Friday, October 1, 2010, 8:03 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
NEW YORK -- For all the shuffling around that's taken place in the outfield this season, the Washington Nationals might very well enter 2011 with the same group of players vying for three starting spots.
Though the Nationals got consistent, everyday production from only left fielder Josh Willingham (whose season ended in August due to a knee injury), they feel like the remaining quartet of Nyjer Morgan, Roger Bernadina, Michael Morse and Justin Maxwell could be more productive than anything they could reasonably acquire this winter.
"I think the most likely scenario is we'll have pretty much the same group," manager Jim Riggleman said before Friday night's game against the New York Mets. "Now, if GM Mike Rizzo acquires an outfielder that has superior numbers to these guys, then these guys will be put on the back burner. But I don't anticipate that happening."
There are two high-profile outfielders about to hit the open market in Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, and the Nationals will probably inquire with both players' agents. But the odds of landing one of the most coveted free agents in baseball seems slim.
Other outfielders becoming free agents include Jose Guillen, Brad Hawpe and Austin Kearns. David DeJesus, Magglio Ordonez and Jason Kubel all could become free agents if their respective teams don't pick up contract options for 2011.
"The free agent market for outfielders is relatively thin," Riggleman said. "There's a couple guys, but those few guys who are free agents, they can almost hand-pick the place they go. So you not only have to try to get them, they have to want to come to where you're at."
Thus, the Nationals may feel they're better off with what they already have: Willingham in left, and some combination of the other four in center and right.
Bernadina and Morse have mostly platooned in right field this season and have combined to post numbers better than the average big-leaguer who plays that position: a .283 average, 17 homers, 57 RBI, a .346 on-base percentage and a .472 slugging percentage.
Morgan has been less impressive in center field, regressing in every statistical category from last year. But Maxwell, a superior defensive outfielder, has yet to prove he can consistently hit big-league pitching. Over 211 career at-bats, he's hitting .204 with nine homers and 25 RBI.
Rizzo said Morgan will be given the opportunity to retain his job as both center fielder and leadoff man, but won't assure him the job. Plenty of people around the organization continue to hope Maxwell, who turns 27 in November, finally puts things together and seizes that spot.
"I'm just really hoping that he does use the opportunities on the field -- as sparingly as they've been -- to show us that he's the real deal, and we really wouldn't have to look elsewhere," Riggleman said. "Because he does everything else better than everyone else: the running the bases and defense part of it. We want the bat to come. But the game is full of people who could do the other things and not hit enough. We'll find out soon enough if that's the case."