The Washington Nationals today announced a two-year extension for first baseman/left fielder Mike Morse, buying out his final two arbitration years. Morse will still become a free agent after the 2013 season as he was initially able to, but does the signing take the Nationals out of the running for free agent first baseman and former Milwaukee Brewer Prince Fielder?
With Morse’s versatility, his ability to play both left field and first base, the Nationals have a true asset on their hands. When first baseman Adam LaRoche, a free agent signed prior to the 2011 season, went down early during the season, Morse filled in at first and performed admirably for the Nationals in the first season of his career where he got significant playing time. In the 146 games Morse played in, he was a star, totalling a line of .303/.360/.550 with a team-high 31 homers. But he’ll be 30 once the season begins, and probably doesn’t figure into Washington’s long-term plans.
Meanwhile, the team has right fielder Jayson Werth under contract for another six seasons, and top prospect Bryce Harper should be ready for the majors next season, if not this one. Washington has a glut of talent at the corners right now, with Werth, Morse and LaRoche under contract for 2012, and Harper waiting in the wings. So despite the team’s ties to Fielder earlier this offseason, he doesn’t seem to be a great fit.
The team is locked in to LaRoche in 2012, unless they were willing to move his salary. But I don’t think there would be much of a market for LaRoche, if not because of his .546 OPS in 2011, because of his 43 games played, or his $8 million salary in 2012. It will be tough to find a taker, and I don’t think Washington will be willing to eat that contract. Even if they were able to move LaRoche, they’d need to eat a significant portion of his salary for this season. I don’t think that’s in the cards.
But let’s imagine for a moment that Washington *was* willing to eat LaRoche’s contract, and *did* manage to move him. Does Fielder make sense in that case? Well….not exactly. With Morse under contract for the next two years and Fielder in the fold, Morse would be locked into left field. Harper will be ready sooner rather than later, and that brings up an interesting situation: do you put the teenage Harper in center field for his major league debut, or do you move the veteran Werth there? Washington actually doesn’t have a center fielder at the moment. 2011 starter Rick Ankiel is a free agent, and Washington appears unwilling to commit to his platoon-mate Roger Bernadina full-time. That could lead to Werth being shifted there, where he played 151 innings last season, full-time and opening up right field for Harper if the team is impressed with him in the spring. Then, Fielder would make sense at the position.
All of this is dependent on Washington being able to move LaRoche’s contract, though. If the club was able to do that and bring in Fielder with a long-term deal, Washington would be paying Fielder and Werth eight figures each, while Ryan Zimmerman is a free agent after 2013. Combine those two big deals with the extension given to Gio Gonzalez, and realize that Zimmerman could be departing, and you could be faced with a very different Nationals team, one with a lot of salary tied up in older players while its young stars are allowed to depart. Since leaving Montreal, the Nationals franchise has never had a payroll over $70 million, and they’re eyeing that mark in 2012 without Fielder in the fold. Bringing him in could push payroll to heights never before seen by the franchise, which could lead to some tough decisions being made about younger stars, like Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann, and Stephen Strasburg.
To finish up with some final thoughts on the Morse extension, I don’t really think it’s a bad deal, just because it’s eliminating the possibility that he goes crazy this season and boosts his value even higher for the 2013 season. I’m going to assume that the two year deal will be worth in the neighborhood of $12 million, which isn’t a bad deal at all for two years of a 3 fWAR player, which is what Morse was last season. I just don’t know that this contract says anything about the team signing Fielder, because the elephant in the room of Adam LaRoche is still everpresent.
EDIT: two years, $10.5 million for Morse. Good deal.
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