Photo courtesy Bill Scheuerman
Rick Ankiel could be the Nationals' Opening Day center fielder.
There are six more Grapefruit League games in the next six days, and then the team charter heads north to D.C. for Wednesday's NatsFest and the following afternoon's Opening Day clash with the Braves.
Between now and then, the Nationals must trim their roster from 36 to 25, name a starting center fielder, align their five-man rotation, assemble their bench and figure out who's in the bullpen. That's plenty that still must be accomplished in a short time.
At this stage of the spring, pretty much everyone appears in every game (aside from the pitchers). And 17 of the 18 position players remaining in camp are scheduled to make the trip to Lakeland tonight, with only Ryan Zimmerman staying back. Zim expects to return to the lineup tomorrow after missing more than a week with a sore groin, and he's confident that playing in four of the team's final five spring games will leave him ready for the regular season.
At some point in the next few days, it's probably going to become obvious who has won the center field job. Jim Riggleman is going to need to start putting that guy in his lineup almost every day, giving him the at-bats he needs before Opening Day. The signs certainly point to Rick Ankiel winning the job, if for no reason other than the fact no one out of the group -- Ankiel, Nyjer Morgan, Roger Bernadina -- has truly stepped up and seized the spot.
No matter who starts in center field on Opening Day, though, I have a feeling it's going to turn into a revolving door out there. Ankiel doesn't hit left-handers at all, and the sense is that Jerry Hairston will wind up as part of a platoon. And knowing the way Riggleman likes to keep everyone on his bench fresh, I think you'll be seeing plenty of mixing and matching on a daily basis, including in left field (where Michael Morse will probably start five or six days a week, not seven.
As for the bullpen competition, I still believe five spots are locked up: Drew Storen, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Todd Coffey and Doug Slaten. That leaves six remaining right-handers battling for two spots: Henry Rodriguez, Elvin Ramirez, Collin Balester, Chad Gaudin, Craig Stammen and Brian Broderick.
Ramirez (a Rule 5 pick) seems like a safe bet to open the season on the DL (or else be offered back to the Mets). Stammen is probably getting optioned to Syracuse. Gaudin, I think, makes the team as the long man and emergency starter.
So that leaves Rodriguez, Balester and Broderick for the final spot. Balester has options, the other two can't be sent to the minors without risk of losing them. Rodriguez hasn't pitched in a week and is working on mechanics with Steve McCatty. You've got to wonder whether there might be something physically wrong with him, something that would land him on the DL (and allow the Nats to keep his rights, in the process). Which means Broderick either makes the club or the Nationals find a way to work a deal with the Cardinals to keep him and send him to Syracuse.
Tonight's game could go a long way toward helping make some of those decisions. Broderick and Stammen are among those scheduled to pitch in relief of Jordan Zimmermann. The next round of cuts could come tomorrow.