Washington Nationals: Nyjer Morgan In Center? Roger Bernadina? The Nats' Ideal Outfield?

Roger Bernadina arrived in Viera, Florida ready for Spring Training, having spent the winter preparing himself physically for a full season in the outfield. Bernadina put up a respectable .282/.345/.436 slash line in the first half of 2010, but admittedly tired as the season wore on, with his .219/.278/.343 second-half line leaving the outfielder still something of a question mark. In six games so far this Spring, the 26-year-old former Montreal Expos' amateur free agent signing is trying to erase any doubt, going 5 for 14 with three successful bunt hits, two walks, two stolen bases, a HR and five RBI's.

Rick Ankiel was brought in to push Bernadina and Nyjer Morgan and challenge them for innings and at bats, and the one-time 25 HR hitter who hit six HR's in 74 games while posting a .232/.321/.389 line last season in Kansas City and Atlanta got a rather strong recommendation from Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman, who was part of the Cardinals' organization in 2005 when the one-time starter reinvented himself as a major league outfielder after his much publicized problems on the mound.

In a Palm Beach Post.com article by Tom D'Angelo last week entitled, "Pitching days long gone, Fort Pierce native Rick Ankiel trying to earn an outfield spot with Nationals", the Nationals' manager said the team was excited to add the 31-year-old, eight-year veteran, and, "'We really feel like he is going to be a big contributor.'" No less an authority on talent than former Braves' manager Bobby Cox was quoted last season in an article entitled, "Fielder may be hard for Brewers to trade", by FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal saying that Ankiel, "...has the best outfield arm he has ever seen." Mr. Cox compared Ankiel to several strong-armed outfielders he'd seen over the course of his five decades as part of the game, "'But I’ve never seen anybody throw like [Ankiel],'" Cox said. Ankiel's 3 for 13 so far this Spring with a double and two HR's in five games. 

Soon-to-be-29-year-old Michael Morse is all but guaranteed a spot on the Nats' Opening Day roster since he'll be the right-handed half of a platoon with either Roger Bernadina, as the Nationals have discussed since trading Josh Willingham, or with Ankiel if he's able to claim the spot as the Nats' left-handed outfield bat. Morse is also first in line behind Adam LaRoche at first and as they've mentioned recently, the former infield prospect can also occasionally play third. After posting a .289/.352/.519 line with 12 doubles and 15 HR's in 293 plate appearances last year, Morse is 6 for 16 in 5 games this Spring, with a double and two HR's already. 

Nyjer Morgan is 1 for 16 so far this Spring. After a .307/.369/.388 '09 season, Morgan put up a .253/.319/.314 line in 2010. A cleary flustered and frustrated outfielder last year, Morgan, at his best the best fit for a leadoff hitter on the Nats' roster, will, according to D.C. GM Mike Rizzo, "... be given every opportunity to fill that spot during Spring Training," as the Nats' general manager explained to MLB.com's Bill Ladson this winter in an article entitled, "Nats put rotation atop offseason priority list." Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell pointed out in a chat this winter that since, "Morgan is a low-salary 'free player' who showed a lot of promise in '09," the Nationals can, "...start the year trying to find out if the true Morgan is the star of '09 or the frustrated player of '10,":

"Once they feel they have an answer, Morgan will either be their stellar CF (which they'd prefer) or he'll be in a lesser role (and like it.)"

How long does Morgan have to prove himself? If Bernadina, Ankiel and Morse continue to impress this Spring, and Morgan continues to struggle is he still going to start the season in center and at the top of the order? Morgan told CBSSports.com's Scott Miller last week in an article entitled, "Nyjer Morgan: 'I'm a valuable piece of this team'", that he's aware of the competition that he's facing and what's at stake this Spring: 

"'If I don't do what I'm supposed to do, I'm going to be on the damn bench," he said. 'It's a no-brainer. They don't want that s--- from last year. They want the player I was in '09.'"

Just how long does Morgan have to prove that he can be the player he was in 2009? Or even 2008? The problem the Nats have is that Morgan's the one truly ideal leadoff man on the roster. Roger Bernadina led off yesterday, but his .307 OBP last season in his first full campaign won't cut it. Bernadina has a career .352 OBP in the Nats' system, if he can continue to get on base as he has early this Spring, is the much-discussed-in-NatsTown Morse-Bernadina-and-Werth outfield Washington's best option? As part of a platoon in left, Morse's questionable D is less of a problem. As a full time outfielder?

The Nats parted with Josh Willingham because he wasn't the athletic sort of outfielder they were looking for in left. Does Morse fit that mold? Part of what made that deal possible was the Nationals' stated belief that a Morse and Bernadina platoon in left could replace Willingham's production and improve the team's defense. But that plan counted on Nyjer Morgan being in center this season? Will he be there on Opening Day? 

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