We spend all Spring Training talking about positional battles and roster decisions like they will be permanent, but it continues throughout the season. The most recent of these has come to the surface during the past week as Nyjer Morgan, who has replaced Michael Bourn in center field while he missed time with injury, has surpassed the starter both offensively and defensively.
This is actually a situation the Indians never expected to happen as the minor league free agent has outplayed the $48 million dollar man. The difference in pay has more to do with timing than anything else. Michael Bourn signed his giant deal going into his first season of free agency after stealing 42 bases for Atlanta. At 30 years old, it was obvious that his talents would be diminishing over the length of the contract, but worth the chance for a center fielder who had never spent time on the disabled list during his first seven seasons.
Morgan on the other hand, was coming off a season in Japan and would be three years older when signing with the Tribe. While he had a great year for the Yokohama Bay Stars, very rarely do Nippon League numbers translate into Major League success. After a solid Spring, Morgan snuck onto the 25 man roster when Bourn hit the DL to start the season. After a short trip to Columbus following Bourn’s return, Morgan returned to Cleveland when Bourn re-injured his hamstring. During this most recent stint, Morgan has really made an impression.
In the past week, Bourn and Morgan have played almost the identical amount of time, so they are easy to compare. While Bourn does have two extra base hits, they are the only hits he has in his last 14 at bats. Morgan, on the other hand, has four hits in his last 13, including three in the Tribe’s final game in Tampa when he played left field with Bourn playing center. There was more to take out of that game than just the hits, though. Seeing both outfielders play next to each other, it is obvious that Morgan has more speed and is the better defender. While this is likely because of Bourn’s hamstring, the reason is less important than the fact. With the Indians defense as weak as it is, it is important for them to put the best player at each position and that would mean Morgan in center more often than not.
It would seem at this point that Bourn is attempting to play through an injury, which is admirable, but not very intelligent. With almost three more seasons under contract, it is more important to the Indians to allow Bourn to heal completely before pushing him into a full time role. As the lead-off hitter and center fielder, there really isn’t a way to wean him back into regular playing time. It is rare to have the luxury of a reserve outfielder as solid as Morgan has been. He is a plus outfielder, average hitter and brings an non-quantifiable quality to the team in his exuberance, which comes to the surface as his alter-ego, Tony Plush.
Of course, the real decision to be made will not be between Morgan and Bourn, who would both remain on the roster, but between Morgan, Jose Ramirez and Jason Giambi, who could come off the DL in a week. With Bourn’s ability to play on a daily basis questionable, the Indians would be well served to carry a real fifth outfielder, rather than being forced to use Mike Aviles in left field from time to time. Of course, with Jason Kipnis set to be on the DL through May, it is also important that they have a second baseman and a separate utility infielder. The logical solution would be to release Giambi, but there has been no logic involved in his signing or re-signing, so it is hard to predict what the team will actually do. Either way, the Indians need to take advantage of Morgan’s current hot streak, and put him in the line-up as often as possible.