Wednesday, March 16, 2011, 11:30 a.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
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Three years ago, Jayson Werth's career was at a crossroads. Despite physical gifts and some mild success in the big leagues, the then-28-year-old outfielder still hadn't been given a chance to establish himself as an everyday player.
Everyone knows what has happened since. Finally given an opportunity by the Philadelphia Phillies, Werth saw his career take off. He won a World Series ring, made the All-Star team for the first time and parlayed it all into a 126 million contract with the Washington Nationals.
Through it all, Werth had something of a secret admirer from another ballplayer who likewise was still waiting for his opportunity to arrive. Michael Morse watched Werth from afar and wondered if a similar fate might await him.
"I've followed his whole career," Morse said last month in Viera, Fla. "That's what a lot of people compare me to. I get excited when somebody says: 'You remind me of Jayson Werth.' That makes me feel like I'm doing the right things."
Morse has done plenty of things right this spring, enough to all but lock up the Nationals' starting job in left field. That he'll be joined in that lineup by none other than Werth only adds to Morse's tale.
The similarities between the two are striking. Each stands at 6-foot-5, weighing between 220 to 230 pounds. Each strikes an imposing presence from the right side of the plate. Each came up through the minors playing another position (Werth a catcher, Morse a shortstop) before settling in the outfield. Each has a history of tinkering with his facial hair.
The only difference is that Werth, now 31, has already seen his career take off. Morse, 28, can only hope his time is about to come.
Morse first became aware of Werth several years ago while playing in Seattle. Mariners teammate Raul Ibanez, another late-bloomer Morse likes to model himself after, noted the then-utilityman reminded him a lot of Werth.
So Morse started paying closer attention to Werth, watching his at-bats and his performance in the field just as the latter was beginning to make a name for himself in Philadelphia, and came to a startling conclusion.
"Man, this guy is pretty good," Morse said. "I like this guy."
Playing opportunities for Morse, were still few and far between in Seattle. Then he was traded to the Nationals in June 2009 for outfielder Ryan Langerhans, a deal that got little publicity at the time but has proven to be one of general manager Mike Rizzo's most-adept roster moves.
All Morse has done since is hit. And hit. And hit some more. In 130 games with the Nationals, he owns a .283 average, 18 homers, 51 RBI, a .342 on-base percentage and an .855 OPS that over the last two seasons has been surpassed in Washington only by Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham.
A spot in the Nationals' lineup, though, had yet to be guaranteed. And when the Nationals went out this winter and signed none other than Werth to take over the right field job he originally hoped to win himself, Morse could have become discouraged.
Instead, Morse couldn't contain his excitement to suddenly be teammates with his favorite ballplayer.
"Jayson Werth is a guy I look at. I look at his hitting, his play in right field, especially last year. Half the reason I wore number 28 was because of Jayson Werth," Morse said. "And now he's here. It's even better. I get to learn from him and move over to left. I'm excited."
And thanks to a prodigious spring at the plate, Morse (who entered Wednesday hitting a cool .469 with five homers, 10 RBI and a ridiculous 1.486 OPS) has all but locked up the left field job.
He was always careful not to complain when, despite his offensive production, he'd more often than not find himself on the bench in the past. Make no mistake, though: Morse has always believed he was good enough to play every day.
And as Werth did three years ago in Philadelphia, Morse is now going to get his chance in Washington.
"I mean, there's no one in this game that doesn't want to play every day," he said. "If somebody tells you they don't want to play every day, they're either lying to you or they shouldn't even be playing."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.