VIERA, Fla. — Twenty-five men, poor souls all, have started at least one game in center field for the Washington Nationals. Not one of them has vanquished the seven-year (and counting) curse, blight, hex or whatever supernatural force hovers over the position.
Not Brad Wilkerson, the first center fielder since baseball returned to Washington, and not Nyjer Morgan, the most frequent. Not Marlon Byrd, who became an all-star elsewhere, and not Elijah Dukes, who recently ate a bag of marijuana at a traffic stop. Not Luis Matos, Corey Patterson or Brandon Watson, and not Ryan Church, Nook Logan or Lastings Milledge. We would list all 25 names, but this is a family newspaper.
The Nationals have stationed plenty of bodies in center field, but they have never really had a center fielder. For the better part of the past two years, General Manager Mike Rizzo has searched for someone who could solve their problem at the position. He could not find the right player this winter, so the Nationals, for now, are prepared to again piece it together, with some combination of Roger Bernadina, Jayson Werth and Rick Ankiel, the leading candidate for the opening day job.
Even as the countdown to opening day nears one month, though, the Nationals have not ceased their search. Rizzo believes the Nationals can contend with their current center-field situation — “We have internal candidates that allow us to compete this year,” he said — but they may still swing a trade that can land a player they believe can settle their ragged history in center.
“I think if we can answer our long-term question now, we’ll do so,” Rizzo said. “We won’t make the change for a short-term answer.”
The Nationals will have ample options in the future. Next winter’s free agent market figures to be packed with eligible center fielders, such as Shane Victorino, B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn. (Last season, the Nationals had at least preliminary conversations with the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros about Upton and Bourn, respectively.)
This winter, the Nationals did not force a trade, even after discussing internally making a push for Peter Bourjos of the Los Angeles Angels or Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles. They could afford patience owing to their growing stockpile of minor league center fielders.
In Michael Taylor, Brian Goodwin and Eury Perez, the Nationals have a trio of potential future major leaguers at the position. Nationals evaluators drool over Taylor, a lanky, athletic 20-year-old. The Nationals gave Goodwin a $3 million signing bonus last summer; scouts call him a Bourn clone. Perez, one of the fastest players in the Nationals’ system, has slipped down prospect rankings, but the Nationals put him on the 40-man roster this winter.
One of those three, the Nationals believe, could turn into a homegrown stalwart in center, like Ian Desmond at shortstop or Danny Espinosa at second base. But none has played above Class A, and none may reach the majors in 2014.
The timing offers the Nationals a quandary. They want to acquire a center fielder who can help them contend immediately, but only if the player in question adds so much it becomes worth blocking the ascension of Taylor, Goodwin and Perez.
“You have to have a plan in place,” Rizzo said. “If one of those are the answer, how far away are they? And what kind of impact are they going to have? Is the chance for them to be that player override the need for that long-term answer?
“We have been selective. We could have made some shorter-term deals. We have these guys that we have our eyes on. Unless we find an answer, we’re comfortable with doing what we’re doing in the big leagues now, and see where these guys are in their development.”
For this spring, that meant re-signing Ankiel with a minor league deal. (The Nationals, Rizzo said, were surprised Ankiel could be had for a non-guaranteed contract.) Ankiel won the center-field job last season, convincing the Nationals to trade Morgan to the Milwaukee Brewers. Despite two stints on the disabled list, Ankiel provided excellent defense; Nationals scouts and statistical analysts alike graded him highly.
“We trust him out there,” Rizzo said. “He’ll get every opportunity to be that guy for us.”
Inside the Nationals’ clubhouse, teammates would feel wholly comfortable with Ankiel. Athletes, by rule, respect other athletes who can do things they can’t. Everyone in the locker room looks upon Ankiel with some degree of awe. Ankiel became one of the best young pitchers in baseball before losing his control and, famously, switching to the outfield.
“In my mind, Ank’s one of the best athletes on the planet right now,” Werth said. “I don’t think we saw the best of him last year. I think he can help us. I’m glad they brought him back.”
No one doubts Ankiel’s defense, least of all his throwing arm, perhaps the strongest in baseball. But at the plate, hampered by wrist and oblique injuries, Ankiel finished last season with a paltry .659 OPS. This spring, he has worked to change his stance, relaxing his shoulders and hands in order to hit the ball to all fields. The Nationals think Ankiel’s natural athleticism will help make the adjustment.
“When it comes to stepping on the baseball field,” Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said, “he’s kind of a different animal.”
The Nationals will also give Bernadina a chance to compete in center field, but given his extensive chances in the past, he profiles as a fourth outfielder. Bryce Harper could help give the Nationals a part-time solution at the spot. If and when Harper makes the majors and takes over right field, the Nationals will shift Werth to center.
The Nationals first tried Werth in center field last August, the latest temporary solution to a question no player has been able to answer. Not Willy Taveras, Preston Wilson or Alex Escobar, and not . . . well, you already get the idea.