The Nationals signed outfielder Rick Ankiel to a minor league contract, a person with knowledge of the agreement said, adding depth to Washington’s thin center field competition with a player who performed well for them when healthy in 2011.
Ankiel, 32, hit .239/.296/.363 for the Nationals last season while serving two stints on the disabled list. Ankiel became a popular clubhouse figure and, more important, played outstanding defense in center, where he displayed one of the best outfield arms in the league.
Ankiel could become the Nationals’ opening day center fielder, the position he held last season. If phenom Bryce Harper begins the year in the majors, Jayson Werth would likely move from right field to center, with Harper in right. But if Harper starts the season in the minors — which, from a business standpoint, is the most realistic possibility — then Werth would play right and Ankiel would join Mike Cameron (who also signed with the Nationals on a minor league contract) and Roger Bernadina as primary competitors for the center field job.
The signing of Ankiel also suggests the Nationals feel comfortable with their current lot in center field. The team hoped to secure a long-term solution in center at the outset of the winter, but instead made major upgrades to its starting rotation. The free agent class for next winter is shaping up to be chocked with strong center fielders, including Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn and Shane Victorino. For now, it seems, the Nationals will go with what they have — and that now includes Ankiel.