Morgan Can Still Entertain–But Can He Still Play?
Steve Eby | On 07, Mar 2014
The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ players who is in a roster battle to earn one of the Tribe’s last spots on the Opening Day roster.
Indians camp invitee Nyjer Morgan is back trying to make a Major League team a year after playing in Japan. During his first spring training with the Tribe—according to Zack Meisel of the Northeast Ohio Media Group—Morgan reached into his clubhouse mailbox, pulled out a giant stack of fan mail and said, “I’m still cool.”
For Morgan, looking “cool” has never really been an issue. As a sort-of, poor-man’s Kenny Lofton, Morgan has a track record over his previous years in the Major Leagues as a spark-plug type player who can impact a game in several ways. Morgan can disrupt another team’s mojo with his blazing speed, his ability to bunt, his outstanding outfield range or his knack for just putting the ball in play. On top of all of that, Morgan at least has an ability to get under the other team’s skin a little bit.
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 33rd round of the 2002 Draft, Morgan started making a name for himself after being traded to the Washington Nationals in June of 2009. That season, Morgan set career highs by stealing 42 bases, knocking 144 hits including seven triples while batting .307. Then, in 2010, Morgan’s play declined somewhat, but his knack for being newsworthy only grew.
In August, Morgan was suspended for seven games for allegedly throwing a baseball at a Phillies fan who was heckling him at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The suspension was appealed and eventually dropped, but less than a week later Morgan created negative press again by colliding with Marlins catcher Brett Hayes on a play at the plate while Hayes’ back was turned on the play. Later that evening, Morgan was hit by a pitch and then eventually created a brawl at the pitcher’s mound when Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad threw behind Morgan again in the sixth inning.
Becoming known as somewhat of a headache in Washington, the Nationals traded Morgan to the Milwaukee Brewers during the following spring training. Morgan was an impact player in a platoon role in Milwaukee and helped lead the Brew-Crew to the National League Championship Series with a walk-off single in Game Five of the NLDS. Despite his heroics, Morgan was criticized widely for screaming obscenities on live, national television following the game.
During his two-year stint in Milwaukee, Morgan continued to make head-scratching headlines when he started referring to himself as Tony Plush—an alter-ego that he created. He said that the man nicknamed T-Plush was his “name on the field” or his “gentleman’s name” and he will occasionally create a “T” with his hands after reaching base. After having the worst season of his career in 2012, T-Plush took his antics to Japan where he batted .294 with 11 homeruns for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.
Now, Morgan is back in the states after signing a minor league deal with the Indians on January 16. He is battling for a roster spot on the Major League squad, hoping to catch on as a fifth outfield option who could back up Michael Bourn in centerfield and Michael Brantley in left.
If Morgan does impress enough to make the team while in Goodyear, he could certainly add a new wrinkle to the Indians bench that does not exactly have a “speed-guy” that Morgan could provide. He’ll mainly be battling another resurrection project in Jeff Francoeur, but will also have to contend with David Adams, Jose Ramirez, Matt Carson, Bryan LaHair, and Elliot Johnson as well. If the Indians decide to carry a true backup catcher while Carlos Santana tries his hand at third base, Morgan will have to battle for that roster spot as well.
As it stands now, Morgan has already made somewhat a name for himself in the early stages of the Cactus League. He’s been a bit of a spark-plug at the plate and last Friday Morgan made an outstanding diving catch in centerfield against the Reds which caught the eye of the skipper he’s trying to impress.
“You can tell he’s on a mission,” Manager Terry Francona said. “He’s playing with a lot of enthusiasm. He’s all over the place.”
While Morgan has a long way to go towards clinching his spot on the 25-man roster, having the initial approval of his manager is a good first step. If he continues this play, the Tribe’s Goon Squad might have to make room for Tony Plush.
After all, T-Plush is definitely still cool.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer