Football season is over, which means baseball season’s just around the corner. And it’s Babe Ruth’s 117th birthday, to boot! Good thing the Sultan of Swat doesn’t have to summon up enough breath to blow out all those candles.
NatsTown has generally welcomed the return of Rick Ankiel, who has agreed to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. Unless he falls flat on his face or is hurt, it’s a good bet Ankiel will come north as part of the Nationals’ 25-man roster.
But exactly where does Ankiel fit in?
That depends on a number of variables, not the least of which is where Jayson Werth plays and whether Bryce Harper proves in spring training he is ready for the majors. This much is known: Ankiel is a superior defensive outfielder with a strong arm and enough speed remaining in his 32-year-old legs to patrol the gaps.
For the purposes of argument, we’ll pencil Michael Morse into left field, leaving the following scenarios for Ankiel in 2012:
Werth in center, Harper in right: For this to happen, Harper has to convince general manager Mike Rizzo that he can handle major league pitching, and the only way to do that is to hit his way onto the 25-man roster out of spring training. Harper’s got all the confidence and bravado in the world, and manager Davey Johnson thinks his can handle the transition after only 37 games at Double-A. If Harper can sway Rizzo with his performance in the Grapefruit League, Ankiel becomes a very valuable asset off the bench - he can be used as a defensive replacement late in games and has a veteran’s savvy demeanor, making him a good choice as a pinch hitter. Don’t discount Ankiel’s speed, a nice asset to have in reserve.
Ankiel in center/Werth in right: Ankiel bats from the left side, while most pitchers throw right-handed. But he’s never played a full major league season as a starter, and the 122 games he logged for the Nationals in 2011 matched his career high. Bottom line, it’s a good bet no matter what Ankiel does in spring training, he probably won’t win the starting center field job to claim as his own. It doesn’t matter how strong his defense is, Ankiel can’t hit left-handed pitching - he hits .231 against southpaws and .251 versus right-handers. If he’s going to match last year’s playing time, Ankiel will probably have to share center field.
Ankiel as part of a platoon in center/Werth in right: This construction may make the most sense because it gives Harper more time to develop, it puts Werth in right field where he’s more comfortable and it means Johnson has some flexibility in structuring his lineup depending on the opposing pitcher. The question then becomes: Who shares center with Ankiel? The Nationals have several candidates. Veteran Mike Cameron could be the right-handed-hitting complement to Ankiel, but he’s 39 and has to prove he can handle the rigors of semi-regular play (though a platoon would certainly preserve him). Roger Bernadina can play center, but the Nationals prefer him as a corner outfielder, and then there’s the fact that he’s a left-handed hitter, like Ankiel (their numbers are similar, too - Bernadina is a career .224 hitter against lefties and bats .245 against righties). Mark DeRosa is the right-handed bat off the bench at this point, but he’s not a center fielder, and the likes of non-roster invitees Jason Michaels (36 in May), Corey Brown (inexperience, left-handed hitter), Xavier Paul (left-handed hitter) and Brett Carroll (primarily a corner man) all have a strike against them.
So where does Ankiel fit in? Probably in a shared arrangement that puts Werth back in his customary position and hints that Harper needs more seasoning. The trick will be determining the other half of the platoon, and if Cameron doesn’t seize the role, expect Rizzo to be on the lookout for a right-handed-hitting center fielder as teams pare their rosters deeper into spring training.
Update: The Nationals have made official the deal with Ankiel, and also announced they have signed veteran infielder/outfielder Mark Teahen to a minor league deal with a spring training invitation. Teahen is a seven-year major league veteran who bats from the left side and plays third base, right field and first base. He’s a career .264 hitter with 67 homers and 332 RBIs with the Royals, White Sox and Blue Jays. Last year, he batted .200 with four homers and 14 RBIs in 78 games for Chicago and Toronto, when an oblique option limited his playing time. The Jays released him in mid-January. The 30-year-old Teahen could provide another veteran bat off the bench for the Nats