Outfielder Nyjer Morgan was thought to be on borrowed time.
When the Cleveland Indians signed him to minor league contract with an invite to big league spring training, expectations were low. He had not appeared in a Major League Baseball game since 2012, having played in Japan last season. When last in the big leagues, Morgan was struggling with the Milwaukee Brewers. Now, at 34, his best years were sure behind him.
Morgan did not hit very well in spring training and seemed destined to be released. Then, on March 24, starting center fielder Michael Bourn was ruled out for the start of the season. He tweaked his left hamstring and was placed on the disabled list to begin the year. Morgan would be on the Tribe’s Opening Day roster. It was one of the more stunning outcomes of training camp.
Still Morgan seemed a long-shot to be with the Indians once Bourn came back. The odds of him surviving the return of Bourn plus the also injured Jason Giambi were even more grim.
Then, even more stunning than making the team, Morgan began to hit and run the bases like he was in his 20s again. Over the Tribe’s first nine games, Morgan has played in eight and could be considered one of the team’s MVPs of first week and a half.
Heading into Thursday night’s game with the Chicago White Sox, the speedy center fielder had hit .389 (7-for-18), with two stolen bases in as many tries. It is a small sample size, but taking him off the roster at this point would be hard to do. He has been more than the Indians could have hoped for as Bourn’s replacement at the top of the order.
Bourn, currently on a minor league rehab assignment, is hoping to be back on Sunday. The odd-man out is likely to be utility player Elliot Johnson as manager Terry Francona will undoubtedly attempt to stick with his beloved four-man bench and eight-man bullpen as long as he can.
Word is Giambi could be back from his rib injury as early as next week. Reserve players Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn and Lonnie Chisenhall are not likely to be going anywhere. That leaves Morgan or a reliever. It is likely Morgan has proven himself enough and made himself valuable enough that the Indians will, at that point, pear the bullpen down to seven arms.
The reasons for keeping Morgan are two-fold. For one, he has done plenty to show he deserves a longer look with the Tribe. He has been one of the team’s better hitters in the early going and certainly is showing himself to be as good a base stealer as anyone on the roster.
Secondly, hamstring injuries can be a nasty thing. Just when they seem to be in a player’s review mirror, they can pop back up. If Bourn goes down again, having a backup like Morgan is a nice luxury. Batters who can thrive in the leadoff spot do not grow on trees and the Indians seem to have two such players.
Whether or not Bourn gets hurt again, having Morgan around will allow Cleveland to ease the former back into the everyday lineup. Bourn will not have to be rushed back and can play every other day if need be. There will be no need to hurry back on a full-time basis and risk doing damage to leg that could be reinjured if too much pressure is put on it too soon.
All of this would seem to indicate that the Tribe will soon have five players on the bench with seven in the relief corps. The Tribe would be better off sending C.C. Lee or Blake Wood to the minors, where they can be called back up at a moments notice in an emergency situation. Eight men in the pen will prove to be a luxury that does not compare to having someone capable of filling in the top of the everyday lineup.
Morgan, who once seemed to have long odds to even where an Indians uniform, will now be hard to move. It would seem he will and should be in Cleveland for a while. No longer is Morgan on borrowed time as his comeback to the majors seems to have more life than anyone could have ever imagined just a few short months ago.
Photo: Tony Dejak/Associated Press