Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Willie Harris could wind up with considerable playing time in right field now.
And in the wake of yesterday's stunning release of Elijah Dukes, there's a new dilemma on the club's hands: Figuring out who's going to take over in right field.
It would be one thing if the Dukes move was made because the organization had a sure-fire replacement ready to go. But that's not the case, one reason yesterday's announcement confounded so many. Plain and simple, the Nationals don't have a bonafide, everyday right fielder on their roster at the moment.
And that could be a serious problem. Right field is a premium position in the big leagues, one generally occupied by premier players like Ichiro Suzuki, Andre Ethier, Magglio Ordonez, J.D. Drew, Justin Upton and Jayson Werth. Try to find a good team that doesn't have a top-notch right fielder; there aren't many. (The best example may be the Rays, who last year went with a combo of Gabe Gross, Gabe Kapler and Ben Zobrist. But at least the rest of the Tampa Bay's lineup was loaded with thumpers like Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford and Jason Bartlett.)
So the Nationals are entering treacherous waters here, hoping to make do with a revolving door of Willie Harris, Justin Maxwell and Mike Morse (and perhaps Roger Bernadina, though his name didn't come up much yesterday among team officials).
What's the best solution to this problem? Well, in an ideal world, Maxwell would step up and seize the position all to himself. The 26-year-old Maryland native has the tools to be a premier major-league outfielder. He just hasn't put them all together during his limited opportunity at this level.
We did, however, see glimpses of what Maxwell can be late last season when he was recalled from Class AAA Syracuse. Over his final 24 games in September/October, Maxwell hit .327 with four homers, eight extra-base hits, seven walks, 12 runs scored and a stellar 1.040 OPS.
That is, however, an incredibly small sample size. And you always have to look at September stats with a healthy dose of skepticism, because many games are played against non-contenders using their own minor-league call-ups.
Maxwell hasn't played well at all this spring, as evidenced by the .103 batting average he'll carry into tomorrow night's game against the Cardinals. He continues to be a stellar defensive outfielder, at any of the three positions. But if he's going to become an everyday right fielder, he's going to have to produce at the plate as well.
"I'm working on some things with [hitting coach] Rick [Eckstein], just trying to find my comfort zone," he said. "It's the beginning of spring training. You're kind of finding your swing. Just try to be ready to go April 5th or 6th whenever we start."
If Maxwell isn't the answer, the Nationals' next-best option appears to be a platoon of Harris and Morse. Each has shown he can come off the bench and produce at the plate. Neither has ever done it for a prolonged stretch as an everyday player, though Harris has far more experience in that department and for a brief while in 2008 carried the Nats' lineup while playing almost every day in left field.
This isn't a perfect measurement, because Morse only had 52 at-bats with the Nationals last season, but if you combine Harris and Morse's stats from 2009, you get the following: a .237 avg, 10 homers, 37 RBI and an OBP/SLG/OPS line of .343/.421/.764. All this shows is that Harris is good at getting on base and Morse has some pop in his bat. But if the two managed to produce a combined .764 OPS for the season, that would rank 18th among all regular right fielders in the majors last season. Not great, but not the worst.
(Jermaine Dye, for those wondering, ranked 15th among right fielders last season with a .793 OPS. Dukes' OPS was .729, which ranked him 24th.)
So maybe a Harris/Morse combo could work.
"We like some other options in right field, really," manager Jim Riggleman said yesterday in discussing the Dukes release. "Nobody's really taken the bull by the horns or anything like that, but we just kind of feel that a combination of some other guys there that we think can man right field with players that are going to give us better options to win games."
The Nationals have 18 days to figure out precisely what combination gives them the best chance to win, and which combination will most make fans forget about Dukes.