Is Nyjer Morgan the next Juan Pierre?

Perhaps no player in fantasy baseball has a wider range of potential outcomes than Pirates outfielder Nyjer Morgan. A former hockey player in the Canadian Junior Leagues, Morgan is really fast and he has posted a good batting average in two limited stretches in the majors. He is in a battle for a starting job in Spring Training and there is a strong possibility he starts April as the team’s leadoff man and everyday left fielder.

If Morgan holds down the starting job all season his upside is 2003-vintage Juan Pierre. That year, Pierre hit .305, stole 65 bases and had roughly a $30 season despite hitting just one home run.

But even if Morgan wins the job in Spring Training over Steve Pearce, there’s no guarantee he holds on to the job, as Andrew McCutchen will likely join the Pirates at some point in the 2009 season and take over an everyday job in the outfield.

And there’s always the battle with Pearce, who has been a better hitter than Morgan throughout their careers in the minors and who has the power bat that teams like to see from their corner outfielders. The Pirates seem worried about Pearce’s ability to hit off-speed pitches and have hinted that he may need additional seasoning in the minors.

So, if Morgan wins the battle in Spring Training, how likely is he to keep the job?

The first thing that jumps out about Morgan is his BABIP. Last year in Pittsburgh it was .367 and that hardly seems a mark that he could maintain going forward. But Morgan has always posted high BABIPs in the minors. He makes decent contact, hits line drives, and has the tremendous speed – pretty much the exact profile of a player who can post high BABIPs.

Can Morgan supplement his average with a good OBP? He’s never had a great walk season and there is no reason to expect him to in 2009. Yet, he should be able to post an OBP of around .350 if he can hit .300, which would be borderline acceptable. For a comparison, Pierre’s OBP was .361 in 2003.

Is he a good enough fielder to hold down a corner spot with no power? While defensive ability currently has no value in fantasy baseball, in this particular case it will help determine Morgan’s playing time. He does not look like a good outfielder running routes to the ball, but his UZR numbers are through the roof. Last year, only two qualified left fielders posted a double-digit UZR/150. In 45 games last year, Morgan’s UZR/150 extrapolated to 22.4, which would have been behind only Carl Crawford among left fielders.

Does the manager seem willing to go to war with Morgan? At the end of last season, Pirates manager John Russell said, “He did some really good things. He was exciting. He really added a dimension to our offense. His missing three games is not going to affect our evaluation.” In December, had Russell suggesting “the Pirates will start the season with Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss manning the outfield.”

But while all of the above might paint a rosy picture, keep in mind that his MLE from his 327 at-bats in Triple-A last year show a player with a .266/.310/.324 line. Do you place more value on 327 Triple-A at-bats or the 160 he had with the Pirates? And even if you favor the at-bats in Pittsburgh, how much faith do you have that he can maintain the ultra-high BABIP?

Morgan simply has too much volatility to be anything other than a late-round pick in most fantasy leagues. It’s near certain that some owners will fall in love with his SB potential and draft him earlier than that, especially if the Pirates announce that he’s won the job before your league drafts. But remember that McLouth and Moss are definitely above him in the pecking order and that McCutchen and Pearce (and even Craig Monroe) are looming if he stumbles.

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Nyjer has been on my radar a few years now, and yes, he does look like a Xerox copy of Juan Pierre in a Pirate’s uniform. Another thing Nyjer has in common with Juan besides speed and 1920 knickers, is a high contact rate which was/is a key to Juan’s success. Love to see him get moved to another team where he can get a full time gig.