The Nationals designated Rick Ankiel for assignment today with the full expectation he will be claimed by another team, which robbed them of a solid, late-inning defensive replacement and provided another sign of their improvement as an organization. When the Nationals have to make room for a player returning from injury – reliever Drew Storen, in this case – they may have to cut ties with a legitimate major leaguer. That’s new.
“It’s very difficult because of the guy he is and the professional that he is,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Those kind of decisions at this time of year, when you’ve got a guy who’s been with you all year and helped you and produced for, it’s difficult. But they’re decisions you make when you’re in this position. Some of them are very difficult.”
With Jayson Werth and Chad Tracy also nearing returns from the disabled list, more tough choices lay ahead for Rizzo and the Nationals. Today, the Nationals chose to DFA a position player for a reliever.
Rizzo wanted an eight-man bullpen for Saturday’s doubleheader against the Braves. He thought Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen, the two relievers with minor league options, were too valuable to send down, and he did not want to lose either Michael Gonzalez or Henry Rodriguez by designating them.
“You’ve got four games in three days coming up,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got a bullpen that’s performing extremely well. … We have a lineup now that’s fairly set, so we can go with a little shorter bench at this time.”
Without Ankiel, the Nationals have no left-handed hitters available off their bench today, unless you count switch-hitting backup catcher Sandy Leon, who just arrived to replace Jhonatan Solano. With Ian Desmond nursing an oblique injury, Mark DeRosa and Tyler Moore are the Nationals’ only two available pinch-hitters.
Ankiel had been serving frequently as a late-game replacement in center field, a perfect fit for the Nationals. They are playing inexperienced outfielders in all three spots in many games with Bryce Harper in center and Moore and Michael Morse on the corners. In October, Ankiel could change a rally with the threat of his bazooka left arm alone.
Ankiel was also one of the most respected, well-liked players in the clubhouse. Harper considered him one of his foremost mentors. On occasions when many players would go to an over-21 club on the road, Ankiel would frequently tag along with Harper, 19, to a restaurant he could enter.
But Ankiel has been dreadful offensively. Not helped by infrequent playing time, Ankiel has gone 14 for his last 78 with 36 strikeouts.
“When you look at the makeup bench, he was the logical candidate,” Rizzo said.
Ankiel became more expendable with the recent surge of Roger Bernadina. He has teased the Nationals before, to be sure. From game to game, and sometimes inning to inning, he can flash his considerable talent and also show a lack of instinct. But he has played well lately, especially as a pinch-hitter. In his last nine plate appearances in games when he came off the bench, Bernadina is 7 for 8 with a walk.
“Roger has come off the bench and shown the propensity to really contribute both with the bat and on the bases,” Rizzo said. “He’s been a valuable asset off the bench for us.”
In the few games since the all-star break, Manager Davey Johnson had taken to starting Bernadina over Ankiel against right-handed starting pitchers.
“I love Ankiel, but Bernie’s been getting good at-bats,” Johnson said earlier this week. He’s actually been playing great.”
The Nationals, Rizzo said, will keep their eight-man bullpen until the return of another rehabbing player dictates they make room. Werth, scheduled to make a rehab appearance Friday at Class A Potomac, is set to return during the first week of August. Tracy took batting practice for the second straight day today. His groin strain is a “tricky” injury, Rizzo said, and the Nationals do not yet have a timetable for his return.
Xavier Nady’s 20-day rehab assignment will expire Friday, forcing the Nationals into a decision with him. Given their roster constraints and his performance (.157/.211/.275 with three homers in 109 major league plate appearances), Nady seems like a candidate to be designated for assignment as well.
If no other injuries have cropped up when the time comes for Tracy and Werth to return, the Nationals may choose to option Mattheus or Stammen to make room. At that point, the Nationals would only need to keep either right-hander in Class AAA Syracuse for a few weeks before rosters expand to 40 men on Sept. 1.
“We’re going to look at all sorts of trade possibilities,” Rizzo said. “I don’t see any roster forcing us or dictating us to make a trade. We’ve got players with options that we can move around. At a certain time, we’re going to be looking at a few weeks to survive until Sept. 1. We think we have enough flexibility. We’re going to construct our roster cleverly to maximize the abilities and to keep as much depth in the system as we can.”
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