NEW YORK | While the rest of the Washington Nationals traveled north to New York on Tuesday afternoon, Rick Ankiel went in the opposite direction, on the road to Viera, Fla., to condition and take batting practice as he works his way back from a right wrist sprain.
Once he's ready — which is estimated to be in a few days — the center fielder, who injured the wrist May 2 on a diving play in the outfield, will go on a minor league rehab assignment and officially start the clock on when he may return to the active roster.
When that time comes, activating Ankiel will be the least of the team's worries.
Instead, the Nationals will have to focus on the ripple effect his return will cause — forcing them to decide how to keep Roger Bernadina, Laynce Nix and Michael Morse while getting playing time for everyone.
There are cases for each candidate.
Nationals manager Jim Riggleman wants to keep Bernadina as the leadoff hitter — a role he has done well in. In nine games since he was called up to replace Ankiel, Bernadina has hit .273 and reached base at a .385 clip. He has stolen four bases, driven in three runs and walked six times. He has been everything the Nationals were looking for out of the top spot.
But they would lose all of that if they can't find a way to continue to play him every day, and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo ruled out a platoon role in either center field or left.
"As I said from spring training, we view Roger Bernadina as an every-day major league player," Rizzo said. "For him to stay here, the manager is going to have to feel that he's going to play every day in the big leagues."
The Nationals, who are paying Ankiel $1.5 million this year, could shift Bernadina to left field in order to continue playing both every day. Ankiel brings a lot to the table with his defense, and particularly his arm. But his .221 batting average and .302 on-base percentage weren't doing the Nationals any good before his injury. That scenario, though, leaves Nix — the team's best hitter to this point — and Morse — who has been platooning with Nix in left — without defined roles.
Taking Nix, who has hit .310 with five home runs, driven in 16 and reached base at a .326 clip, out of the lineup would be doing the Nationals a disservice at this point — though his numbers against left-handers (.222 average in 2011, .193 career) make a case for a platoon with the right-handed Morse.
"It'll be a tough decision," said Riggleman. "That's about as far as I can go with it at this point."
There's also the matter of clearing the roster spot for Ankiel to begin with. Assuming the Nationals would like to keep all four outfielders, the likely candidate for a demotion would be infielder Brian Bixler. He has been used primarily as a pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive replacement since being called up April 23. In the absence of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals have mainly used Jerry Hairston Jr. and Alex Cora at third.
Ultimately, it comes back to Bernadina. Since his return to the majors this month, he's done everything to prove he's ready for an everyday role. It's just a matter of the Nationals finding one for him.
"We know we need Roger in that leadoff spot," Riggleman said. "He doesn't have to play center field, but we do need him to be in that leadoff spot. To this point, that appears to be the best way we can go, but his continued play will help determine that and we'll just make the necessary decisions."
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