Sunday, March 27, 2011, 10:06 a.m.
Updated at 11:52 a.m.
By Mark ZuckermanNationals Insider
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEO
VIERA, Fla. -- Nyjer Morgan's eventful tenure in Washington came to an end Sunday morning when the Nationals traded the outfielder to the Milwaukee Brewers for minor-league infielder Cutter Dykstra and 50,000 cash.
With that somewhat-anticipated move, the Nationals severed ties with their enigmatic center fielder of the last 1 12 seasons and declared the job now will be held by veterans Rick Ankiel and Jerry Hairston, who will share at-bats in a platoon arrangement.
General manager Mike Rizzo insisted the trade was not a response to Morgan's critical comments or series of on-field incidents over the last year, but rather a reaction to Ankiel's performance in camp.
"Nyjer had a nice spring training," Rizzo said. "After the first week, 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."
Morgan took Washington by storm upon his acquisition from the Pittsburgh Pirates in June 2009 and wound up hitting .351 with 21 stolen bases in 49 games before breaking his wrist sliding into third base.
His performance last season severely declined, though, as did his reputation within the Nationals clubhouse and around baseball. In addition to hitting only .253 with a .319 on-base percentage, Morgan was thrown out on the bases more than any other player in the majors and regressed defensively in center field.
"It wasn't good. It was great," manager Jim Riggleman said of Morgan's 2009 season. "He was electric. You can't expect somebody to play at that level for six months. But the way he played last year, we feel like the real Nyjer Morgan is somewhere in between those two."
The decline in performance last season coincided with a string of controversial on-field incidents that included two run-ins with opposing catchers, a bench-clearing brawl in Florida and two suspensions that were eventually reduced to one.
As was the case all spring, Rizzo spoke glowingly of Morgan, saying the trade had nothing to do with clubhouse dynamics.
"Nyjer was a terrific guy in the clubhouse," the GM said. "He did everything right. Yeah, I was comfortable with the dynamic in the clubhouse. The dynamic in the clubhouse had nothing to do with the trade today."
Brewers GM Doug Melvin, who on Friday publicly denied having interest in acquiring Morgan, told reporters the Nationals' asking price went down over the weekend. He also investigated Morgan's history and came away with a positive impression of his new outfielder.
"We made some calls and people came back and said he's a good guy," Melvin said. "He's a former hockey player. They play with emotion. He might have learned from what happened last year. He's not a bad guy."
The Nationals declared at the beginning of spring training that the center field job was Morgan's to lose, and he didn't help his cause by getting off to a 1-for-16 start at the plate. Morgan did significantly improve his numbers over the past three weeks, hitting .342 since the slow start, but it became clear in recent days he had lost out to Ankiel and Hairston for the starting job.
On Friday, Morgan told MLB.com he did not expect to be with the Nationals when the season begins.
"I'm a realist," he said. "I'm not going to sit here and be like, 'Oh, no. I want to finish my career here.' I just think this place isn't for me. I'm not saying there are bad people here. It's just that, maybe, I'm not a fit here anymore. It's time to move on."
Morgan was one of only a few position players who didn't travel to Saturday's game in Kissimmee, where Riggleman said he was "disappointed" by the outfielder's comments. He was in uniform in the Nationals' clubhouse early Sunday morning but was not in the starting lineup against the Florida Marlins.
Rizzo pulled him aside shortly after 9 a.m. to inform him of the trade, and Morgan packed his things and departed the complex. Asked if he had time to speak to reporters, he replied: "Not now. I gotta go pack up the house."
"Players say things out of frustration all the time," Rizzo said. "I just had a great meeting with Nyjer. He's comfortable where we're at, and he feels good about himself. So that didn't play into it at all."
Rizzo was one of Morgan's biggest supporters throughout the last six months, even as other club officials pushed for his release or trade. The 2009 trade that brought Morgan and reliever Sean Burnett to Washington in exchange for reliever Joel Hanrahan and outfielder Lastings Milledge was the first major deal engineered by Rizzo upon becoming Nationals GM, and he again defended it Sunday.
"I would do that trade again today if I had to do it again," Rizzo said. "We got ourselves a terrific, young, controllable bullpen piece to go along with Nyjer. Nyjer was a good piece for us in the year and a half he was here. Combined with what we gave up in the deal and what we got back in the deal, I'm still satisfied with it."
Ankiel, the former pitching phenom with the St. Louis Cardinals who resurrected his career as an outfielder, will start in center field on Opening Day and get the majority of at-bats against right-handed pitching. Hairston, a veteran utilityman, will likely start in center field against lefties while also making occasional appearances around the diamond.
Upon signing over the winter for 1.5 million, Ankiel hoped there would be a chance to earn a starting job in either left or center field.
"I thought so, but at the same time whether you're going to be a role player or a starting guy, you prepare the same way," the 31-year-old said. "It's a long year. You never know what's going to happen."
Morgan's departure leaves the Nationals without a prototypical leadoff man. Riggleman said shortstop Ian Desmond will open the season as his No. 1 hitter, though Hairston could also bat there when he starts.
Dykstra, the son of former big-league outfielder Lenny Dykstra, hit .312 with a .416 on-base percentage last season at low-Class A Wisconsin. The 21-year-old is expected to report to Viera Monday and begin the season at high-Class A Potomac.
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.