The Internal Options
Among players already on the Nationals or in their farm system, there are very few options to play center field, with the exception of Jayson Werth. The team recently signed 39-year-old Mike Cameron to a minor-league deal, but Cameron hit only .203/.285/.359 last year with the Red Sox and Marlins. However, he did hit a serviceable .238 with the Marlins after being waived by the Red Sox. He is also below average defensively, a given for a 39-year-old CF, and cannot man the position permanently. Incumbent Roger Bernadina, who started the second-most games for the Nationals in centerfield behind Ankiel, had similar stats to Cameron last season, hitting .243 with an OBP of .301 and playing adequate defense. Unlike Cameron, however, Bernadina is 27. Like Cameron, however, he is not a serviceable MLB starter, as these numbers show, and spent 46 games in AAA last year. His fate for 2012 is to either be traded, or to ride the pine as a bench outfielder. Some have suggested that the team should play Bernadina and Cameron in a platoon at center, but that would likely be a last resort.
Among minor leaguers, the closest player to being major-league ready is Corey Brown, who was acquired along with reliever Henry Rodriguez in the Josh Willingham trade with the A’s. Brown was outrighted off the 40-man roster at the end of the season and will almost certainly spend 2012 at AAA improving his hitting. Barring an unexpected outburst, his only involvement with the MLB team will be as a bench player if a regular is injured, and even that is unlikely. Other prospects like Eury Perez, Brian Goodwin, and Michael Taylor are nowhere near MLB ready, and will likely not move past AA at best.
If the team decides to move Werth into center field, he leaves a hole in his previous position, right field. Neither Bernadina nor Cameron has the requisite bat to play a corner spot, even though both would play well defensively. Like in center field, the corner outfield prospects are not yet ready. Destin Hood is the highest-ranked corner outfield prospect the Nationals have besides Bryce Harper, and he too is nowhere near MLB ready. He played in A+ ball last year as a 21-year-old. This dearth of other options leads, of course, to the question of whether or not to play Harper.
Manager Davey Johnson is reportedly very high on Harper, and a source says there is a “95 percent” chance that Harper starts the season with the MLB club. Johnson has reason to want Harper’s call-up, having brought up a young phenom this way before with great results. He brought up Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden at 19 in 1984 after one season of minor league ball, and Gooden became Rookie of The Year and an All-Star. Harper hit very well against older competition as an 18-year-old in 2011, hitting .318 in A ball and .256 in AA ball. He hit an even more impressive .333 in the Arizona Fall League, which is stocked with the game’s top prospects. This rapid improvement argues for Harper’s consideration in Spring Training, and it would surprise no one if Harper exploded there and made the team as the Opening Day right fielder. Many across the league expect our source to be correct, and for Johnson to start Harper in the MLB in 2012.
While there are compelling reasons for Johnson to bring Harper up now, there are also strong arguments in favor of keeping him in the minors for longer. He played catcher in high school, and as such, his outfield defense is still a liability, and could use more conditioning in the minors. In addition, there are concerns about Harper’s maturity, brought about by incidents like his being ejected for arguing a 3rd strike and, most famously, blowing a kiss to a pitcher after hitting a home run. In the majors, a gesture like that would likely result in getting drilled with a fastball that could break a hand or foot, and would absolutely not be tolerated by other players or coaches. Harper has also not faced pitching nearly as advanced as he will see in the majors, and the team does not want to put him in a situation where he is nearly guaranteed to fail. The timing of any potential call-up is also an issue that the team will consider. If called up after June, Harper would not be eligible for Super Two status, meaning he would go through arbitration for the first time in 2016, not 2015, essentially giving the team another year of control. Harper’s status with the 2012 team will depend mostly on his Spring Training performance, but unless he falls flat on his face, Johnson will likely have his way and bring Harper up to the majors, whether on Opening Day or in the early summer.
If the team chooses a stopgap centerfielder for 2012, or if whatever solution they choose fails, the Nationals may look internally for a CF of the future in the 2012 offseason. By then, Corey Brown may be MLB ready if he can establish himself at AAA, and Eury Perez may be nearing readiness as well with a good 2012 in AA. Goodwin and Taylor will still likely be far away, leaving the internal pickings for CF almost, but not quite as slim in 2012 as in 2011.
Hopefully, through the course of this article, I’ve examined and weighed every single potential center field move the Nationals could make over the next two years. This, of course, leaves the question of what the team should do. With what we know, there are two options: the Nationals either choose to pursue the fabled centerfielder of the future this offseason, or they find a temporary fix in 2012 in CF or RF, depending on where Werth plays, and pursue the centerfielder after this season. I personally think the Nationals should go hard after Yoenis Cespedes this offseason. He fits everything they want except the leadoff ability, and that could be resolved soon by Ian Desmond’s 2012 season. If he succeeds, he is the leadoff hitter. If he fails, he will be dealt/benched, Espinosa will move to short, and leadoff hitter of the future Stephen Lombardozzi will take over at second. However, if the Nationals fail to land Cespedes, they should move Werth to center and deal for Gerardo Parra. I could extol Parra’s virtues until I’m blue in the face, and already did earlier in the article, but suffice to say, he is an undervalued player who would be a perfect RF for the 2012 Nats. Then, after 2012, the team could either deal Parra for prospects or an avaliable centerfielder, or add B.J. Upton in free agency. Upton has said that would like to come to D.C., and he would greatly benefit from the change of scenery. Like Cespedes, he is not an ideal leadoff hitter, but I believe the leadoff issue will be resolved by then.
I’ve said what I want the team to do, and hopefully I’ve given you enough information here so you can draw your own conclusions. Agree? Disagree? Think I’m a blame fool? Tell me in the comments!