Platooning Cameron and Ankiel: A Capital Idea

The Washington Nationals have been making headlines lately with big such as trading for Gio Gonzalez and getting a one-year deal with Edwin Jackson. They were even rumored to be in on the Prince Fielder sweepstakes. Some of the Nationals’ other moves understandably have garnered less attention, such as minor-league deals for veteran outfielders Mike Cameron and (more recently) Rick Ankiel. While these are low-risk deals that may turn out to be bench insurance, given some ambiguities about the Nationals’ outfield situation, Cameron and Ankiel could form a nice stopgap platoon in center field that would allow Washington to protect other, more significant investments.

Both Cameron and Ankiel are probably done as players worth starting on any regular basis. Cameron was underrated for most of his career, but is 39. Ankiel (33) was overrated as a hitter due to his story and a bunch of homers he hit in less than 500 plate appearances way back in 2008. Oliver is not impressed with either player’s offensive outlook for 2012, projecting Ankiel for a .292 wOBA and Cameron for a .301. That might work as a bench player on some teams (at least in Cameron’s case), but not as a starter.

What would happen if they were platooned? Let’s estimate their platoon splits. Cameron, the right-handed “half,” has a big observed split, but right-handed hitters regress more heavily to the mean because of less variation in their platoon skill from hitter to hitter. Still, based on his overall .301 wOBA projection from Oliver and using this method, I have Cameron’s true talent wOBA versus left-handed pitching as .322 (.294 versus right-handers). Even in 2011’s deflated run environment, a .301 wOBA is poor for all but shortstops and catchers, but a .322 is slightly above average.

Ankiel’s projection is less encouraging. For one thing, it is hard to have anything look good when a player’s overall projection is a .292 wOBA. In addition, Ankiel has already been sort of platooned in his career. His projected wOBA versus right-handed pitching in only .299, although that is better than a .270 projected wOBA versus lefties. Given that he would be the more-often used side of the platoon, the Nationals are looking at something like roughly a .310 wOBA out of their center-fielders, or slightly below average.

Fielding is more difficult to measure, so I will not pretend to be precise. To put it summarily: Mike Cameron was a great fielder in his prime, but at 39, it would probably be safest to classify him as “average to above-average.” On the other hand, while Ankiel is viewed by some as having nice tools (especially his arm), his routes are poor, and he’s probably “average to below-average.” Overall, considering that Ankiel is the left-handed side of the platoon, the Nationals likely would get slightly below average overall production out of the two.

That assumes that they both are platooned properly and stay healthy, of course, and staying healthy has been a problem for both players. On the other hand, if platooned, they will have to play less, meaning less wear and tear. In addition, the team would have the platoon partner as a substitute ready to go, a player who would not be that awful to play full-time in the short run. It would be a superior alternative to putting Roger Bernadina in center field. Since both players are on minor-league deals, this is a very low-risk experiment.

But really, the focus should not be on what is lost and gained in relation to Cameron and Ankiel, but instead on what for having them platoon in center field might mean for the Nationals’ more substantial investments: Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper. Having a non-horrible option in center field could mean a number of things. For one, that possibility means that Washington would be more free to make a decision on Bryce Harper making the major league team out of Spring Training based solely on his own status. Obviously, with a prospect like Harper a team should be making the decision that way no matter what is going on with the rest of the team, but having something potentially set at all three outfield spots might make it a bit easier.

If the team is going to go ahead and put Adam LaRoche at first base to start the season (probably in hopes he can be traded), they can put recent investment Mike Morse in left, Cameron/Ankiel in center, and Werth in right. Werth’s contract is not a sunk cost yet, the Nationals are stuck with him, and while, as Paul Swydan noted, he might be okay if the Nationals put him in center to accommodate Harper in right in the short term, they probably should want Werth to play center as little as possible both for the sake of their team fielding and for Werth’s health. If (or when) the Nationals trade or bench LaRoche and put Morse at first base, that could move Werth to left to open up a spot for Harper.

It is not clear what the Nationals have planned with their various outfielders, or whether a Cameron and Ankiel platoon is even being considered. These are not the only potential scenarios, but are listed just to get a feel for how things could work out. Even as a mere stopgap, a center field platoon of Mike Cameron and Rick Ankiel is not terribly impressive on its own. Still, they have a chance to provide enough production that the Nationals can both protect their investment in Jayson Werth while still making room for Bryce Harper when it is time. If one or both of Cameron and Ankiel do not work out for whatever reason, the team is not out much money, either.

Print This Post

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

23 Responses to “Platooning Cameron and Ankiel: A Capital Idea”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. Baltar says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “protect their investment in Jason Werth.” Are you trying to say that Werth is more likely to get injured if he plays center? That seems dubious to me.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. econ nerd says:

    I just have to clarify this since people are repeatedly getting it wrong. A “sunk cost” is an unrecoverable cost: it doesn’t have to do with whether the investment was a good or a bad one. Jason Werth’s contract absolutely IS a sunk cost: it’s money that is gone (or at least committed). That doesn’t mean it’s wasted: the same could be said of Longoria’s contract. If Longo were to suffer a career-ending injury, the Rays would still have to pay him the 40 cents or whatever it is they owe him. It’s a “sunk cost.” The important realization with sunk costs is that you shouldn’t factor someone’s contract into how much play time you give them. The Giants are wisely not running Zito out there as their #1 just because he’s making more than Timmy or Cain. Same for Werth: the money is committed, and the smart thing to do with him is to figure out how to get the most value out of him just as you would with any other asset you control. You shouldn’t play him in center because of his salary: you should play him in center because that’s what’s best for the team.

    +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bookbook says:

      With all due respect, the colloquial definition of sunk cost is the one we’d like to be using here, not the textbook Econ definition. Idiomatic English isn’t appropriate for treatises, I understand, but it’s absolutely the way to go for baseball discussion boards.

      -7 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • marc w says:

        What IS the colloquial definition of sunk cost? I honestly have no idea. Why would we alter the meaning of a “textbook econ definition” for an idiom when there are so many ways to say “bad contract?”

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • kick me in the GO NATS says:

        Sunk Cost means money you already spent and can’t get back. It makes zero difference what it was spent on. Any other definition is from someone who has not been well educated in money.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • BDF says:

        There is no meaningful, intelligent colloquial definition of “sunk cost” different from the given here. The author used the term incorrectly.

        +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • The Ancient Mariner says:

        Given that he said that Werth’s contract is not a sunk cost at this time, what’s incorrect about that?

        Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Brian says:

      A player is only a sunk cost if you can’t give him away. If the Rays didn’t want to pay Longoria, they could trade him away for a bag of baseballs to any of the other 29 teams. Werth is harder to say, but in general players signed to reasonable contracts aren’t sunk costs because you can find someone else to pay them.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. skippyballer486 says:

    If the difference in expected wOBA vs. right-handed pitchers between Cameron and Ankiel is just .005 and you’re assuming Cameron is a better fielder (and base-running is close or in Cameron’s favor), wouldn’t the Nationals be better off just using Cameron as their everyday center fielder? Unless his age is going to dictate that he simply can’t be used on a regular basis, which at 39 is very possible.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Randy says:

    Neither is going to be adequate as a starting centerfielder. I don’t have a problem with them inviting them to spring training, obviously, but I still think they should be searching for an upgrade in center. If it is anything short of a lock that Harper can play CF, then you get a real CFer and play Werth in RF until Harper is ready, then switch Werth to LF permanently when Harper is ready. Don’t mess with Harper’s development and don’t play a corner outfielder out of position.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • kick me in the GO NATS says:

      I think a Cameron/Ankiel platoon would provide at least average quality CF defense, The hitting would be weak, but probably fine for the 7-8th slot in the order.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Randy says:

    Also, don’t hurt your newly revamped pitching staff then fielding a below average defense. There’s no better way to undermine yourself than not giving your staff a respectable defense. This is always the case, but I think the narrative has more weight when you’ve spent an offseason investing so much in pitching.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. ajb says:

    All for giving Ankiel a shot but wouldn’t Bernadina be a better option? He gets demolished vs lefties but vs righties hes atleast equally as good as Ankiel and a great deal younger with some mild hint of upside left.Most projections have him atleast .10 to .20 better woba then Ankiel.

    Nats will prolly let them fight it out in Spring and send Harper down to atleast stall his service time.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. bender says:

    Good analysis but the title pun alone almost ruins it. If I want puns I’ll go to a low-grade news source like or ESPN

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. shthar says:

    I’d say the most important player involved will be whoever plays CF when Ankeron is on the DL.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    I watched over 100 Nats games on TV last season and Ankiel had the best OF arm I have seen in more than 25 years of following baseball. That arm alone is enough to call him an all round above average defensive center fielder. I am certain if you polled regular Nats fans they would all agree that last season Ankiel was a defensive plus in CF, mostly for his arm, but his routes were adequate most of the time as well. His bat was awful!
    My view is that an Ankiel/ Cameron platoon could work solidly in CF if having to much downtime does not kill their bats to much.
    Their combined defense would be MLB average quality and they could hit enough to hold down a solid to good 7-8th spot in the order. For a half to full season I would be ok with this!!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. blovy8 says:

    Yeah, I think they are going to have to use Werth in center for a period of time, because LaRoche will be hard to trade for anything useful even if he’s healthy. But having said that – he’s pretty likely to be a better player offensively and defensively overall than the platoon guys when/if Harper comes up probably in June. With Werth mainly in center, Bernadina in right is easier to accept defensively and he is a better hitter than Ankiel against RHP. I haven’t seen the recent defensive numbers for the limited time Werth has played center, but he seemed adequate there to my eyes. Davey Johnson likes offense over defense. In July if the proper deal happens, you just eat the rest of LaRoche’s contract as an expensive ph/defensive replacement, or you shift guys back to their optimal spots in 2013 after they overpay Upton or another CF. Since they missed out on Prince, they theoretically have 10 million or so left after signing Jackson, right? They could easily take on Byrd’s 5 mil deal if these guys look like crap in March.

    Vote -1 Vote +1