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Washington Nationals Leaning Towards Rick Ankiel As Nyjer Morgan and Roger Bernadina Struggle?

VIERA FL - FEBRUARY 25:  Rick Ankiel #43 of the Washington Nationals poses for a portrait during Spring Training Photo Day at Space Coast Stadium on February 25 2011 in Viera Florida.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
VIERA FL - FEBRUARY 25: Rick Ankiel #43 of the Washington Nationals poses for a portrait during Spring Training Photo Day at Space Coast Stadium on February 25 2011 in Viera Florida. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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• Michael Morse, Rick Ankiel and Jayson Werth?:

When Kansas City Royals' GM Dayton Moore signed Rick Ankiel in the winter of 2009, he explained during an MLB Network Radio interview that they looked at the then-30-year-old veteran major leaguer as the team's starting center fielder. Mr. Moore cited a need to improve the team's defense and athleticism as the reason they'd signed Ankiel (and Scott Podsednik). Ankiel had been granted free agency by the St. Louis Cardinals earlier that winter after posting a .231/.285/.387 slash line in 122 games and 404 plate appearances during the '09 campaign.

Though he was Kansas City's Opening Day center fielder, a quadricep injury limited Ankiel to just 27 games with the Royals last year in which he managed to hit seven doubles and four HR's in 101 plate appearances while posting a .261 AVG with a .317 OBP and a .467 SLG. Ankiel was traded to Atlanta at the trade deadline and down the stretch as the Braves fought their way to a Wild Card berth, he put up a .210/.324/.328 line while impressing his manager Bobby Cox who claimed Ankiel had one of the best outfield arms he'd ever seen. 

When's Bill Ladson reported yesterday, in an article entitled, "Ankiel frontrunner for Nats' center-field job", that a baseball source was telling him the now-31-year-old Ankiel was, "winning the job," over incumbent center fielder Nyjer Morgan and Roger Bernadina, he wrote that the decision was based on the fact that the, "Nationals love Ankiel's defense in center," enough that they're, "...willing to accept the strikeouts he brings as a hitter." In addition to his high strikeout totals, the Nats are also apparently aware of Ankiel's Nyjer-Morgan-esque inability to hit left-handed pitching, (he has a .232/.282/386 career slash against LHP) as Mr. Ladson reports that if Ankiel wins the job, he'll be part of a platoon with veteran outfielder Jerry Hairston. 

In 247 games (207 GS) in center in his career, after making the transition from the mound to the outfield following well-documented control issues, Ankiel has a .976 fld% as a center fielder with a -8.7 UZR/150. Nyjer Morgan, who has a .986 fld% and a +18.0 UZR/150 as a center fielder thanks in part to an obscenely high +39.4 UZR/150 in center in 2009, played at a more pedestrian +4.2 last season, which made him the fourth best defensive center fielder in the majors based on UZR/150. But it's Morgan's issues getting on base and staying there and Roger Bernadina's inability to seize the opportunity he has this Spring that have the Nationals considering Ankiel as the Opening Day center fielder. (Bernadina has a .975 fld% and a -14.0 UZR/150 in limited time, 41 G, in CF).

When Ankiel was signed by the Nats this winter, he was originally supposed to be part of the mix in left, pushing both Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse to earn their spots as part of a platoon D.C. GM Mike Rizzo had spoken about fielding in 2011 throughout the winter, but as's Bill Ladson wrote in an article announcing Ankiel's signing entitled, "Nats finalize one-year deal with Ankiel", the Nationals had, "not ruled out Ankiel competing against Nyjer Morgan in center field," though the Nats' General Manager had stated previously that Morgan would be given every opportunity to claim the starting spot.

Are the recent rumors revolving around Ankiel "winning" the center field job just motivation for Morgan and Bernadina to step up their respective games in the final two weeks of Spring Training? Ankiel, who's hit in just 8 or 37 at bats this Spring (.216/.256/.541 Spring slash) while managing to connect for three doubles and three HR's in 12 games, isn't so much "winning" the center field job as Morgan and Bernadina are losing it. Either would probably be a preferable alternative in center at this point in all three players' careers, and Morgan, when he's getting on base and not getting picked off or thrown out is the one player on the roster most ideally suited to a leadoff role, while Bernadina, at 26-years-old to Morgan's 30 and Ankiel's 31, clearly has the most potential as several national baseball writers have pointed out this week while discussion the Nats' center field situation. 

Ankiel starting in center on Opening Day might be a nice story. A veteran who has time and time again worked his way back on to the field in spite of repeated setbacks both mental and physical, but more than anything it would be a result of failure on the part of Morgan and Bernadina, both of whom have been given every opportunity to claim roles in the Nats' 2011 outfield this Spring and have thus far failed to do so.