While Mike Rizzo adds talent to the Washington Nationals’ roster and rumors swirl about the Nats and Prince Fielder, the center field hole in Washington’s line-up remains.
Jayson Werth could slide over, but whether he does or not, the Nationals are left with some untenable options. If Werth remains in right field, the Nationals are left having to play lesser talent – 39 year-old Mike Cameron and the inconsistent Roger Bernadina are the current candidates – in center. If Werth moves to center field, the Nationals will have to rush Bryce Harper to the major leagues or rely on aging Mark DeRosa and other players better suited for part-time roles. While they could sign free agent Yoennis Céspedes, it seems unlikely. Plus, the Cuban outfielder is no sure thing to excel in the majors.
What other options do the Nationals have? One could be to re-sign Rick Ankiel, who, as of January 10, remains a free agent.
The Case for Ankiel:
He is a solid defensive player. One of the most exciting plays at Nationals Park last year was Ankiel making a laser beam throw to third base or home plate, while the opposing baserunner stopped in his tracks. A former power pitcher, Ankiel probably has one of the strongest outfield arms in the National League. He shuts down the opponents’ ability to take extra bases. While his range is not stellar, advanced defensive metrics (Ultimate Zone Rating or UZR, which estimates how many runs a player saves compared to an average player at the same position, is the most commonly known) rate him as above average (5.5 UZR in 2011).
He is a decent power hitter. Ankiel hit 9 home runs for the Nats last year. On August 1, he hit two against the Braves’ Jair Jurrjens to help Livan Hernandez and the Nationals win, 5-3. He hit a grand slam the next day to lead Washington to a 9-3 victory over Atlanta. For the season, Ankiel turned in a pedestrian .659 OPS, but thanks to his fielding prowess, was worth 2.1 wins-above-replacement (bWAR). Ankiel is also a good baserunner, too, with 10 stolen bases in 13 attempts in 2011.
Perhaps he could platoon in centerfield with Cameron to provide a serviceable veteran presence for 2 ½ months until Harper is ready (and allow the Nats to control their potential star for an additional season).
While Cameron had a disappointing 2011 campaign, his career statistics against left-handed pitching are good (.367 OBP). Plus, he had atrocious luck in 2011 against southpaws. His batting average on balls-in-play (BAbip), in 106 plate appearances, was .156, when the normal average is about .300. With a return to the mean, Cameron’s performance will improve, unless he is simply too old to play well anymore.
Taking all these factors into account, signing Ankiel could be a low-cost, low-risk option. Once Harper arrives, Ankiel could provide a versatile left-handed option for Davey Johnson’s bench. While normally a centerfielder, he can play the other outfield positions if needed.
The Case Against Ankiel:
By any measure, Ankiel is a poor hitter, an almost automatic out against lefties. Even against right-handed pitching, he only managed to get on base 30% of the time, with a uninspiring .678 OPS. Moreover, he strikes out far too often. In 2011, he struck out 96 times in 415 plate appearances (23%).
Another team might be able to absorb these many whiffs, but the Nationals already have too many players who strike out far too often. Remember, they “led” major league baseball in strikeouts last season. His inability to make contact kills rallies and makes him a risky choice as a pinch-hitter. Ankiel’s problems with the bat cancel out all other strengths. At 33, his overall performance will likely decline.
As a substitute or 60-games or fewer fill-in until Harper arrives, Ankiel is a serviceable, but far from ideal option. Other free agents with similar skills such as Cody Ross, Ryan Ludwick, Kosuke Fukodome, and Willie Harris remain available. When he’s not striking out, Ankiel is fun to watch and is reportedly a good citizen in the clubhouse. However, while it might be nice to see him in a Nationals uniform again, his presence or absence will have little to no effect on the Nationals 2012 record. If the Nationals seek to contend in 2012, they need to obtain someone much more talented than Ankiel or anyone else available on the free agent market not named Cespedes.