The Nationals will continue to evaluate Rick Ankiel, Nyjer Morgan and Roger Bernadina for their final six
spring training games, but they have already reached a near-final decision to make Ankiel their regular center fielder, according to multiple baseball people outside the organization familiar with the team’s thinking.
Ankiel, 31, has compiled a
.232 on-base percentage .232 average and a .298 on-base percentage the past two seasons with the Cardinals, Royals and Braves and his spring training statistics lag behind both Morgan’s and Bernadina’s. But the Nationals, apparently, are betting that improved health and a close connection with hitting coach Rick Eckstein will restore Ankiel’s form from 2008, when he drilled 25 home runs with a .337 on-base percentage and a .506 slugging percentage.
This spring, Ankiel has hit .200/.250/.467 with three home runs – second among Nationals hitters – in 45 at-bats. Ankiel may not run as fast as Morgan in center field, but his outfield arm is considered one of the best in the game and would be a decided upgrade over Morgan. Last season, Ankiel scored a -1.5 UZR/150, per FanGraphs.com, compared to 4.2 for Morgan.
While the Nationals appear decided on Ankiel, the question becomes what they’ll do with Morgan, who is entering his final season before becoming eligible for arbitration. They could keep him on their major league roster as a fourth outfielder, option him to the minor leagues or attempt to trade him.
It would be virtually impossible for the Nationals to keep Morgan, Matt Stairs and Laynce Nix on the major league roster. Manager Jim Riggleman has said there is a “good chance” Stairs makes the team, and the Nationals are high on Nix as a backup outfielder.
Morgan is hitting .234/.333/.319 with one homer in 47 at-bats, but has drastically improved his numbers since a 1-for-16 start to spring. The Nationals have consistently praised Morgan’s attitude and work ethic, with one staff member calling him “a class act” last week. But the Nationals simply have not seen enough to convince them he will improve markedly from last year, when he hit .253/.319/.314 in 577 plate appearances.