Nats spring storylines: Who's in center?

Nats spring storylines: Who's in center?
February 15, 2012, 2:18 pm
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With pitchers and catchers due to report Sunday, we've reached the home stretch of the offseason. All week, we'll count down the five biggest storylines facing the Nationals at spring training. Today, it's storyline No. 3: Who will start in center fielder?...
Mike Rizzo entered this offseason with two clearly stated goals: 1) Add a frontline starting pitcher, and 2) Acquire a starting outfielder, preferably a leadoff-hitting center fielder.

The Nationals general manager had no trouble accomplishing that first goal; he wound up adding two big-time starters in Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. Finding that starting outfielder, however, proved a more difficult task than Rizzo envisioned.

The free-agent market was underwhelming. The trade market never materialized. And though the Nationals scouted Yoenis Cespedes, ultimately they weren't convinced the Cuban defector was big-league ready or was worth the money he was likely to receive. (The Athletics signed Cespedes this week to a four-year, 36 million contract.)

So, barring an unforeseen and unlikely move in the next four days, the Nationals will report for spring training having failed to address one of their biggest problem areas from 2011. Instead of adding a bona fide, everyday center fielder, they appear content to enter the season with a revolving door of less-than-ideal options manning one of the most important positions in the field.

The candidates to start in center field on Opening Day? Rick Ankiel, Mike Cameron and Roger Bernadina. Two (Ankiel and Cameron) were signed to minor-league contracts with no guaranteed money. The other (Bernadina) has spent the last four years bouncing back and forth between the majors and Class AAA, unable to seize the numerous opportunities he's been given to win an everyday job.

Collectively last season, they posted a .231 batting average, .293 on-base percentage and .362 slugging percentage. Not exactly an imposing force at the plate.

So why wasn't Rizzo more aggressive in trying to fix this obvious hole during the offseason? Because he sees a much better class of center fielders hitting the open market next winter, a group headlined by Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton and Shane Victorino. And because he sees an obvious solution to the problem for the bulk of this season: Once Bryce Harper makes his big-league debut in right field, Jayson Werth can slide over to center field.

Except no one knows for sure when that day will come. Harper could crack the Opening Day roster, though that still remains a long shot. He's more likely to open the year at Class AAA Syracuse and then earn a promotion at some point. But that point could come in late-April, mid-June or even September.

In the meantime, the Nationals will have to hope for the best out of their triumvirate of current center field options. And hope that stellar defensive play by all three will help compensate for their lack of offensive prowess.

The Nats have no illusions about what Ankiel, Cameron and Bernadina are likely to produce at the plate, but they'll try to put each into situations that at least offers the best opportunity for modest success.

That probably means a platoon, with Ankiel or Bernadina starting against right-handed pitchers and Cameron starting against lefties. Ankiel was marginally better against right-handers (.678 OPS) than left-handers (.586) last season, but Cameron actually fared worse against lefties (.618 OPS) than righties (.659). Bernadina posted league-average numbers against right-handers (.720 OPS) but was abysmal in limited at-bats against lefties (.461).

So the decision may have more to do with defense than offense. And if that's the case, Ankiel and Cameron have a huge leg up on Bernadina. The two veterans statistically dominated last season, with Cameron's 17.7 UZR150 (Ultimate Zone Rating over 150 games) ranking third among big-league center fielders and Ankiel's 11.6 UZR150 ranking 12th. Bernadina's -16.6 UZR150, on the other hand, ranked 37th out of 40 qualifying center fielders.

Is stellar defense from Ankiel and Cameron enough to make up for their punch-less bats? Perhaps if the Nationals can generate enough offense from their other seven position players, they can afford to get little-to-nothing out of their No. 8 hitter.

Even if that's not the case, they can take some comfort knowing this figures to be a problem only in the short-term, with all of these players relegated to the bench once Harper makes his big-league debut.