Washington Still Searching for Center Fielder

One month from today the Washington Nationals’ pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training in Viera, Florida. The team has addressed some of its offseason agenda (deciding on Davey Johnson as the team’s manager, acquiring Gio Gonzalez) but there are still tasks that need to be completed, such as resolving the center field question. The team options at this point in time appear limited. But let’s see if we can come up with a potential solution.

From an internal standpoint, there seems to be a great deal of conflict between what the team is reportedly considering and what the Nationals bloggers (myself included) would like to see. Part of this conflict surrounds where Jayson Werth will ultimately play.

Werth is a right fielder by trade and a quality one at that. He’s never won a Gold Glove but there is reason to believe he could. But he’s suited best for a corner as he doesn’t quite possess the range or athleticism to handle center field on a daily basis. There are some within the Nationals organization who disagree, believing that Werth would be fine in center for a season or two. There don’t seem to be plans to make the move permanent, which is a good sign. But I question whether it’s a smart move at all. Werth struggled in his first season in Washington after signing a seven year deal as a free agent last winter. His focus in 2012 needs to be towards getting back on track, not adjusting to a new position. It’s an extra distraction that seems unnecessary.

Now, I understand that most of the talk surrounding Werth moving to center field is to give the team room to let Bryce Harper play in right. Some of this started because of the belief that Johnson will pressure the team’s front office to add him to the 25-man roster right out of the gate. We don’t really know if Harper is going to be ready to make such a move and we won’t until we see how he performs through Spring Training. It’s likely that he is going to need some time in the minor leagues first and in truth, that seems like the best course of action for his long term development. Should Harper spend the season’s first month or two in the minor leagues, this would allow Werth to remain in right where he belongs.

Of course, this would add further implications to the team’s lineup – namely it would mean that some combination of Roger Bernadina and Mike Cameron will be manning center field, which isn’t the most ideal solution. Bernadina has hit a mere .242/.304/.364 in 889 plate appearances over the past four seasons. He’s added 18 HR and 38 stolen bases and plays a solid defensive center field. But his struggles at the plate have become enough of a concern that there doesn’t appear to be much confidence in his ability to handle center on a daily basis.

As for Cameron, I shared my thoughts on him when the team first signed him in mid-December. He was once a great center fielder but he’s now 39 years old and was run out of both Boston and Florida last year because of an absence of production on the field and a poor attitude off it. Bottom line, I don’t expect the team will get much from him.

It is possible that the team’s front office is satisfied going into the season with center field, though that seems unlikely. It’s been a position of need for this organization for some time now. It’s been no secret that the team has been seeking a long term option for a number of years. And it seems certain that the answer is not currently an in-house candidate. So, with a month remaining before Spring Training, what exactly are the team’s options?

The remaining free agent market is weak, at best. Center field candidates include Rick Ankiel, Cody Ross, Corey Patterson, and Yoenes Cespedes.

Ankiel is the most well known candidate, considering he was with the Nationals last season. Ankiel’s value is tied mainly in his defense but he would be an offensive improvement over either Bernadina or Cameron. He’s been linked to a number of teams this offseason – most recently the Reds before they signed Ryan Ludwick – but doesn’t appear close to signing anywhere. The Nationals reportedly haven’t ruled out bringing Ankiel back for next season but there doesn’t seem to be much urgency to such a deal. Our own Stephen Walker recently took an extended look at the pros and cons of resigning him, concluding that there are likely better options if the team really hopes to contend next season.

Neither Ross or Patterson present ideal options either. Ross is probably best suited for a platoon situation in a corner position while Patterson is just a 5th outfielder at this point in his career. As for Cespedes, he brings too much uncertainty to be a legitimate possibility. The Cuban defector has not quite yet been granted free agency but has been one of the more discussed topics around baseball for the past few months. Some have called him a potential five-tool talent, but there doesn’t seem to be a unanimous agreement regarding how successful (or how MLB-ready) the outfielder will be in the Major Leagues. It is believed that he will want contract negotiations to start around the $30 Million deal signed by Aroldis Chapman two winters ago. Washington has already stated they won’t pursue him as a free agent.

Beyond those four players, the only other free agents with any experience in center in their careers are Johnny Damon (who is really best in a DH-only role at this point), Juan Pierre (who would be an offensive upgrade over Bernadina but hasn’t played center regularly since 2007), and Kosuke Fukodome (who doesn’t belong in center and may not even find a minor league deal before Spring Training begins). It would seem we’ve largely ruled out the current free agent market. We know there aren’t internal candidates. So what about the trade market?

The team has reportedly been looking at the trade market for much of the past few months. They’ve been linked to guys like B.J. Upton and Peter Bourjos, but the cost to acquire either was too high to complete a deal. But, the trade market could still be a viable option to address the center field concern. So, let’s see if we can find any possible options the team could potentially look at. For the sake of argument, I’m only considering players currently on team’s 40-man rosters.

Tampa Bay has been a subject of discussion for a good part of the winter, mainly because of Upton. His situation is likely well known by most Nationals fan at this point, but I’ll brief you on the highlights. Upton is a talented defensive center fielder, can steal a few bases (36 or more for four straight seasons), and was a childhood teammate of Ryan Zimmerman. He and the Nationals have long been connected, especially considering he will be a free agent after the 2012 season. The Rays, who just avoided arbitration with Upton by agreeing on a $7 Million salary for 2012, could trade Upton in order to recoup some more MLB-ready talent rather than simply losing him at season’s end and collecting the extra draft picks.

There have been numerous mentions within the comments left on a number of other Nationals blogs, suggesting that the Rays might have interest in taking on Adam LaRoche, provided the Nationals agree to pay a portion of his salary (he’s due $8 Million for 2012). The Rays only significant remaining hole in their lineup is at first base, so LaRoche could be a fit, but the organization is not in desperate need to move Upton and subsequently can hold out for more value in return. A deal involving LaRoche seems unlikely unless Washington is willing to add in another player (or two).

Speaking of comments left at other Nationals blogs, there was also a mention in one of Mark Zuckerman’s latest posts suggesting the Nationals look to acquire Ben Zobrist instead of Upton from the Rays. Zobrist would play center and bat leadoff, according to the commentor. While Zobrist certainly has some value to any organization, partly because of his defensive versatility, he isn’t truly suited to play center field on a daily basis. Zobrist has only appeared in 26 games in center field in his career. He’s inexperienced at the position and while he wouldn’t be a liability if the team played him there, he just isn’t suited to play it on a daily basis. He’s a similar offensive player to Upton based on career averages (a fact I wasn’t quite expecting) but he doesn’t play the position the Nationals need to fill. He would be an ideal option if the team needed a corner outfielder, but for center he just isn’t the best fit by any means. Looks like we’ve ruled Tampa Bay out.

Sticking with the AL East for a moment, we can relatively quickly rule out both Boston and Baltimore as possible trade partners as well. The only legitimate center field options on either team aren’t available. Or, if they are, the cost would be so exorbitant that it wouldn’t even be worth considering. Neither Jacoby Ellsbury or Adam Jones will be manning center field for the Nationals. Neither team has another center fielder worth noting.

New York is out as well. Both Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson fall into the same category as Ellsbury and Jones. The Yankees do have two other center field options that could be worth considering. But both Justin Maxwell and Chris Dickerson have been with the Nationals in some capacity before and neither is likely going to be any better than Roger Bernadina. There doesn’t seem to be a fit there either.

In unlikely circumstances Toronto could be a possibility. The Blue Jays did acquire Colby Rasmus last July and he struggled over the remainder of the season (.173/.201/.316 in 140 plate appearances with Toronto), causing some to question whether he will be able to live up to his potential in Toronto. If the Blue Jays were to give up on him, I’d imagine any deal in which they move him would still require a significant return. Presumably they’d want a potential center fielder as part of a deal in return, as the team doesn’t have a true replacement in house at the moment. That could eliminate Washington as an option, but I think it’s already a long shot that the Blue Jays choose to deal him now.

So, where does this leave us after going through the AL East? Exactly where we started – with no resolution. Let’s look at the AL Central next.

Chicago’s immediately out. Their only option would be Alex Rios – and with $39 Million due over the next three seasons (including escalators that kick in if he’s traded and a $1 Million buyout of a 2015 team option) he just simply isn’t worth it. He wouldn’t cost anything to acquire, but he’s not coming to Washington. Detroit and Kansas City can also likely both be eliminated as well. I don’t expect the Tigers to consider moving Austin Jackson at this point in time and the Royals dealt Melky Cabrera to San Francisco specifically to make room for Lorenzo Cain (and save some payroll, presumably), so I wouldn’t expect him to be available either.

Cleveland actually has three guys on their 40-man roster with center field experience. Grady Sizemore just resigned with the Indians after experiencing free agency for the first time in his career. He could have elected to play elsewhere but chose to return to the city he’s spent his whole career in for another season. He can’t be traded until June, but he’s likely out anyways. Ezequiel Carrera and Michael Brantley are the other two options. Carrera has limited experience and might be no better than Bernadina.

Brantley has spent most of his time with the Indians playing left field but has the ability to handle center. He was part of the package the Indians received when they traded C.C. Sabathia to Milwaukee during the 2008 season. While he was the player to be named later in the deal and initially viewed as just a piece in the overall package, he’s quietly become the most valuable part to head to Cleveland thanks to the disappointing production from Matt LaPorta. Considering Sizemore could leave after the 2012 season, I’d guess the Indians would prefer to hang onto Brantley so that they have a potential internal replacement for center field. It would seem Cleveland’s out too.

The Twins are another interesting case and has long been viewed as a potential trade partner for the Nationals. The two teams actually nearly completed a deal last July which would have made this entire discussion a moot point. Washington would have received Denard Span in the deal, but negotiations feel apart after the team became hesitant to include Drew Storen in addition to another player (rumored to be Stephen Lombardozzi). Span was still recovering from a concussion at the time which also likely contributed to the deal falling apart.

In Span’s place while he missed time due to injury, the Twins were able to witness the emergence of Ben Revere as a legitimate everyday center fielder. The two players are relatively comparable – both are rangy and athletic, capable of making spectacular defensive plays, have speed on the basepaths, and are limited from a power standpoint. Revere is still in his pre-arbitration years so he’s extraordinarily affordable while Span is owed $14.25 Million over the next three seasons (plus a $9 Million team option for 2015). Should Minnesota deal one of the players, it would almost assuredly be Span and not Revere. However, according to reports shortly after the World Series concluded the team announced that they had no intentions to deal either player which makes them an unlikely option at this point.

Two divisions down. Zero possible candidates on the trade market. On to the AL West.

Seattle’s out. Franklin Gutierrez has disappointed ever since the Mariners gave him a contract extension after a career year in 2009 and Michael Saunders can’t hit (a career .196/.263/.306 line in 572 at bats). Oakland’s not an option either. They just handed Coco Crisp a surprising free agent contract so that he’ll return to play center for the A’s. The A’s, while undergoing a massive rebuild, don’t really have any quality outfield prospects worth considering either.

In Los Angeles, there are four players on their 40-man roster with center field experience. Two have already been moved to corners at this point in their careers, which was the right move for both. Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells were both once superior defensive center fielders but age has caught up with them at this point. Hunter offered to move himself for the betterment of the team, a classy move if you ask me. Both players are owed too much money for a deal to be worth considering.

The Angels also have Bourjos and Mike Trout, however, and both are largely considered to be quality defensive players with strong offensive abilities. Both have a good deal of speed, on the basepaths and in the field. Both get on base and still have room to develop from a power perspective. Both are also under team control for multiple seasons and won’t cost the Angels much in the short term. The team has reportedly asked for a great deal in return should they move Bourjos. Trout is widely considered among the game’s top three prospects so he’s not going anywhere. LA is out.

Texas has Josh Hamilton under control for one more season, barring the sides agreeing to a contract extension before Spring Training begins. Even if they fail to reach an agreement, it seems unlikely that the Rangers will look to deal him. The team has reached the World Series for two consecutive seasons and just spent a great deal of money to bring in one of the top pitchers available this winter in Yu Darvish. There’s still speculation they could go after Prince Fielder as well, on a “short and creative” deal. The only way Hamilton becomes a National is if he chooses to sign with the team as a free agent next winter.

That’s the American League. 14 teams. 14 40-man rosters. Zero potential trade candidates to fill the Nationals’ center field void.

Trading within the division is always tough, particularly for a team that could potentially be in contention. I’ve been saying for the past few months that I believe the NL East is quietly becoming one of the toughest divisions in baseball. With Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Miami all vying for the top spot it’s also going to be one of the most watched divisions in baseball.  And at some point the Mets have to get back on track, don’t they? Trading for a center field solution from within the division doesn’t seem likely. But, to be thorough, we’ll look at the rosters anyway.

Atlanta’s immediately out. They paid a price to pickup Michael Bourn last July and could still look to extend him before he reaches free agency after the 2012 season. Philadelphia’s out too. Shane Victorino will also be a free agent after the season but it is unlikely the Phillies would look to deal him now as he’ll be an important part of their run to win the division this year.

New York acquired Andres Torres earlier this winter from the Giants and presumably they’ll head into the season with him in center. Torres won’t cost them a significant amount and he could benefit from a change of scenery. The Mets don’t have much in their lineup and Torres could end up being a big part near the top of the order. He’s the only real option on the team’s current roster to bat leadoff since Jose Reyes is now gone.

As for the Marlins, they have their own questions with regards to center field. Chris Coghlan, Scott Cousins, and Bryan Petersen will probably battle for the spot in center field. The team has been linked to Cuban free agent Yoenes Cespedes as well, so he too could be in the mix. Regardless of a possible Cespedes signing, the Marlins seem more likely to add a center fielder rather than trade one to a division rival.

That’s it for the NL East. Two divisions to go.

Pittsburgh isn’t going to part with Andrew McCutchen for anything less than a King’s Ransom. Consider Drew Stubbs in Cincinnati in the same position, though he’d require a lesser package of players. That rules those two out.

Houston is another organization in midst of a major rebuilding process. They are likely heading into the season with Jordan Schafer – part of the Bourn trade with Atlanta – in center field. While he was once a highly touted prospect, he’s been unable to produce to this point in his career and wouldn’t be an improvement over Bernadina. They’re out.

Milwaukee will likely utilize a platoon of Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan once again. The Nationals and Morgan have been down this road before and the story didn’t have the prettiest of endings. Gomez doesn’t provide much value beyond his defense.

St. Louis has multiple center field options. They signed Carlos Beltran as a free agent, who will likely get the bulk of the playing time in center field. Personally I think he (and Grady Sizemore) belongs in the same category as Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells – former great center fielders who, because of age and injury, should stick in one of the corner outfield spots at this point in their careers.

With Beltran starting in center, Jon Jay will likely get pushed into a 4th outfielder role for the Cardinals. He’s versatile enough to handle all three outfield spots. He’s also looked good at the plate in his two seasons in St. Louis. He’s hit .298/.350/.423 in his first 826 career plate appearances. There have been zero indications that the Cardinals have considered trading Jay at this point in time. In fact, it might be safe to assume that part of the team’s thinking last July was that they could afford to trade Colby Rasmus to Toronto because they had Jay as a potential in-house replacement. He won’t be easy to acquire, but it’s uncertain whether it’s even a real possibility.

Worth noting – though I wouldn’t expect this to hold a significant influence on Washington’s search for a center fielder – is the fact that the Cardinals selected Erik Komatsu from the Nationals in this December’s Rule 5 Draft. If St. Louis can’t keep him on their 25-man roster, they’ll have to offer him back to Washington for a mere $25,000. He’s never appeared in a game above Double-A but at the least he’d be organizational depth.

That’s another division down. Still no true options. The NL West is all that remains on the trade market.

The Dodgers just signed Matt Kemp to a massive contract extension, so he’s not heading anywhere. San Diego has reportedly had discussions with Cameron Maybin regarding an extension as well. Arizona is likely out too. Chris Young returned to form in 2011 and Gerardo Parra figures to get a good amount of playing time across all three outfield positions in 2012 so neither figures to be available.

The Giants picked up Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera this winter and will likely give the pair the first chance at holding down center field. Both players were options the Nationals could have pursued before the Giants acquired them, so that could be an indication of how interested the organization is. Like the Marlins, it seems more likely that the Giants will look to add a stronger center field option rather than trade one away.

Colorado has been busy on the trade front, though most of their dealings have involved an organizational stockpiling of young projectable pitching. The team does have a number of outfield possibilities, however, which gives them a great deal of versatility and flexibility. Dexter Fowler is probably the favorite to start in center, though Carlos Gonzalez (who’ll be in left) could also play the position everyday. Tyler Colvin, Charlie Blackmon, and Eric Young also have some center field experience. Colvin and Blackmon are in line to be the team’s 4th and 5th outfielders while Young will compete for playing time at second base.

Gonzalez isn’t a trade option, he’d cost too much to put it simply. Fowler’s name was bounced around earlier in the offseason when the Rockies were rumored to be talking with Atlanta about a trade, but that never came to fruition. He could be an option, though I’d expect Colorado to hold onto him at this point. Colvin’s intriguing, but I don’t think he’s a center fielder in the long term and I’ve made my argument for Young in this space before. I still would like to see him acquired by Washington but as I’ve said, he’s not an everyday answer to filling the center field problem.

Now, with that all said, where does it leave us?

There are no clear candidates available through free agency or trade that would give the Nationals the center field solution they’ve been seeking for some time now. Andrew Flax wrote a three-part series looking at the same situation about three weeks ago – when there were more candidates available. His conclusions were largely the same as the ones I’ve come to here today. In fact, we could probably trim down the entire above list to a mere three names who could be considered even remote possibilities – Rick Ankiel, Jon Jay, and Eric Young. None are ideal options. Ankiel is a movie we’ve seen before. Jay may prove to be too valuable to the Cardinals and might not even be available. Young isn’t an everyday center fielder by any means.

All three would be certain improvements over the team’s existing center field options but they aren’t the most practical of options it would seem. In fact, it would seem that the Nationals are in a bit of a predicament here. There aren’t any viable options available and with Spring Training just a month from now, the organization may simply be best served by standing pat and waiting until next year to find a long term resolution.

Yes, standing pat means more playing time in center field for either Bernadina, Cameron, or even Werth – a far from ideal solution. But it just might be the most practical one at this point in time. The Nationals may be ready to compete for the division title in 2012 but a lot will need to go right in order for this to actually happen. The team will need to remain healthy, see improvements from a number of key players, and still may need a collapse by the Phillies or Braves to get into the playoffs this season.

Things could fall into place in 2012, especially if MLB does expand to five playoff teams from each league, but the Nationals may not be able to resolve their center field concerns until next winter – when guys like Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino, B.J. Upton, and Josh Hamilton will all reach free agency alongside a host of other quality outfielders. While it’s too early to say which of these candidates could be possible options for Washington, we also can’t rule any of them out at this point in time either.

But, it would seem, at least for the 2012 season center field is going to be a fluid situation for the Nationals. There just isn’t really any way around it at this point. Spring Training begins in a month and barring a surprising move, the Nationals are looking at some combination of Bernadina, Cameron, and Werth in center field. While not an ideal situation, at least it’s the team’s only major concern at this point in time. And at least it’s a concern that shouldn’t hold the organization back from taking another step forward.

Tags: Bryce Harper Jayson Werth Mike Cameron Roger Bernadina Washington Nationals

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