Morgan, a Brewers star in '11, elects free agency

Morgan, a Brewers star in '11, elects free agency

MILWAUKEE -- Nyjer Morgan has a new alter ego: Tony For Hire.

Morgan, aka Tony Plush and a handful of other characters, ended a brief-but-colorful Brewers tenure on Friday by electing free agency, a day after the team hastened his departure by outrighting him from the 40-man roster. Morgan, who starred for the Brewers in 2011 before slipping to the bench in '12, would have been arbitration-eligible, and the team has a cheaper option for that role in 26-year-old Logan Schafer.

"It is a place that I'll cherish the rest of my life," Morgan told MLB.com via text message. "Fans, families that embraced the Plush movement in 'the Mill' are the greatest. I thank them and the Brewer organization for giving me a great opportunity."

The Brewers also cut ties Friday with reliever Kameron Loe and first baseman Travis Ishikawa.

While not at all unexpected, it was Morgan's departure which stood out.

"I know he's going to hook on with somebody," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "He's still a very good ballplayer and he has the ability to help a team. It's time to give Logan an opportunity, time to take a look at [fellow prospect] Caleb Gindl. We let some young pitchers have that chance [in 2012].

"I'll always look back at what Nyjer gave us [in 2011]. A good person, good competitor. He handled this year great. He's a real pro. Sometimes there might be the perception that he's maybe too 'active,' or whatever you want to say, but he's a guy who comes game-ready every time."

Morgan batted .239 in 2012 while falling behind Carlos Gomez on the Brewers' depth chart in center field, but will be remembered for a sensational 2011 in which he batted .304, collected one of the biggest hits in the Brewers' 44-year history and became a beloved character in Milwaukee for the same traits that made him so reviled over the years in places like Miami and St. Louis.

Morgan chalked up his more "active" moments to enthusiasm for a game he embraced late. Hockey was his first love, a rare choice for a kid growing up in San Jose, Calif., who would travel all the way to Canada to pursue the sport. But eventually, baseball called, and after being a 33rd-round Draft pick by the Pirates in 2002, Morgan made it to the Majors for brief stints in '07 and '08 before sticking in '09.

The Pirates traded Morgan to the Nationals that June, and the Nats traded Morgan to the Brewers in 2011 for midlevel outfield prospect Cutter Dykstra two days before Milwaukee broke Spring Training camp.

It did not take long for Morgan to endear himself. He batted .455 in April and kept hitting after an injury in May -- the result of a collision at home plate -- sidelined him. Morgan became a cult hit for his performances on the field and off, especially his postgame television appearances in which Morgan introduced Milwaukee to Tony Plush, the supremely confident, self-described entertainer whom Morgan had invented with some friends years earlier. 

How could they not be endeared to this guy? In June, Morgan delivered what he thought was a go-ahead eighth-inning single against the Mets. It was only when he saw teammate streaming onto the field that he discovered it was the ninth inning, and Morgan had just won the game.

A few weeks later, he asked his Twitter followers for suggestions about how to spend an off-day. When someone snarked that he should go fly a kite, Morgan did just that and posted photos of his afternoon along Milwaukee's lakefront.

His signature television sign-off -- "AHHHH! Gotta go!" -- was printed on T-shirts that became hot sellers at Miller Park, and more alter egos followed. There was Tony Tombstone, when the Brewers dressed in Western garb for a flight in Houston. Tony Hush, when Morgan clammed up after run-ins with the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols in August and September. And Tony Clutch, after Morgan's walk-off hit in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the D-backs.

Morgan "tickled" -- his word -- a single up the middle in the bottom of the 10th inning of the win-or-go-home game in the NLDS, scoring Gomez and sending the Brewers to their first League Championship Series since 1982. It ranks right up there among the biggest hits in Brewers history, alongside Cecil Cooper's go-ahead single in the decisive Game 5 of the '82 American League Championship Series and Ryan Braun's NL Wild Card-clinching homer in the '08 regular-season finale.

"When I'm done as a GM, that will go down as one of the most exciting years I had, and I told Nyjer at the end of the season that he bears a large responsibility for taking that team and me as a GM as far as I've gone in the postseason," Melvin said. "That Game 5 is one of the most memorable games, most nerve-wracking games, that I've ever been involved with, and I think you'll always remember that.

"I'll always remember the energy level he brought to that club, too. It was one of the most exciting years they've had here in a long time."

The 2012 season featured fewer highlights. Morgan batted .182 in April and did not drive in a run until he homered off Pittsburgh's Kevin Correia on June 1. Morgan's drought of 138 plate appearances to start a season without an RBI was a Major League record.

On several occasions, Melvin was close to trading Morgan to a contender, but those deals fell through.

Considering his salary ($2.35 million) is unlikely to fall in arbitration, Morgan's departure has been expected for months. Barring offseason moves, the Brewers will likely platoon the right-handed-hitting Gomez and left-handed-hitting Schafer, both outstanding defensive players.

Morgan, meanwhile, will seek the next stop on the Tony Plush tour.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.