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Michael Morse's breakthrough 2011 will earn him a considerable raise in 2012.
In some cases, the answer is simple. It made all the sense in the world for the Nationals to hammer out a five-year, $42 million extension with Gio Gonzalez over the weekend. Yes, they're taking some risk in guaranteeing that money to a 26-year-old pitcher with only two strong big-league seasons on his resume. But if Gonzalez stays healthy and productive, the Nats will probably save money in the long run while also ensuring one of the better, young hurlers in the sport remains in their uniform through at least 2016.
Other cases are less clear-cut. Take, for example, Michael Morse. What should the Nationals do with him?
On one hand, Morse is coming off a breakthrough season in which he led the club with a .305 average, 31 homers and 95 RBI and ranked fourth in the NL with a .550 slugging percentage, all while earning a modest, $1.05 million salary. Why wouldn't the Nats want to lock this guy up long-term?
Well, for a couple of reasons. First, Morse has only one full, productive season in the big leagues on his resume. (Although there's plenty of evidence to suggest his 2011 performance wasn't a fluke and should be a sign of continued success.)
The bigger dilemma centers on the Nationals' long-term plan for Morse, and whether they'll even have a lineup spot for him beyond 2012 or 2013.
It's been pointed out before, but it bears repeating: If the Nationals sign Prince Fielder (or any other big-name first baseman) for more than a couple of years, they'll be forced into doing one of three things: 1) putting Jayson Werth in center field for the long-term, 2) never calling up Bryce Harper, or 3) parting ways with Morse. Since options 1 and 2 seem highly unlikely, the Morse option would probably have to be utilized.
Think about it. With Fielder locked up at first base, and Werth and Harper occupying the two corner outfield spots for years to come, there simply would be no room for Morse (who is eligible to become a free agent following the 2013 season).
So given the ongoing uncertainty of Fielder's future home, the Nationals would appear hamstrung when it comes to Morse. If they lock him up now to a long-term extension, they'd essentially be taking themselves out of the Fielder sweepstakes (if you believe they've actually been in it all along).
If they work out a one-year contract with Morse now, they'll run the risk of him putting together another monster season and then entering his walk year with all the leverage in his corner. It will probably cost a whole lot more to lock up Morse next winter than it would right now.
We may get some answers in the next 24 hours. Tomorrow marks the deadline for all clubs and arbitration-eligible players to either come to terms on their own or submit dueling salary numbers to MLB. The two sides are always free to work something out in the next month before arbitration hearings take place, but you'll see plenty of deals get hammered out before this deadline arrives (as we saw with Gonzalez on Sunday and Jesus Flores yesterday).
A long-term extension for Morse seems unlikely right now, given the Nationals' desire to keep their options open. But it could also be a smart move to work something out this winter, before his price potentially skyrockets.
Just one of several dilemmas the Nationals face as the Hot Stove League enters its final month.