The Washington Times - March 19, 2011, 01:40PM

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The Nationals’ question marks in center field leave them with uncertainty at the top of their lineup.

With Nyjer Morgan, Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina all battling for the starting job in center, the leadoff spot in the Nationals lineup has become a fluid position.


Jerry Hairston Jr., playing center, filled that role on Saturday. Nyjer Morgan did it on Friday and Ian Desmond was slotted in there on Thursday when Rick Ankiel played center. Should Ankiel or Roger Bernadina win the job, Desmond could be seeing a lot more time at the top of the lineup — as could Hairston when he’s in the game.

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said today that he’d like to be able to get super-utility man Hairston 300-400 at-bats this season between the infield and the outfield — and many of them could come from the leadoff spot, especially against left-handers. Should Morgan win the center field job, he would be used in much the same way. Ankiel and Bernadina figure to play more against right-handers in those cases but Ankiel isn’t considered a strong leadoff candidate.

The rest of the Nationals lineup should be relatively stagnant. Ideally, Desmond would hit second, where he seems to be the most comfortable. The team has already announced that Jayson Werth will bat third with Ryan Zimmerman behind him at cleanup. Adam LaRoche will most likely bat fifth with Michael Morse following him in the six-hole.

While Danny Espinosa has gotten a lot of at-bats this spring batting eighth with that day’s catcher in front of him, seventh, Riggleman said today that ideally he’d like to bat Espinosa seventh and protect him from an eighth spot that can be dangerous with the pitcher batting ninth.

Desmond was befallen by the eighth spot some in 2010. In 148 plate appearances in the eighth spot, Desmond hit .254 with a .304 on-base percentage. Batting second, he hit .326 with a .359 on-base percentage.

“If I made the lineup up tomorrow it would probably be Espinosa seventh,” Riggleman said. “Eighth is tough for anybody. It’s just tough in the National League… You can protect somebody by not hitting them eighth, but you’re not protecting the person who is. Somebody’s got to hit there. It’s an issue.”