The Case for Rick Ankiel Making the Nationals

I have never been a big fan of Rick Ankiel as the starting CF on the Nats. I don’t know, maybe it’s the .675 OPS over the last three seasons. No, it’s probably the .297 OBP in that timeframe. But right now, they don’t have a real handle on who’s playing out there. I firmly believe that Bryce Harper isn’t going to start the year in the majors, so the whole, let Werth-play-CF might end up happening, but not in April or early May.

Roger Bernadina is, like Ankiel, a lefty who has spent time at the position, so maybe there isn’t a point in having both guys on the squad. But, while Bernadina is a questionable defensive CF, the case was made last year that Ankiel’s got the best arm of any center fielder in the league, and numbers indicate he’s good at catching the ball, too. But if Ankiel can’t hit, what’s the point in having him around? Simply as a defensive replacement? Actually, it turns out he can hit, well, sort of…

Ok, maybe he isn’t someone worth having as a starter. In fact, he hits so poorly against lefties that it would be a mistake to even hit against them at all. A .266 OBP and a .272 SLG gives him a .538 OPS against them over the last 3 seasons, showing he neither gets on base against them or shows any power. But pulling that out also lets us look at what he can do against righties, and its not as bad as you might think. Last year he was relatively power free, but since 2009, he’s hit .241/.305/.411 vs RHP. Is this good? No. It’s not the level of a starting outfielder.

However, it is certainly good enough to be a bench player on a team that doesn’t even know who’s playing the position right now. In fact, he had positive WAR according to Fangraphs, Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus. And in a platoon, he and some unnamed righty wouldn’t combine to be a very good player, but they might combine to not be a black hole at that position. Bernadina will likely get a chance to be the starter, but with the farm system a couple of years away from producing a CF, with the Werth to CF experiment a few months off, and with Rizzo’s eyes likely focused on the impeding glut of CF free agents, someone’s gotta play this position right now.

Spring training for most hitters is a chance to get ready – not many guys make the team or don’t based on a handful of ABs vs middling competition. But it may be worth watching what Rick Ankiel does this spring. If he hits a few homers and shows he hasn’t lost all pop against righties, last year might have just been a down year in terms of power. And it make sense to expect him to do everything else he’s done against them for the last three years – hit around .240 and have an OBP just north of .300. It’s not spectacular, but it isn’t going to destroy your team, especially with his fielding ability.

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