing at a fan in Florida. And, of course, the bench-clearing brawl in Florida, incited by Morgan and leading to a seven-game suspension handed down by MLB.
That brawl, unfortunately, is going to be the lasting memory a lot of people in D.C. have of Nyjer Morgan, of him being escorted off the field, jersey dangling, arms outstretched as he gestured to the crowd like a professional wrestler.
It's unfortunate that's the image most have of Morgan, because he was in no way a bad person and very rarely was a bad teammate during his 1 1/2-year tenure with the Nationals. He had become more of an annoyance than anything else, with teammates and staff members rolling their eyes at his antics and various personae.
As for his actual play on the field ... well, it still left plenty to be desired. Unfair as it was to ask Morgan to maintain the torrid numbers he posted during the first two months after he was acquired from the Pirates, he never came close to recapturing the form that made him such a dynamic member of the roster.
There would be a spurt here or there, but it wouldn't last. Morgan would again make a foolish play on the bases or pop up a weak bunt attempt back to the pitcher. And when he reported to Viera this spring and came out of the gates in that 1-for-16 slump, his fate might as well have been sealed.
Despite assurances in public Morgan was in the mix for the center field job, behind the scenes Rizzo was trying to find a willing trade partner. He finally found one in Brewers GM Doug Melvin, who initially balked at Rizzo's asking price but agreed to the deal late Saturday night once Rizzo asked only for Dykstra (a 21-year-old Class A infielder) in return.
And what if there were no takers for Morgan by the end of camp? Rizzo declined to address that hypothetical, though it's pretty clear the Nationals would have released Morgan altogether, not kept him on the bench or optioned him to the minors.
One way or another, the Nationals felt like they needed to move on. And again, there's nothing wrong with that. Nyjer had worn out his welcome here. When that happens, you cut ties.
But now the Nats are left with a center field platoon of Ankiel (whose career .312 on-base percentage is 32 points worse than Morgan's career .344 mark) and Hairston (who has started only 98 games in center field in his 13-year career).
It's far from an ideal scenario and one that figures to change throughout the season, with a revolving door of players moving in and out of center field. It bears a striking resemblance to the situation the Nationals found themselves in last spring after they released Elijah Dukes, leading to an Opening Day triumvirate of Willie Harris, Michael Morse and Willy Taveras in right field.
Now, you can make the point that Ankiel, Hairston and whoever else winds up playing center field need only to best Morgan's .253 average, .319 OBP and .633 OPS from 2010 to produce a net gain in 2011.
But at the end of the day, as Morgan heads off to Milwaukee and the Nationals prepare to open the season with no traditional leadoff man and a shaky platoon at one of the game's most important positions, you can't help but wonder something: Why didn't they just take care of this during the offseason?