The Nationals have been trying to solve their center field situation for quite some time, having their trade efforts rebuked and their name linked to mediocre stopgap solutions.
Last season, they were in the mix for both Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton but watched as division rival Atlanta acquired the former, while the latter stayed in Tampa and helped the Rays make the playoffs on the season’s final day. This offseason, the Nats have reportedly expressed interest in Gerardo Parra as a long-term solution, have considered Jason Bourgeois as a temporary stopgap, and have toyed with the idea of moving Jayson Werth over to make room for Bryce Harper.
In the meantime, they signed Mike Cameron and Rick Ankiel to minor league deals and are still considering Roger Bernadina for an extended look. Cameron retired, which leaves the in-house options at Bernadina or Ankiel if they want to keep Werth in right field. The only realistic external option at this point is Bourgeois, and when he represents the best anything, we’re discussing a problem without a clear solution.
If Bryce Harper is going to make the major league team, moving Werth to center field is the Nationals best bet right now. If not, the talent they have internally is just as good as the realistic external options. They shouldn’t make a deal if the upgrade is merely incremental, as that represents a short-term patch for a problem they need to solve long-term.
While center field is a position integral to the success of a major league team, the Nationals situation speaks to the larger issue of their overall roster construction: they have several similar pieces that will potentially get shuffled when Harper arrives.
If Parra is acquired, for example, and Harper makes the team out of spring training, then Michael Morse probably shifts to first base, which makes Adam LaRoche an expensive bench player. Teams aren’t exactly going to bombard the Nats with phone calls regarding LaRoche’s availability, so they either play him and lose production by sitting Morse, or play Morse and pay LaRoche to sit on the bench or to play elsewhere through an outright release.
If Harper doesn’t break camp with the team, there is no need to trade prospects for a Bourgeois, when he, Ankiel or Bernadina are only going to man the position for a month or two. Plus, Bourgeois doesn’t offer anything that the other two don’t. He doesn’t have much major league experience and has only played 400 career innings in center field, and at 30 years old doesn’t have an age advantage either. It isn’t as if he represents a junior varsity version of Bourn, one of the highest-rated centerfielders over the last few seasons. In fact, since 2009, there is virtually no difference between Bourgeois, Ankiel and Bernadina:
In looking at those numbers I struggle to see any reason to actually trade something from the Nats system to acquire Bourgeois. He may be a more natural fit in center than Ankiel, but there isn’t enough evidence to bear out the advantage of playing him at the position over Bernadina. And considering that, by most accounts, Harper is going to play for the Nationals this season, why bother trading for a two-month player, let alone one that isn’t any better than players already on the roster?
However, all of this is predicated on the belief that Harper plays in the major leagues. If the Nationals’ interest in players like Parra or Bourgeois is signaling that Harper may spend more time in the minors this season, then there is a better way to improve the team and potentially contend for a playoff berth: move Werth to center, regardless, and look to acquire Andre Ethier or a similar player for right field. The Nationals have a long-term center field problem to solve, but for 2012, it seems reasonable to think Werth could handle the position as well as, if not better than, Ankiel or Bernadina.
Ethier is only under contract for this season and is set to make ~$11 million. The Dodgers haven’t been quick to discuss an extension with him and, let’s face it, aren’t going anywhere this season. The Nationals could unload a mid-level prospect or two to bring him in and create a very solid outfield with he, Werth and Morse.
They don’t have to extend him beyond this season, with Werth and Morse under contract and Harper knocking on the door. And while Ethier isn’t a superstar, he is somewhat known around households, would create some more buzz and, most importantly, would improve the Nationals’ playoff odds this season more than Bernadina, Ankiel or Bourgeois.
Credit the Nationals for attempting to solve their problem in a creative fashion, by using an effective stopgap in Cameron, acquiring Parra or considering Harper-placeholders like Bourgeois. But this is a situation where they can improve the team by acquiring another corner outfielder and moving Werth to center for the upcoming season.
If Harper is going to make it to the majors before July, their most optimal outfield alignment is he, Werth and Morse from right to left field, and the most reasonable solution is to just use Bernadina or Ankiel until he arrives.
Otherwise, the Nationals are better off looking at Ethier as a one-year rental until Harper is ready, and making a stronger push for Upton or Bourn after the season. Werth isn’t a long-term solution in center, but using him there and shoring up right field in his wake is a happy medium between punting center field altogether with Ankiel, Bourgeois or Bernadina, and making the major splash with Upton or Bourn.