Buried within one of his latest posts, ESPN.com’s Jim Bowden mentions a rumor that has allegedly been circulating lately (though nobody else has reported it to date) that the Washington Nationals and Tampa Bay Rays have discussed a potential trade that would involve Michael Morse and B.J. Upton. To his credit, Bowden does mention that a source within the Rays organization has flatly denied such talks have existed, but the idea is still worth discussing further.
As Bowden writes:
There have been rumors of a B.J. Upton for Michael Morse deal, too. This is a trade that would give the Rays an improvement in the middle of their lineup and a player they can control beyond this year. The Nats could put Upton in center and move Bryce Harper to the corner outfield where he belongs.
On its surface, such a deal appears unlikely for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, while adding Morse would provide a big improvement in production in the middle of the Rays’ batting lineup, it would simultaneously create a hole in the middle of the Nationals’ lineup.
Morse is batting .290/.309/.413 on the year, through 162 plate appearances (over 38 games) after missing the season’s first two months due to a strained lat muscle. He’s added just four home runs and 18 RBI in that span, but has also struck out a concerning 39 times. He struggled upon first returning, showing signs that his swing was late as his timing was simply off from missing so many games early on this season. He’s picked things up since, but is still far off the expectations instilled from the superb 2011 campaign that he was able to put together (which, to refresh our memories, consisted of a final .303/.360/.550 line with 31 HR and 95 RBI over 575 plate appearances).
Upton, meanwhile, is hitting .247/.308/.378 so far, through 327 plate appearances (76 games). He’s added eight home runs and 30 RBI. His power production and on base rate are both down from last year, but his batting average is actually the highest it has been since the 2008 season. He’s largely been batting at or near the top of the Rays’ lineup for much of the past few seasons and has never really developed into the middle of the order threat that some thought he could be.
An added concern, Morse is under team control through next season at a reasonable $6.75 Million. Upton, however, is slated to hit free agency this winter and it’s unclear exactly what type of deal he could possible command on the open market. Based on the way the free agent market has played out for the past few winters, it seems relatively safe to say that Upton could end up with a deal that pays him in excess of what Morse will earn. Washington has long been connected to Upton – due to his ability to play center field and his childhood ties to Ryan Zimmerman – and the team may very well pursue him once he reaches free agency. But, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to make a big deal to acquire him now, at the cost of a player like Morse, to then hand him the same contract they might this winter.
Furthermore, while Bowden’s basic point (adding Upton would let the team move Harper back to a corner outfield spot) is valid, he fails to factor in all of the variables, most notably the pending return of Jayson Werth. Once Werth is back in the lineup in a few weeks, he will likely return to his spot in right field in an everyday role. There has been ample speculation about who would be better suited to move over to center field once Werth and Harper are both in the lineup together. Many have argued Werth is the better option up the middle, but Harper’s youth and athleticism make him a stronger candidate to cover more ground out there – even if it isn’t his natural position or where he is best served playing long term.
If the Nationals were to bring aboard a player such as Upton, it would necessitate Werth and Harper manning the corners. This would ultimately have further implications on the remainder of the lineup – notably reduced playing time for Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel, Steve Lombardozzi, and Tyler Moore. To some, limited at bats for Bernadina and Ankiel would actually be a good thing for this Nationals team. However, both Lombardozzi and Moore have become important pieces to this team on the year and are quickly developing into fan favorites in the Washington area. Both have seen extensive playing time in the outfield, the result of efforts to get their bats in the lineup more frequently. Neither seems likely to be relegated strictly to bench duty.
Upton might prove to be an option for the Nationals this winter, though that is another discussion for another time, but he doesn’t appear to be the best option this team could potentially pursue before the trade deadline comes up in a few weeks. With Werth’s pending return, the team already has another quality outfielder set to re-join the lineup. And the fact remains, Upton would not be able to provide the type of production that Morse is capable of, meaning a potential deal could actually hinder the Washington offense further. According to Bowden the Rays have denied any talks have taken place between the two sides, perhaps things are simply better off that way.