Next in line for my new plan for the Nats is Center Field. Follow along with the series here.
Let me point out first that I love Nyjer Morgan. Let me point out second that he is not as much of a sure thing as we think. Is he ridiculously fast? Yes. Is he a ridiculolusly good defensive centerfielder? Yes. Is he a legit leadoff man? Ehhhh...I'm still not convinced.
Morgan showed excellent improvement in his batting eye in the first part of the year with Pittsburgh (from less than 6% in both ML and AAA in 2008 to 9.4% in his 278 plate appearances with the Pirates) but regressed greatly with the Nats (back down to 5.4%). It is not safe to assume he will walk at the same rate in 2010 as he did in 2009, nor is it safe to assume that he will even come close to the robust .351/.396/.435 batting line he put up for the Nats. If he stays below a 6% walk rate, he'd have to hit .290 or above to maintain the .350 OBP that is asthetically pleasing for a leadoff man.
What we do know is that Nyjer is an excellent fielder and a better baserunner than in his past (a 77% success rate is good, and much better than his 64% success rate with Pittsburgh). These two traits in themselves are incredibly valuable, so much that before Nyjer's breakout in Washington, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs argued that he was just as valuable as Adam Dunn. What we do not know is if Nyjer is really the leadoff man we expect him to be. I certainly hope he is (and believe he is), but it's not as much of a sure thing as we think.
In terms of the other guys, Dukes would only be the long-term CF if a player outside of the organization was brought in to play RF and Morgan was injured. Even so, I would expect Maxwell and Harris to pass him on the food chain, like they have this year. Harris could have a big bounce-back year, as his BB% and isolated slugging have either risen or stayed constant but his batting average has bottomed out. If his luck evens out, he could have another 2008-level season in 2010. Maxwell continues to disappoint me, but I do believe he'll eventually be at the very least a good 4th outfielder for the Nats.
Sleeper Pick (from the organization): Norris Hopper
Sitting in AAA is a player not dissimilar to Nyjer Morgan. Hopper has hopped from organization to organization in 2009, coming over to the Nats in August along with Daryle Ward from the White Sox. FJB ran a nice post about Hopper's value when Morgan came down, and I do believe he would be an excellent player to have as a 5th outfielder and start in CF vs left-handed opposing pitchers (for the record, Morgan is very bad against LHP in his career: .200/.302/.286 in 183 plate appearances whereas Hopper is very good against LHP in his career: .367/.406/.456 in 175 plate appearances). Hopper is basically a right-handed version of Nyjer Morgan (minus a little speed and fielding ability, but not so much that he's below average). It almost makes too much sense to happen, and I really wish the Nats would have given him a shot rather than the obviously not ML-ready Justin Maxwell during the roster expansion.
Sleeper Pick (from outside the organization): Rocco Baldelli
Just as my Randy Winn pick from yesterday, I could see the Nats bringing Baldelli aboard as a Kearns-type, albeit one with more fielding ability and upside. Baldelli might cost a little bit more based on his decent 2009 season (.254/.315/.462). With his walks and strikeouts rising over his career averages and his isolated power staying steady, I don't think Baldelli is much different of a player than he was in the mid-2000s with the Rays (other than the knowledge of the form of channelopathy he suffers from), and still possesses huge upside. I do expect him to stick with the hometown Red Sox, though, until he truly gets back on his feet from a medical perspective.
2009 production by Nats center fielders to date: .268/.349/.390, 8 HR, 75 R, 53 RBI, 37/53 SB
2010 projection: I expect the slash line to remain semi-constant, with the batting average probably improving into the .280-.290 range (depending on how much Morgan plays), but with the OBP and SLG remaining similar. Runs will improve, but not as much as one might expect, as Morgan does run into a lot of outs on the basepaths. I do believe that next year will be the year that Morgan finally takes the next step into baserunning responsibility. He is a special talent and a smart player, and I think that he could finally become a premiere baserunner (not just basestealer) next year.
A list of the Nats currently under contract can also be found at Cot's.
The latest projected Elias Rankings (for Type A/B Free Agent purposes) can be found at MLB Trade Rumors.