In making the first of what will likely be several tough roster decisions in the coming days, the Washington Nationals designated outfielder Rick Ankiel for assignment on Thursday morning. The move cleared the way to activate right-hander Drew Storen from the disabled list.
“It was difficult,” Rizzo said. “Because of the guy he is and the professional he is, but those kind of decisions at this time of year. When you’ve got a guy who’s been with you all year and helped you and produced for you and really was a big part of your club, it was difficult. But again, there are decisions you make when you’re in this position. And some of them are very difficult.”
Storen, who missed the Nationals’ first 89 games of the season after having a bone chip removed from his right elbow on April 11, joined what is now an eight-man bullpen as the Nationals gear up for for 13 games in the next 12 days — including five in the next four days at Nationals Park. They will go with a four-man bench, for now anyway.
“We’re going to go with it until we have to make another roster move that’s dictated by the health of somebody coming back.”
Utility man Chad Tracy (adductor) is expected to return to his rehab assignment with Single-A Potomac in the coming days, and outfielder Jayson Werth (wrist) is also expected to begin his own rehab assignment with Potomac on Friday. Xavier Nady is also on the disabled list with the Nationals.
With the schedule predicating the possible need for extra arms, the Nationals felt the decision to make a pitcher-for-position player swap was prudent and they grappled with who from their talented bullpen they’d feel OK parting with. Of their relievers, only Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen have minor league options remaining and they’ve been two of the Nationals’ best pitchers this season.
“The bullpen guys with options are too valuable to send out,” Rizzo said. “And anybody you designate and send out is going to be taken by somebody else. Guys like Mike Gonzalez and Henry Rodriguez, they’re too valuable for us in 2012, and Henry beyond 2012. We couldn’t take the chance of them getting claimed by another club. We have a lineup now that’s fairly set. And we can go with a little shorter bench at this time.”
Rizzo said that while the move was a difficult one to make, Ankiel was also the “logical candidate to go.” Ankiel, a well-liked teammate who many players noted will be missed, hadn’t started a game for the Nationals since July 1 and had just two at-bats in the 12 games since.
The emergence of Roger Bernadina as the Nationals’ most productive left-handed bat off the bench as well as his capabilities at all three outfield spots also played into the decision to cut ties with Ankiel. Bernadina is hitting .252 this season but is hitting .375 since June 23 and is hitting .385 coming off the bench, compared to .215 as a starter.
“It was a big part of it,” Rizzo said. “Roger’s shown a propensity to come off the bench and contribute offensively both with the bat and on the bases. He is a solid outfielder in three spots and can steal you a base when you need a base. He’s been a valuable asset off the bench for us, and he was a guy that we couldn’t lose at this particular time.”
As for Storen, the Nationals still plan to ease him back into things at the major league level by using him in a set-up role at first. Storen, who saved 43 games for the Nationals in 2011, has been on a long road to recovery this season and the Nationals don’t want to rush his progress in any way, knowing how much they’ll need him down the stretch.
“He’s got experience in the back-end of games, but not a whole lot of experience,” Rizzo said. “We forget that he was a rookie (closer) last year himself. We feel good about where our bullpen’s at. We feel we’re very, very deep and very, very talented, and Drew just makes us that much stronger.”
— The Nationals made one other roster move on Thursday morning, placing catcher Jhonatan Solano on the disabled list with a left oblique strain and recalling Sandy Leon from Double-A Harrisburg. Leon, whose previous major league call-up lasted all of four innings before he suffered a high ankle sprain, was excited to be back and joked that his goal is to get through at least nine innings this time.
The Nationals have been playing Jesus Flores predominantly at catcher and Rizzo said Thursday that he’s comfortable with the team’s current configuration there — especially with Flores’ abilities behind the plate and how he’s handled the staff as the everyday man since Wilson Ramos was lost to injury.
“I think Jesus Flores has shown he’s an everyday, major-league catcher,” Rizzo said. “He’s got the best ERA of any catcher in the major leagues. And him putting down the fingers and blocking balls and controlling the staff is job one for him. Any offense we get from him is a bonus.”
With the trade deadline now just 12 days, there is, of course, the possibility that the Nationals shape their roster in that manner as well. But Rizzo said Thursday he doesn’t feel making any kind of trade is a necessity in order to get their roster the way they want it to be for the stretch run.
“We’re going to look at all sorts of trade possibilities if they fit for us and if they fit for us long-term,” Rizzo said. “I don’t see any roster moves forcing us or dictating that we have to make a trade. We’ve got players with options that we can move around. At a certain time, you’re going to be looking at a few weeks to survive until September 1, til you expand the rosters. So we think we have enough flexibility and we’re going to construct a roster cleverly to maximize the abilities to keep as much depth in the system as we can.”