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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.