SARASOTA, Fla. -- John Russell is hardly set to fill his lineup card for the Pirates' season opener, but there can be little doubt about this: It would be much stronger if Nyjer Morgan were to emerge as a legitimate leadoff man.
"Absolutely," Russell said. "Ideally, that's how we'd look."
Take it from Nate McLouth, too, even though he topped the order most of last year.
"No question about it, we're better if Nyjer can come through up there," McLouth said.
The "if" remains a variable, though.
If one looks at what Morgan has done for his career, the best descriptive term is inconsistent. Last year, he began as a bench player and batted .142, earning a demotion to Class AAA Indianapolis. Upon returning Aug. 19, he was one of the National League's most dynamic players, reaching base safely in 25 of 27 games, scoring 20 runs and putting up a .366 average that was 10th-highest in the National League in that modest span.
Which is it?
"I know which one," Morgan said. "I just have to bring it out all the time. That's the key."
Early this spring, it has been mostly a struggle. He is batting .211 -- 4 for 19 -- after going 1 for 3 yesterday -- yes, at leadoff -- in the Pirates' 10-6 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Ed Smith Stadium. He bounced a comebacker, struck out and one-handed a single into right.
Far more relevant, though, are numbers at leadoff in real games, and those show a somewhat favorable comparison to McLouth, though they come with the large asterisk that McLouth has played three times as many games: Morgan's career on-base percentage is .351 to .338 for McLouth. They also are similarly swift on the basepaths, though McLouth is far more efficient at stealing with a 92 percent success rate of to Morgan's 66 percent.
The chasm between the two, of course, comes in power, with McLouth breaking out for 26 home runs last year and Morgan having seven over six professional seasons.
But that, too, could point to McLouth being lower in the order, perhaps at No. 3, given the Pirates' significant need for pop. Seventeen of his 26 home runs last season came at leadoff, as did 55 of his 94 RBIs, the latter a jarring figure not likely to be duplicated.
"We have a bunch of guys who would benefit from having Nyjer up there, if he can do the job," Russell said. "And Nate's one of them."
Morgan's view on the topic is clear.
"I'm very comfortable at leadoff, and I have been since I was a kid," he said. "I feel like I have so much energy, and I love to be out there trying to get the boys going, be a pest, you know? That's my game."
But he also grasps that he needs to upgrade his on-base skills -- notably his patience at the plate -- to stay there even if he gets the chance.
"Yeah, I know, but there are all kinds of ways to get on base, even getting hit, and I'm ready to do that, too," he said with a laugh, recalling his 2004 with Class A Hickory in which he was plunked 33 times.
"Quite honestly, I'm not really sure how I feel about it from a personal standpoint," McLouth said. "I used to not like it, but I found a comfort zone there last year. I really don't think it matters much."
But from the team standpoint ...
"All I know is that I loved it when Nyjer did his thing in August and September. I was struggling before that and, all of a sudden, it felt like I was coming up with a man on third with one out all the time, and that man was usually Nyjer. That took a lot of pressure off me. So, yeah, absolutely, it would be great if he does it again, for me and the team."
Until that opener, Morgan's greatest concern must be keeping his grip on a starting left field job that management has handed to him only tentatively. If he continues to sputter this spring, Eric Hinske could claim it.
"It's a huge opportunity, and I know that," Morgan said. "This is what every kid dreams of, and I want it to be mine."
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published March 6, 2009 5:00 AM