WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: Rick Ankiel #24 of the Washington Nationals make a catch in center field in the second inning against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park on September 24, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
The Washington Nationals interrupted everyone's Super Bowl preparations to announce that they'd signed 32-year-old free agent outfielder Rick Ankiel to a minor league deal which will bring the veteran of nine MLB seasons back to the nation's capital for a second year in a Nats uniform (if he makes the team). The Nationals signed the St. Louis Cardinals' 1997 2nd Round pick to a 1-year/$1.5M dollar deal in December of 2010. In 122 games and 415 plate appearances last season, the pitcher-turned-outfielder put up a .239/.296/.363 slash with 20 doubles, nine home runs and 10 stolen bases. In 485 games and 1,712 PA's in his second career as an outfielder, the Fort Piece, Florida-born Ankiel has a .248/.311/.430 line over five seasons with St. Louis, Atlanta, Kansas City and Washington.
MASNSports.com's Mel Antonen (@MelAntonen) spoke to D.C. GM Mike Rizzo about the team's search for a center fielder last week with Mr. Antonen writing on Twitter that the general manager was, "... making calls, looking for a match for CF. If no trade, [Mike] Cameron and [Roger] Bernadina and [Jayson] Werth are candidates." When Ankiel's agent, Scott Boras, spoke to reporters at the Winter Meetings, he told reporters including TC Palm writer Joseph Santucci, as Mr. Santucci wrote last week in an article entitled, "Rick Ankiel still waiting to see where he will play this season", that, "'(The Nationals) are kind of looking through the trade market and evaluating those things and then they're going to make a decision on him after that.'" Does the Nationals' decision to sign Ankiel and add him to the mix in center with Bernadina, Cameron and Werth signal an end to their search for a center fielder this winter?
Ankiel impressed Nats' skipper Davey Johnson last year with a strong (.327/.387/.491) July following a stint on the DL with a sprained wrist. Over the last two months of the season, however, Ankiel had a .243/.288/.399 line in 49 games and 184 plate appearances. According to the Nationals' 69-year-old manager the hot streak was a result of Ankiel finally getting regular at bats. "It's awfully hard to sit," Johnson told reporters, "especially if you're capable of being a power hitter like he is, when you get one, two starts maybe every week, and now he's getting a regular diet in there. He's cut down on his strikeouts, his swings are better, and that comes with playing. In the last couple years, I don't think he's played much."
Just how much playing time will be available for Ankiel is a big question for the Nationals? Washington signed him to push outfielders Nyjer Morgan and Roger Bernadina last season, and Ankiel, with his strong arm and exceptional defense ended up wrestling the job away from Morgan in Spring Training and outperforming Bernadina, who finished his fourth season in the majors with a .243/.301/.362 slash, 12 doubles, 7 HR's and 17 stolen bases in 91 games and 337 plate appearances. Before the Ankiel signing, the speculation was that Bernadina and veteran outfielder Mike Cameron might form a platoon in center unless 19-year-old Bryce Harper made the Opening Day roster pushing Jayson Werth over to center. While Ankiel's signing doesn't decide Harper's fate, it does give Washington more options if they determine Harper needs more time in the minors, or a HR threat off the bench if Harper does make the team.
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