Nyjer Morgan is the prototypical leadoff hitter. If his OBP were higher...and his CS% lower. Nyjer Morgan's a strong defensive center fielder, but he was a left fielder for the most part in Pittsburgh before he was traded to the Washington Nationals in 2009. Morgan's +39.4 UZR/150 in center with the Nats in 2009 fell to a +4.2 in his first full season in the nation's capital in 2010. Over the course of his career, in 235 games in center, Morgan's a +18.0 UZR/150, far superior to Roger Bernadina's -14.0 UZR/150 in center or Rick Ankiel's -8.7 UZR/150, but Bernadina's played just 41 major league games in center, and he was compared to a young Barry Bonds defensively in left this winter by Nats' GM Mike Rizzo. Ankiel, who's played 247 games in center in his career, anecdotally at least, is said to have one of the strongest outfield arms in baseball, but he's coming off injury-riddled down seasons statistically...
Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore quoted an anonymous source from "outside the Nationals' organization" yesterday in a Nationals Journal post entitled, "Nationals center field competition still ‘pretty wide open’" who said that he believed that, "the Nationals will start Ankiel in center with Bernadina as his backup and option Morgan to Class AAA Syracuse to begin the year. At this point, though, that’s only speculation." Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman is quoted in the article explaining that while, "'Opening day is huge...But 10 days later, it could change.'" Roger Bernadina's well aware of this fact.
When I asked him in an interview last year about not making the team out of Spring Training in 2010, he politely corrected me, explaining that his recovery from an ankle injury had a lot to do with the Nats sending him to Triple-A Syracuse to start the season. "They sent me down because last year I broke my ankle, but I was motivated anyway because I missed most of the season last year, I was motivated wherever they sent me. I just went back to the minor leagues and showed them that I belonged here."
Bernadina went down to Triple-A Syracuse and hit .377/.426/.541 with 2 doubles, 2 HR's, 8 RBI's and 7 steals in 14 games and 61 at bats before he was called back up to DC in the second week of April. The 26-year-old outfielder who hit .246 with a .307 OBP, .384 SLG, .288 BABIP, 18 doubles and 11 HR's in 134 games and 461 plate appearances during his first full season in the majors, struggled down the stretch, posting a .219/.287/.343 slash line in the second half of the season, after having put up a .282/.345/.436 line during the first half of the season.
Bernadina arrived in camp this year in ridiculous shape. Jokes about his biceps dominated the first reports out of camp.
Since then, however, the 26-year-old outfielder has stalled. "'Roger has got superstar potential," Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman told NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman earlier this Spring in an article entitled, "Room for Bernadina and Ankiel?", but so far in his career, Bernadina's played, "... like an average major-league ballplayer." Morgan, who's undergoing adjustments to his defensive positioning, batting stance and base stealing, has hit in just 8 of 36 at bats this Spring (.222/.333/.333), and though he's stolen five bases, he's been caught stealing twice. Bernadina's 10 for 37 (.270/.325/405) so far. Ankiel's 7 for 34 (.206/.229/.529) but he's already hit 3 HR's this Spring to one each by Morgan and Bernadina.
THE Bill James is projecting a .244/.307/.428 line with 17 doubles and 14 HR's for the 31-year-old Ankiel. The 26-year-old Bernadina's projected to put up a .273/.341/.418 line with nine doubles and five HR's, but that's in just 78 games. Nyjer Morgan's projections have the 30-year-old outfielder putting up a .285/.347/.352 line with 15 doubles, 4 triples and 1 HR with that AVG and OBP more like what the Nats think he's capable of doing. SB Nation.com's Rob Neyer, in an article yesterday entitled, "Three Nats, Just One Center Field", suggested that it's Bernadina's youth and potential that would decide the CF battle for him:
"Ankiel might have something left, but he's been awful for the last two years and he's showed nothing in spring training. Morgan's actually better than I figured, but he's also 30 and not likely to get better. Bernadina's sort of the sweet spot, decent numbers in the minors and still young enough to show them in the majors. Seems to me that Ankiel and Morgan are just delaying the inevitable."
Would a demotion to Triple-A Syracuse spell the end for Morgan in D.C.? Would the center fielder go to the minors as determined as Bernadina was last year and prove that he belongs in the majors? The way that Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman's talked about Ankiel this Spring, it's hard to imagine him not making the Opening Day roster, whether it's as a starter or a fourth outfielder. Roger Bernadina was originally supposed to split time in left, but the early Spring success of Michael Morse has the Nats convinced this is the year the 28-going-on-29-year-old has earned the starting role.
Morse's emergence last year and impressive power early this year have apparently convinced everyone to ignore the "It's only Spring Training" mantra that often tempers enthusiasm for the sort of success the right-handed power bat has had, but he's been strong enough that Bernadina's being talked about in center now when he was once expected to play left part-time. Can Morse hold on to left field? Can Ankiel recover from two down years to recapture the form at the plate which once (once) allowed him to hit 25 HR's for the Cardinals? Can Roger Bernadina reach the potential some see in the youngest of the three OF options, or is he a fourth outfielder. Can Morgan improve his OBP, avoid getting caught stealing, and return to being the, "...speed-type of player that can play above-average defense for us in center field, give us a top-of-the-lineup bat that can create a little havoc on the basepaths and get you a stolen base when you need it," as D.C. GM Mike Rizzo described in an AP article at ESPN.com after he'd acquired him in 2009? 14 days as of today til Opening Day. There are still a lot of question marks in the Nats' outfield.