Today’s piece was supposed to focus on the team’s lineup for 2011, the second part of our four-part preview of the 2011 Nats. Well, that has been bumped back a day or two thanks to some perculiar news. Our focus shifts to that news, that Rick Ankiel will likely be the team’s starting center fielder, and the pressure that it will put on the rest of the team.
I will admit, I always thought of Ankiel as an intriguing player to have been invited to camp. He has flashed power in the past, has a great arm, and his re-emergence in the Majors as a hitter (despite his little dalliance with HGH) proved his fortitude. I thought he would make a solid fourth outfielder, but Rigs has other ideas.
To be frankly honest, choosing Ankiel as the Opening Day guy over Nyjer Morgan does not make a lot of sense on a variety of levels. Riggleman has gushed about Ankiel’s defense, and he has one of the best outfield arms in the game, but he covers less ground than Morgan (and, for what its worth, is considerably worse sabermetrically having a -1.5/150 Ultimate Zone Rating compared to Morgan’s 4.2).
Offensively, he has been a disaster the past two seasons, with a .232 batting average and a sub-.300 OBP. His numbers this spring have been even worse, at .200/.250. Morgan, by comparison, is at .234/.333 right now. He does have three homers, and has power potential, blasting 25 dingers in 2008. Sure, he is reunited with his hitting coach from 2008, Rick Eckstein, but that sounds more like a reason to keep him on the roster, not hand him the starting gig.
Before we go any further, let me restate the fact that I like Ankiel as a member of the 2011 Nats. If Michael Morse was not so hot, you could even make a case for him starting in left. But, with Morse in left and Jayson Werth in right, Ankiel’s selection in center looks like a bad fit.
Why is it a bad fit? Well, tell me who leads off now. It really cannot be Ankiel, who does not steal bases (he has 10 in his career), does not reach base all that frequently, and strikes out often (he fanned 100 times in that fabled 2008 season). With Ankiel in there, a young player like Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa has to handle the leadoff responsibilities.
Espinosa as a leadoff guy should be a non-starter. He is fast, but he is a rookie and has only a .270 batting average in three minor league seasons. Desmond’s name has been floated and he had a good year as a rookie in 2010, coming on strong in August when he posted a .385 OBP. Still, Desmond’s primary value as a hitter is probably his power which makes him a better fit deeper in the order. Plus, Desmond has enough to focus on defensively (he needs to drastically cut down on his 34 errors if he wants to be a career shortstop) and probably does not need the added weight of hitting at the top of the order.
To be fair to Desmond, he has a great personality, looks to be a potential leader for this team and may be able to handle the job. Also, Jerry Hairston, Jr. will also get plenty of at-bats in center against lefties. But, it still makes you wonder why the team is giving up on Morgan right now.
Well, that mini-brawl from yesterday might give us a bit of hint. In Adam Kilgore’s story on the kerfuffle, he mentions that Morgan was the first guy charging out of the Nats’ dugout after Desmond got plunked. Morgan also plowed over Albert Pujols earlier in the game (although that may not have been entirely intentional). After his pair of high-profile meltdowns last year (the left hook on Chris Volstad – yesterday’s video – and the hat-spike), it is fair to wonder if yesterday’s incident made Riggleman think Nyjer Morgan might never grow up.
Alright, enough conspiracy theories. Check back in later this week as we get back on track with the season preview. As always, check out my homepage for all of my thoughts on the Nationals. Please share your thoughts, complaints and comments below. For daily updates, you can subscribe to these articles (free at the top of the page) or follow me on Twitter (@Neuman85). Enjoy today’s entertainment below.
Song of the Day: Iron & Wine – “Sodom South Georgia”
Nats Video of the Day: Alright, enough negative energy surrounding Ankiel. Here is some Zapruder-like footage of a game-winning bomb from last year into the Frisco Bay.