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Position Battles: Nationals Left Field

Our next position battle review takes us to the NL East, where the Nationals appear to have a three-man competition for their starting left field job. It might've been four but Justin Maxwell, who was probably not going to be ready for the start of the season anyways (Tommy John surgery), was designated for assignment today. Jerry Hairston, Jr. is another possibility but he is more valuable as a utilityman, capable of playing six different positions, so we'll keep him out of this conversation. Here is my breakdown of the three candidates.

Roger Bernadina vs Rick Ankiel vs Michael Morse

Tale of the Tape

Bernadina: 26 years old, $425K salary 2010 stats: .246 BA, 11 HR, 47 RBI, 52 R, 18 2B, 3 3B, 35 BB, 93 K in 414 AB's, 16 SB 2011 Outlook: Slight favorite to start vs RHPs

In an otherwise promising rookie season, Bernadina finished with just 15 hits in his last 97 ABs. If the season had ended before his late-season slump, there might not be a position battle going into 2011. On August 31st, he was hitting .274 with 10 HR's and 13 SBs in 317 ABs. But the season lasted another five weeks and Bernadina's average dipped below .250 while his .OBP was just a few ticks above .300. He likely did enough early on to give him the edge but he won't have the job handed to him after his terrible finish. 

Ankiel: 31 years old, $1.5MM salary 2010 stats: .232 BA, 6 HR, 24 RBI, 31 R, 13 2B, 3B, 26 BB, 71 K in 211 AB's, 3 SB 2011 Outlook: Slight underdog, likely 4th outfielder

Since beginning his post-pitching career with a .270 BA, 36 HR, and 110 RBIs in his first 585 ABs (2007-2008), Ankiel has struggled offensively. Over the past two seasons, the left-handed batter has a .232 BA, 17 HR, 62 RBI, and 170 K's in 583 ABs. So it's understandable if Nationals fans aren't overly excited about the possibility that Ankiel takes ABs away from Bernadina. At the least, he gives the team insurance at all three outfield spots and despite his subpar numbers in 2010, he did manage an .801 OPS against RHPs. 

Morse: 28 years old, $1.05MM salary 2010 stats: .289 BA, 15 HR, 41 RBI, 36 R, 12 2B, 2 3B, 22 BB, 64 K 2011 Outlook: Favorite to start vs LHPs, long shot as full-time starter

Despite a breakout season for the 28 year-old utilityman (.870 OPS in 293 plate appearances), there's a good chance he won't be starting much, if not at all, against right-handed pitchers. Morse appears to have a roster spot locked down for the first time in his career, however, and deservedly so. The right-handed batter posted a .999 OPS against LHPs and he more than held his own against RHPs (.806 OPS). He should be penciled into the lineup right behind Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth whenever the team faces a left-handed starter. Don't completely rule him out as a full-time starter but he's a long shot to be in the lineup on a regular basis.   

Final Word

It's possible that all three candidates end up with a good share of starts but I'd guess that a Bernadina/Morse platoon is most likely to start the season with Ankiel ready to step in if Bernadina struggles as he did last September. If center fielder Nyjer Morgan continues to put up subpar offensive numbers (.633 OPS in 2010), it's not out of the question for Bernadina or Ankiel to take ABs away from him. I'm sure Morse's 15 HRs in approximately half-a-season's worth of ABs has many wondering if he can be a 30 HR+ hitter in the big leagues. It doesn't appear he'll have that chance, though. At least not right now. 

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