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Michael Morse was popular with Nationals teammates and fans alike.
Acquired from the Mariners for Ryan Langerhans two months earlier in what was universally described as a "swap of minor leaguers," Morse was promoted to D.C. after producing a robust .339 batting average at Class AAA Syracuse. His first appearance in a Nationals uniform came in the bottom of the eighth of a meaningless game against the Brewers. Pinch-hitting for Tyler Clippard, Morse swung at the very first pitch he saw from Milwaukee's Todd Coffey and lined out to first baseman Prince Fielder.
Few among the announced crowd of 26,307 that Friday night bothered to applaud the newest member of the Nationals bench, a big galoot of a ballplayer with no natural position and a track record for getting hurt.
Who could have imagined at the time what Morse's final at-bat in a Nats uniform would look and sound like: bottom of the eighth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, a sellout throng of 45,966 belting out the chorus to A-ha's "Take on Me" a split-second before Morse roped a base hit to center field.
Cult favorites come in surprising shapes and sizes, and Morse certainly fit the bill. His 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame was befitting an athlete nicknamed "The Beast," but his goofy smile and happy-go-lucky approach to life made him one of the least-intimidating presences inside the Nationals' clubhouse.
Not to mention one of the most-liked players in club history, among teammates, reporters and fans alike.
That's probably why Morse's trade back to Seattle Wednesday night stirred up as many emotions as it did. This didn't just feel like the departure of any old ballplayer. It felt like the departure of a piece of the Nationals' identity.
Teammates started wishing Morse well via Twitter. Morse then returned the favor in a series of tweets from the heart:
"To all my D.C. Fans, I'm forever grateful for the love and support you have shown me from day 1 ... I will always have a spot for you and this incredible franchise in my heart. ... I would like to thank the Lerners and Mike Rizzo for giving me the opportunity to play everyday. ... We made magic last year and I will never forget the Natitude! I will miss my teammates and the moments we've shared. ... It has been an awesome 4 years, and now it's on to the next chapter. D.C., it has been a fun ride ....Always Beastmode"
It was an emotional divorce after 3 1/2 years of blissful marriage, but take the emotion out of the transaction -- if you can -- and understand why the deal made sense from a baseball standpoint. And why it actually was a show of compassion from Rizzo.
Morse, plain and simple, didn't fit on the 2013 Washington Nationals roster. Certainly not after they acquired Denard Span and then re-signed Adam LaRoche.
Yes, Rizzo could have kept the 30-year-old slugger and made him one of the priciest bench players in baseball, a $6.75 million pinch-hitter and occasional corner outfielder or first baseman. But Morse, who spent years trying to prove himself as a legitimate, everyday big leaguer, wouldn't have taken kindly to a reduced role like that. Especially in a contract year.
Yep, Morse has an opportunity in 2013 to earn the first long-term contract of his career, but the only way he can do that is by playing every day and putting up the kind of numbers he posted during his breakthrough 2011 campaign with the Nationals. Rizzo knew that and didn't want to stand in his way.
Rizzo also knew that keeping Morse for another season -- even as a starter -- would have been a risky proposition. Sure, he might have helped the Nationals win this year. But then he would have walked away as a free agent next winter, the Nats unlikely to match the kind of significant offers he figures to receive from other clubs that don't already have so many regulars locked up to long-term deals.
That's why LaRoche and Span made more sense for the Nationals than Morse. In addition to helping make this a championship-caliber team in 2013, each is guaranteed to return in 2014, with options to come back again in 2015.
The Nationals are in "win-now" mode, but they haven't abandoned the "win for the next three years" motto, either.
There would have been one legitimate reason for keeping Morse as a bench player: Insurance. What happens if LaRoche, Span, Bryce Harper or Jayson Werth suffers a significant injury? Who would you most want to have available off the bench to take over a starting role for any length of time: Morse, Tyler Moore or Roger Bernadina? (Hint: Take the guy with a .295 career batting average and a 31-homer season on his resume.)
Then again, if there was anyone on the Nationals roster likely to miss significant time due to injury, it probably was Morse. Whether it's bad luck, a brittle body or something else, Morse does have a tendency to get hurt. (He's played in fewer than 100 games, combined majors and minors, on average over the last nine seasons.)
Throw all those factors together, and the logical decision was to trade Morse. Did Rizzo get enough in return for him? As is often the case, we won't know for years, not until A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen (and the mysterious player to be name later) have a chance to develop into quality big leaguers or stagnate into career minor leaguers.
It certainly couldn't have helped Rizzo's cause that every other GM in the sport knew Morse needed to be dealt, not to mention that he's only under contract for one more season.
But Rizzo said all along he wanted young pitching to restock a once-overflowing cupboard of prospects that has turned barren over the last year. That one of the players acquired was actually part of that cupboard last winter before he was traded away in the Gio Gonzalez blockbuster adds a nice twist to the story.
In the end, Rizzo had to take the best offer he could get for Morse. And as far as we know, this was it. So the big galoot heads back to the Pacific Northwest while the retooled Nationals prepare for a World Series run.
Morse did get to enjoy one final bash with his Nats teammates, many who were in town last weekend for Ryan Zimmerman's wedding. Who knows what music was played at the reception, but what if the chorus to Morse's favorite walk-up song happened to blare over the sound system...
"Take on me,
Take me on,
I'll be gone
In a day or twoooooooo!"
Little would they have realized the prescience of that chorus.