WASHINGTON — Before Michael Morse came to the Washington Nationals, he toggled between the minors and majors, between positions, between health and injury. He believed he would make himself into an everyday major leaguer. He saw his chance in the nation’s capital, even if the team was spiraling toward the worst record in the majors.
“I always thought that I could be a good player if I got an opportunity,” Morse said Wednesday night in a phone conversation. “I got my opportunity here, and all the hard work and everything I’ve always done paid off. I finally felt like I fit in. I finally felt like I had a home.”
Morse has a new home now, and it is, incidentally, the same as his old home. The Nationals sent Morse back to the Seattle Mariners in a three-way trade that netted them right-hander A.J. Cole, the pitching prospect who last winter served as the centerpiece of the trade that brought Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland Athletics to the Nationals. The Mariners sent catcher John Jaso to the Oakland to complete the deal. The Nationals also received 24-year-old minor leaguer Blake Treinen and a player to be named from the A’s.
“I’m overjoyed. I’m excited,” Morse said. “It’s a great day for me and my family to just be in this situation… . One of the biggest things I want to do, I want to thank the Lerner family for giving me the opportunity and making me into the player and person I’ve become. The one person that actually believed in me, Mike Rizzo, I can’t thank him enough.”
The Nationals had been in discussions with multiple teams to trade Morse for weeks, talks that intensified last week once the Nationals re-signed first baseman Adam LaRoche. With LaRoche in the fold and their outfield full, Morse became expendable. Morse, who turns 31 in March, has one year remaining on his contract and will make $6.75 million this season.
And so, when Morse saw a voicemail waiting for him Wednesday night from Rizzo, his general manager, he assumed what would come next. Morse expected to be traded. The only questions in his mind were where and when. Morse called Rizzo back, and Rizzo delivered the news.
“We had such a great conversation,” Morse said. “We just talked like friends.”
Rizzo explained that he hated to see Morse leave, but that the Nationals had received a quality return.
Cole, a 6-foot-4 right-hander who can hit the high-90s with his fastball, went 0-7 with a 7.82 ERA when Oakland started him at high-Class A Stockton. After a demotion to low- Class A, Cole improved and went 6-3 with a 2.07 ERA the rest of the season. His star has dimmed since the Nationals dealt him to Oakland, but he is still only 21 and still has the potential Washington saw in him when they signed him to a $2 million bonus out of the 2010 draft.
Cole’s return will help replenish the pitching in the Nationals’ minor league system, which had been depleted by several recent trades. They shipped top pitching prospect Alex Meyer to the Minnesota Twins for center fielder Denard Span, and they also dealt Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone to Oakland in the Gonzalez trade last offseason.
While Cole returns to Washington, Morse will head back to the team the Nationals acquired him from in 2009, when Morse was still a Class AAA hitter without a position. During the three-plus seasons Morse played with the Nationals, he gave them more than they could have realistically hoped for.
Morse became a pivotal part of a lineup that turned a downtrodden franchise to a World Series contender. Over the past three seasons, Morse compiled an .861 on-base plus slugging percentage and 64 home runs, including 31 in his breakout 2011 season. He became a fan favorite — the crowd at Nationals Park sang along to his walk-up song “Take On Me” when he came to bat. He became a beloved member of the clubhouse — teammates let him pick the music and wore the “Beast Mode” T-shirt he made his trademark.
“I can’t lie to you. I’m going to miss everything about D.C.,” Morse said. “Especially the team we constructed now, we got to where we got to [last year] without knowing any better. Now, those guys, they have one goal. Now being on the outside, it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Rizzo can only hope his second trade involving Morse works as well as his first. In June 2009, Rizzo, then the interim GM, traded Ryan Langerhans for Morse. As Morse blossomed into a star slugger, Langerhans appeared in 21 games over the 2011 and 2012 seasons combined.
“I’m going back to an organization where I was a kid,” Morse said. “And now I’m a man.”
Treinen, 24, went 7-7 with a 4.37 ERA and 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 games, including 15 starts, at high-Class A Stockton last year. Stockton, where Cole struggled, is part of the California League, which annually produces inflated offensive numbers.
The Nationals’ trade of Morse is in no small way a show of faith in Tyler Moore, who becomes their primary right-handed pinch hitter and the backup to LaRoche at first base. As a rookie in 2012, Moore had a .263 batting average, .327 on-base percentage and a .513 slugging percentage, with 10 home runs, in just 171 plate appearances.
The Nationals are favored to make it back to the playoffs, but it may not feel quite the same without Morse. He will leave behind only warm feelings, even if the Nationals sent him back to where he once came from. He even considered leaving behind his trademark song.
“I’m 50-50 right now,” Morse said. “I feel like that’s something me and the people of D.C. kind of shared. We’ll see how it goes.”
Morse will not walk to the plate at Nationals Park with “Take On Me” playing again. Fans will not rise and sing along, the final lyric echoing through the stadium, high-pitched and a capella: “I’ll be gone / In a day or two.”