Could Rick Ankiel be starting center-fielder for Nats?

The Washington Nationals re-signed outfielder Rick Ankiel over the weekend and will have the former pitcher compete for the starting role in center-field. The deal is a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. Ankiel will compete with returning Roger Bernadina, fellow veteran Mike Cameron and phenom Bryce Harper for a spot on the roster.

Ankiel is a very intriguing player because we all know he’s a legitimate power threat if he makes contact, but that’s been the biggest problem. More than a quarter of his 380 at-bats in 2011 ended in strikeouts, which resulted in long slumps, inconsistency, and a lack of production. With the Nationals lacking pop from the left side and no clear cut frontrunner for patrolling center, Ankiel is a logical choice. He feels comfortable with the club and provides the superb range that general manager Mike Rizzo drools over. Let’s not to forget his rocket arm, which may be the best in the National League, if not, the entire league.

As I suggested last year, the Nats did sign Cameron, 39, to a minor-league contract and he also has a chance to start. The idea seems preposterous considering how poorly he played with the Red Sox and how he ended his season with the Marlins. Florida (now Miami) released Cameron after causing commotion on a team flight. He’s always been known as a great clubhouse guy, so it was stunning that he caused a disturbance severe enough to be asked to leave. Cameron had 3 multi-homer games last year and is still a decent defender despite his advanced age. Like Ankiel, strikeouts are a problem with Cameron, who is 8th all-time with 1,901. Bernadina started some games last year, but this signing shows the lack of confidence the club has in Berny.

No matter how these two outfielders perform in spring training, all eyes will be on Bryce, who’s been touted as a savior of this franchise and the “LeBron James of baseball.” Manager Davey Johnson has already said he wants Harper to start the year in the majors. But at age 19 and struggles in Double-A, would Bryce be ready to face major league pitching every night? There’s no question about his talent, but there are maturity issues and losing a year of control on Harper’s contract. Start Bryce in Triple-A and see how things go. With the extra wild-card spot in doubt for this season, it’s unlikely the Nationals make the playoffs anyway, even if Bryce does play a full season in the majors.

Ankiel should be the starting center-fielder for Washington because the Nats need a player who can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. Michael Morse will be playing left and although he has a great bat, he wasn’t blessed with good range in the outfield. In a division where runs are at a premium, defense is that much more important and Ankiel fits the bill. Details of his contract weren’t released, but the former Cardinal made $1.5 million last season.

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