VIERA, Fla. - Count Rick Ankiel among the few people happy that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is still searching for a center fielder who can hit leadoff. If Rizzo had found elusive quarry this offseason, Ankiel might still be searching for a job.
Two weeks ago, Ankiel inked a minor league deal with the Nationals, getting a spring training invitation that’s more formality than anything. Barring a collapse of epic proportions, Ankiel will be on the opening day roster at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Ankiel will be either the starting center fielder or a fourth outfielder on manager Davey Johnson’s improved bench.
“As things go, you pay attention. Obviously, toward the end (of the offseason), you have to make the best decision, but I’m happy I’m back,” Ankiel said. “I’m ready to do work.”
The Mets reportedly had interest in Ankiel, but the veteran opted for familiarity and a better opportunity. He hit .239 with nine homers, 37 RBIs and 10 stolen bases for the Nationals in 2011, and was the team’s opening day center fielder after Nyjer Morgan was traded to the Brewers late in spring training.
Respectful switch: Why did shortstop Ian Desmond switch his jersey number from No. 6 to No. 20? In part because he finally feels like he’s an established major leaguer, and in part because he wanted to pay homage to former Nationals manager Frank Robinson and ex-Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, one of his favorite all-time football players.
“I never picked No. 6 when I came into the big leagues. I waited until I had my feet planted here until I made a change,” Desmond said. “I feel comfortable enough in the organization. ... With Frank being my first manager, it definitely had something to do with it. Barry Sanders is somebody I respected as a kid growing up. I just like the way they both went about their business and figured there was nobody better to idolize.”
Count Desmond among those who would like to see the Nationals formally recognize Robinson, who skippered the team in 2005 and 2006, its first two seasons in D.C. after moving from Montreal. Robinson’s 81-81 club in 2005 is the only Nationals team not to finish below .500.
“It would be nice. I think they should honor him a little bit,” Desmond said. “He was the first manager as a National and that kind of means something. My personal opinion is that they don’t do enough to pay a little bit of respect to the Expos. ... I came up as an Expo, I’m still a National and I’m one of the longest-tenured guys in the organization. It did kind of carry over from the Expos to the Nationals. I’m living proof.”
The longest-tenured member of the organization is outfielder Roger Bernadina, who was signed as a non-drafted free agent in November 2001. Desmond was a third-round pick in 2004, making him the longest-serving drafted player. The other players with roots in the Expos organization are left-hander Atahualpa Severino, a non-drafted free agent signed in February 2004, and minor league shortstop Seth Bynum, who was signed as a non-drafted free agent in May 2004.
Early arrivals: Add Ankiel and outfielder Corey Brown to the list of position players who have reported to camp early, bringing the number to 11. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein has been pleased with the turnout, and said he was asked to be available for 9 a.m. sessions Sunday by hitters wanting to get a jump on work in the cage.
Who’s that guy?: Every camp has one guy who’s kind of unknown, and that distinction this year belongs to right-handed pitcher Austin Bibens-Dirkx, a non-roster invitee with a name so long that it stretches from shoulder to shoulder on his jersey. He’s also believed to be the first player in team history with a hyphenated last name.
The 26-year-old right-hander spent the last thee seasons in the Cubs organization, where he was 6-7 with a 5.94 ERA in 29 games (22 starts) between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa last year. He was a 16th-round pick by the Mariners in the 2006 draft and has a career 31-22 record and 4.29 ERA in six minor league seasons.