- The Washington Times - Monday, July 18, 2011

HOUSTON | When the Washington Nationals traded Nyjer Morgan this spring, they did so knowing they’d be ridding themselves of a player who didn’t seem to fit well with this year’s team at the expense of losing a leadoff-hitting center fielder.

The top spot in the lineup went through upheaval through the first two months with Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Roger Bernadina and Jayson Werth taking turns there.

But since Davey Johnson arrived as manager, it’s been stagnant. Bernadina, the longest-tenured member of the organization, is getting the opportunity to prove that he can be both the leadoff hitter and everyday center fielder the Nationals have been searching for.

He’s done so with mixed results. Bernadina displays awesome athleticism in the outfield, making highlight-reel catches but also taking poor routes and getting fooled. He’s hit .263 since being called up for the second time May 7 and has 15 stolen bases. But his on-base percentage has lagged at .319 prompting rumors that the Nationals still are searching for an answer at the position.

As far as Johnson is concerned, he’s their man.

“He’s seized it,” he said. “I don’t see anybody else. I use Rick [Ankiel] out there, but Ankiel’s not really a prototype leadoff guy. [Bernadina’s] the guy that I think has, right now, the best opportunity to leadoff for us. … I like what he’s doing. In this organization, he’s the leadoff hitter, center fielder.”

Bernadina’s numbers are comparable to those of many of the leadoff center fielders who are mentioned in rumors involving the Nationals: Houston’s Michael Bourn, Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton, St. Louis’ Colby Rasmus and Minnesota’s Denard Span.

His average is higher than that of Upton and Rasmus, and he’s stolen more bases by a large margin than either Rasmus or Span. All have better on-base percentages, but Upton’s .322 and Rasmus’ .326 are only marginally better.

Defensively, Bernadina’s UZR (universal zone rating, a number that measures all aspects of a defensive player’s tools), according to Fangraphs.com, is better than all but Span. Upton (-1.7), Rasmus (-6.8) and Bourn (-1.8) don’t even come close to Bernadina’s 3.7 rating in center field, though Span outpaces them all at 9.7.

“I can get better,” Bernadina said, hours before he’d take to the outfield at Minute Maid Park and battle the small hill in center field. “I feel I can be a better center fielder. I can get a better read sometimes off the bat, but I’m learning the hitters in the league. It’s only my second full year. I’m still learning from the other players about opposing teams.”

Bernadina has spent a lot of time chatting with Ankiel, widely considered a strong defensive center fielder with one of the best arms in the major leagues, and right fielder Jayson Werth as he attempts to learn the nuances of the position. Bernadina played the majority of his minor league career there but admits it’s different at this level.

“The main thing is you see the ball better,” he said. “You get better reads on the ball. … But I talk a lot with the other players. They’ve been in the league for a long time. Whenever I make a mistake, they tell me ‘You can do this.’ It’s a learning process.”

Barring any surprising midseason additions at next week’s trade deadline, he’ll continue to get the opportunity to learn.

“I think he’s done a good job,” Johnson said, noting that Bernadina’s approach at the plate still is evolving. He sees 3.97 pitchers per plate appearance, also on par with much of his competition, but has a tendency to take a long swing.

“He’s working hard at it, and I think he’s getting more comfortable every day. He’s still learning about himself as a hitter. … But he definitely causes some problems when he gets on base. He can bunt and he can drive in runs. His on-base percentage may not be what you like, but he offsets it with his ability to drive in runs and steal bases.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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