Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Michael Morse will join Roger Bernadina and Rick Ankiel in left field in 2011.
At first glance, it sounds a bit preposterous to suggest Roger Bernadina, Michael Morse and/or Rick Ankiel are going to produce as much at the plate as Willingham did. But truth is, that consortium probably will come close to, if not exceed, the production of its predecessor.
Actually, a more accurate way to put it is like this: The Nationals are likely to get comparable offensive production out of their left fielders this year as they did last year. That's because Willingham, while certainly productive when he was in the lineup, wasn't in the lineup the entire season.
Despite his remarkably consistent numbers over the years -- a batting average in the .260s, 20-25 homers, an OBP in the .360s and an OPS in the .840s -- Willingham has also been remarkably consistent in his inability to avoid the disabled list. He's reached 600 plate appearances only once in five full seasons in the majors, and he averaged only 476 the last two seasons with the Nationals.
Point is, even with Willingham on the roster, the Nats needed other players to account for more than 30 percent of plate appearances by left fielders. So the challenge facing the current group to duplicate what last year's group did isn't quite as daunting.
In 2010, Nationals left fielders hit a combined .248 with 24 homers, 80 RBI, a .352 OBP and a .788 OPS. Aside from the high on-base mark (attributable mostly to Willingham's ability to draw walks, which will be missed) it doesn't seem at all unreasonable to ask this season's trio to match or even surpass those numbers.
Bernadina and Morse alone posted comparable stats last year. Those two combined to hit .263 with 26 homers, 88 RBI, a .324 OBP and a .761 OPS. (They did total 754 plate appearances, which is about 50 more than you'd normally expect from one position over a full season, so the home run and RBI totals are a bit too high.)
And the Nationals will be adding Ankiel to the mix in 2011. The journeyman former pitcher didn't do much at the plate last season with the Royals and Braves, hitting .232 with six homers, 24 RBI and a .709 OPS over 240 plate appearances. But Nats officials strongly believe Ankiel is poised for an offensive renaissance now that he's working full-time with hitting coach Rick Eckstein (the two have a strong history together).
It will be up to Jim Riggleman to figure out how best to mix-and-match Bernadina, Morse and Ankiel to maximize their production. Figure Bernadina and Ankiel get most of their at-bats against right-handers, with Morse in the lineup against lefties, though the plan could certainly change if one player gets particularly hot at the plate.
No matter how the at-bats are divvied up, by the end of 2011, the Nationals have reason to believe they can get as much (if not more) offense from their left fielders than they did one year ago.