Welcome back to North America, Nyjer Morgan! The former Pirates, Nationals and Brewers center fielder has been signed to a minor league deal by the Indians after spending a year in Japan. This contract is the typical one used by Cleveland for players of his sort, a minor league contract worth $1 million if he makes the team out of Spring Training. During 2013, Morgan played for the Yokohama Bay Stars and was very impressive, essentially matching his career high rate stats over 108 games. Taking advantage of the weaker league, Morgan set a new career high with 11 home runs and had 28 extra base hits. The negative to this, is he also struck out more often than normal, striking out once in every 4.5 at bats compared to 5.5 in his MLB career.
This difference could also have been because of a change in strategy, not just the difference in leagues. Morgan has obviously lost a lot of speed, as do most 33 year olds, as noted by his paltry three steals in 2013. Prior to that, he had stolen at least 10 bases each season from 2009 through 2012 as one of the game's premier center fielders. Of course, speed matters on defense as well and Morgan looks to be slowing down there as well. His 2.15 range factor in 2013 essentially brought him back down to league average instead of his career average of 2.71. He also committed four errors in just 96 games on the balls he did reach. Only twice during his Major League career did he reach that amount and both times he played more than 115 games.
What this boils down to is a speed first, defensive minded outfielder is attempting to turn his career around by becoming a power hitter. While it is a nice idea, at 5'10" and 185 pounds and without steroids, it is hard to imagine Morgan ever blasting more than ten out of Major League ballparks.
Now the question is, what are the Indians going to do with him. Right now, the Indians have Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, David Murphy and Ryan Raburn who will all make the team as outfielders. This leaves at most one or two spots that a player like Morgan could essentially fill, depending on if the Indians carry a third catcher or eighth reliever. Competing for those one to two spots are Morgan, Jeff Francoeur, Matt Carson and Carlos Moncrief. While this doesn't seem like too large of a hurdle, they are also competing with Matt Treanor, Roberto Perez, Chris Wallace, Francisco Lindor, Erik Gonzalez, David Cooper, Jason Giambi, Ryan Rohlinger and David Adams. Most of these players will begin 2014 in AAA, but one or two will likely be among your 2014 Cleveland Indians.
Even with all that competition, Morgan has as real of a chance as anyone and a better one than some. If the Indians truly make it a fair competition in camp, it will likely be a much more limited race for two spots that will include Morgan, Francoeur, Treanor, Wallace, Rohlinger, Cooper and Adams. Of course, the Indians could do what they did in 2013 and just give one spot to Giambi, essentially wasting a place on the roster.
If Morgan does make it on the team, it will be in a very limited fashion. He would not be the reserve outfielder, that will be Raburn, who will likely platoon with Murphy in right. He would mostly be used as a pinch runner and late inning defensive replacement for either Raburn or Murphy. Defensively, offensively and on the bases, he is inferior to Brantley and Bourn, so he would only be used as a replacement for them in an emergency situation. Because of this, there is a good chance that Francoeur would be a better choice from the off-set.
More will be known as Spring Training starts and progresses, but as of now, Morgan will just be added to the long list of minor league free agents competing for a spot in the Indians camp this Spring. With that being as unlikely as it is, his best chance may be to accept a minor league assignment and just hope for an injury on the major league level. If that happens, no one knows, but he could become the next Ryan Raburn. One thing is sure, if the Indians are able to resurrect even one of these dead careers, they won't be able to hold back the hordes of baseball zombies with a shotgun.