MLB: Updating Each Team's Gaping Hole Heading to Spring Training
The states of Florida and Arizona are abuzz right now, as each MLB team has now reported to camp and are preparing for the 2012 season.
While many questions were answered by teams this past offseason via free agency and/or trades, they still have issues to deal with. Some of those issues could be ironed out in spring training by internal candidates, others will be scouring the waiver wires as spring moves along and teams start casting off unwanted players.
The master plan for each team is very similar—position ourselves well for the future and put the best available team on the field. Certainly there are variations to that, however, and not every team is going to get exactly what they want accomplished.
Bleacher Report will examine each team after they have signed free agents and made trades, and determine what the biggest area of need might still be for each team.
Arizona Diamondbacks: None
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Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers went out and took care of a few things this offseason, fresh off the heels of the D-Backs’ surprising NL West title last year.
Bringing in Trevor Cahill, Craig Breslow and Jason Kubel did a lot to support three different areas while resigning Aaron Hill, Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald shores up the middle infield.
If there are any questions regarding the D-Backs’ roster, it would be middle infield. Can Stephen Drew return to full health and be his pesky self at the plate once again? Can Hill find the form that led to a sensational 2009 season?
There should be no question that the D-Backs are well-positioned to defend their NL West title and if Drew and Hill can be productive, they could be well-positioned to go even farther than just a division title.
Atlanta Braves: Shortstop
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The Atlanta Braves return a team that’s largely intact from a season ago and while they will attempt to wipe away the stench of an embarrassing September collapse, they are nonetheless still competitive.
However, they are handing the reins of the shortstop position to 22-year-old Tyler Pastornicky, who will be making his major league debut on Apr. 5 against the New York Mets. While the Braves are confident in Pastornicky’s abilities, he is just a prospect and we all know that not every prospect is a sure thing.
Add to that the fact that his backup, Jack Wilson, has almost nothing left in the tank offensively and the Braves could be making some calls if Pastornicky fails to deliver.
Baltimore Orioles: Starting Pitching
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Last year, the Baltimore Orioles pitching staff was pretty abysmal, posting a 4.89 ERA, good for last in the American League. The starting rotation was the biggest culprit, posting a 5.39 ERA.
Orioles new VP of baseball operations Dan Duquette went out and signed two Asian pitchers (left-handed pitchers Tsuyoshi Wada, and Wei-Yin Chen) to help “upgrade” the rotation. However, when there is a complete question mark as to who the Opening Day starter will be, it’s never a good sign.
Jason Hammel and Dana Eveland were also brought in, but neither of them give O’s fans an air of confidence. Eveland spent the vast majority of last season at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Triple-A team.
The Orioles have a lot of young arms, but the maturity level of those arms are in question.
Boston Red Sox: Shortstop
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When the Boston Red Sox traded Marco Scutaro to the Colorado Rockies in January, it left many fans scratching their heads.
Jed Lowrie had already been shipped out of town and young prospect Jose Iglesias is still a work in progress, especially with the bat. That leaves Mike Aviles and Nick Punto to man the position and neither have ever handled the position on a full-time basis.
Aviles appears to have the upper hand at this point, with Valentine telling Tom Caron and Peter Gammons of NESN.com that Aviles has the “DNA” to be an everyday shortstop. Whether or not that DNA relates to production is anyone’s guess.
Chicago Cubs: Corner Infield Positions
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The Chicago Cubs will certainly have a new look this season, however that look is certainly a major question mark.
On the field, gone are third baseman Aramis Ramirez and first baseman Carlos Pena, and a combination of four players will be vying for the two corner infield spots—Josh Vitters and Ian Stewart at third and Anthony Rizzo and Bryan LaHair at first.
Stewart showed flashes of power with the bat during his time with the Colorado Rockies, but his inconsistency at the plate led the Rockies to give up on him. Vitters is a well-regarded prospect who has taken his time to develop his skills in four-plus years in the minors.
Over at first, LaHair will be given the chance to show he can hit at the major league level and at 29 years of age, will likely be his last opportunity. And new general manager Jed Hoyer felt highly enough about the skills of 22-year-old Anthony Rizzo that he convinced Epstein to bring him over from San Diego, despite hitting just .141 in 49 games.
The Cubs lost 54 HR and 173 RBI with the departures of Ramirez and Pena—expecting to gain that production back with the four candidates currently in camp is a huge leap in faith.
Chicago White Sox: Closer
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Chicago White Sox fans are still questioning the deal that sent closer Sergio Santos to the Toronto Blue Jays for prospect pitcher Nestor Molina.
Santos seemed to solidify the role last season after replacing Matt Thornton, notching 30 saves with a 3.55 ERA. Add to that the fact that Santos was under team control for four more years and the trade became even more head-scratching.
Now, new manager Robin Ventura must decide between Thornton and youngster Addison Reed. Thornton spit the bit last year, blowing four consecutive saves in early April before ceding his position to Santos. While Thornton bounced back for 20 holds and a 3.32 ERA, last year’s experience left a bad taste the mouths of fans.
Reed was impressive in his September call-up last season, notching 12 strikeouts against just one walk in 7.1 innings. He certainly has the stuff, striking out Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera twice in two at-bats.
Ventura will likely take a long look at both before making a decision, however, whatever decision he makes still represents a sense of uncertainty.
Cincinnati Reds: Left Field
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I wouldn’t necessarily call left field a gaping hole for the Cincinnati Reds, but with an otherwise strong lineup throughout and a revamping of the pitching staff, it definitely represents the position with the most questions at this point.
Reds GM Walt Jocketty engineered deals that bolstered the pitching staff (Mat Latos, Jeff Francis as insurance policy) and his bullpen (Ryan Madson, Sean Marshall). While he gave up a promising prospect in Yonder Alonso, for Jocketty it was worth the risk to land Latos. That leaves Chris Heisey and Ryan Ludwick to compete for at-bats in left field.
Heisey provided solid production in a limited role last year, with 18 HR and 50 RBI in 279 at-bats, while Ludwick struggled to a .237 average with the Padres and Pirates.
Manager Dusty Baker plans to pick and choose his spots with both Heisey and Ludwick.
"Ludwick likes the ball down, Heisey likes the ball up," Baker told Hal McCoy of FoxSports Ohio. "Ludwick likes the ball more down-and-away, Heisey likes the ball in-and-up."
"Part of making out the lineup is knowing this stuff, matching hitters against the right pitchers and that's the plan right now with Heisey and Ludwick," Baker added.
Cleveland Indians: Left and Center Field
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Friday’s news coming out of Phoenix wasn’t good.
Center fielder Grady Sizemore, who is rehabbing from right knee surgery, suffered a strained lower back after fielding ground balls in practice. Sizemore has been shutdown from all baseball activities and his status for Opening Day is in doubt.
Sizemore has gone through five surgeries in the last two years alone and Friday’s news was a major setback for a team that was counting on Sizemore’s comeback and subsequent production. It now leaves manager Manny Acta with a major decision to make regarding who will man center field in Sizemore’s absence.
Acta indicated that Michael Brantley could slide over from left field for now, leaving a list of candidates as options in left—Shelley Duncan, Felix Pie, Ryan Spilborghs, Aaron Cunningham, Fred Lewis, Trevor Crowe and Chad Huffman.
How’s that for major outfield questions?
Colorado Rockies: Third Base
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Colorado Rockies third baseman Casey Blake sees the 2012 season as a new beginning with a new team and he is relishing his new chance.
After playing in just 63 games last season while battling a spate of injuries, Blake feels he’s got something left in the tank.
"I want to play as much as my body will allow," Blake said. "If I'm feeling good and swinging the bat, I want to be in the lineup."
However, at 38 years of age, there is no guarantee that Blake can rebound and provide solid production. Prospect Nolan Arenado will be given a long look in spring training as well and is clearly the future at that position for the Rockies. Whether or not that future is now is anyone’s guess.
Detroit Tigers: Fifth Starter
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The Detroit Tigers feature a very good front of the rotation in reigning AL Cy Young and MVP Award winner Justin Verlander and Doug Fister, who was 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA after his trade from the Seattle Mariners last year.
Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are the next two options and while bouts of inconsistency are still issues with both, they nonetheless posted a combined 29-18 record between them last season.
That leaves the final spot in the rotation, and it clearly appears to be up for grabs. Prospect Jacob Turner, Duane Below, Drew Smyly, Andy Oliver and Adam Wilk will all be vying for the role this spring.
While the Tigers are widely expected to successfully defend their AL Central title and the addition of Prince Fielder certainly enhances an offense that’s already pretty good, the role of fifth starter will play a key role in determining just how far the Tigers can go.
Houston Astros: Nearly Everywhere
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While the title would make it seem like I’m unfairly bashing the Houston Astros, that’s not the case at all. It’s simply a matter of a whole lot of prospects vying to prove their worth on a team that was the worst in the majors last season.
First base won’t be an issue, with Carlos Lee returning for his 14th season. And the starting rotation features Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Bud Norris, J.A. Happ and Jordan Lyles, who, if given proper run support, should be able to hold down the fort.
However, the rest of the starting lineup is a collection of young prospects (Jose Altuve, Jimmy Paredes, Brian Bogusevic) and castoffs (Jed Lowrie, Jordan Schafer) who will be trying to provide that run support.
Have patience, Astros fans, have patience.
Kansas City Royals: Center Field
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For any MLB fantasy league enthusiast who had Melky Cabrera on their rosters last year, they thoroughly enjoyed the tremendous value that Cabrera’s breakout season provided for them.
A career-high in batting average, slugging percentage, walk rate, home runs, RBI, steals, runs and plate appearances made Cabrera one of the best overall fantasy players in the majors.
However, we’re talking about real life now, and the Kansas City Royals will be without the production that Cabrera provided last season. Now they turn to 25-year-old prospect Lorenzo Cain.
Cain has hit well in the majors in a small sample size, with a .302 average in 49 games for both the Milwaukee Brewers and Royals. However, the question remains as to whether or not he can provide that same production over a 162-game schedule.
With a very young group of core starters, the Royals are definitely a team on the rise. If Cain can provide solid value offensively, they could rise even further.
Los Angeles Angels: Third Base
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While the Los Angeles Angels significantly improved their offense with the addition of Albert Pujols, they created a logjam at third base, and the big question is whether or not to sacrifice defense for offense.
With Pujols seemingly entrenched at first, Angels manager Mike Scioscia must now find a spot for Mark Trumbo, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year runner-up.
Trumbo, who hit .254 with 29 HR and 87 RBI last year, will try to take on the challenge of a new position at the hot corner, a very unfamiliar role. Trumbo can also play right field, so he will likely get at-bats as a designated hitter, third and right, spelling veteran Torii Hunter on occasion.
The other options at third, Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis, both hit well but provide very little pop between them. Trumbo offers the best chance at a lineup that can produce big innings often.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Catcher
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The Los Angeles Dodgers did not tend an offer to free-agent catcher Rod Barajas, who bolted for a one-year, $4 million contract with a 2013 option to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Unfortunately, what’s left for the Dodgers is one big question mark.
Career backup catcher A.J. Ellis is slated to get most of the starts behind the plate, with Matt Treanor signed over the offseason to provide backup. Tim Federowicz is the heir apparent, but likely won’t be ready until at least midseason.
In the meantime, defense will have improved, but a lack of offense will lead to a pretty lousy last two spots in the batting order.
Miami Marlins: None
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The new-look Miami Marlins took care of three separate needs during the offseason—starting pitching, a solid leadoff man and a closer. With the additions of Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and Heath Bell, Marlins GM Larry Beinfest significantly changed the face of the team.
The two biggest questions at this point are the fifth starter and third base. Carlos Zambrano will need to rein in his temper and show the form that led to his five-year, $91.5 million contract with the Chicago Cubs while Hanley Ramirez needs to learn a brand new position and bounce back from a miserable 2011 campaign.
Milwaukee Brewers: First Base
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Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin changed the left side of his infield in order to help offset the loss of Prince Fielder with the acquisitions of Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez.
However, he’s banking on a career minor leaguer to take a major leap at first base in Mat Gamel.
Gamel has been toiling in the minors for seven seasons awaiting his chance and now he has it. Gamel hit .310 with 28 HR and 96 RBI last season Triple-A Nashville and if he can come anywhere near those numbers at the major league level, then the loss of Fielder will hardly be felt.
But we’re talking a big if here. Gamel has played in parts of four seasons for Milwaukee, hitting .222 with five HR in 85 games. He will need to show he’s ready to step up his game beginning on April 6 against the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Minnesota Twins: Second Base
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The Minnesota Twins certainly have a lot to overcome as they look to bounce back from their 99-loss season, the franchise’s worst showing since 1995.
While Jamey Carroll was brought in to solidify the shortstop position, the other middle infield position remains up in the air.
Alexi Casilla, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Luke Hughes will all be vying for the role. But with Hughes bothered by a shoulder injury, it will likely be between Casilla and Nishioka.
Nishioka batted through injuries and a very disappointing year stateside and Casilla shows flashes of brilliance, but also has trouble staying healthy.
Second basemen hit just .228 with nine home runs for the Twins last year, so they are looking for someone to step up and assume an everyday role that will lead to increased production.
New York Mets: Starting Pitching
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The financially-challenged New York Mets are working hard to ease their money concerns, with seven of ten investors lined up for shares equaling $20 million each. While that will certainly help ease the financial burden in the future, it didn't do much for their offseason.
GM Sandy Alderson did bolster the bullpen (Jon Rauch, Frank Francisco) and added a center fielder (Andres Torres) and utility guy (Scott Hairston), but the starting rotation remains largely the same.
Johan Santana will presumably return, if his surgically repaired shoulder holds up. Even so, he will likely be limited to 25 starts. Mike Pelfrey and R.A. Dickey came back down to earth after excellent 2010 seasons while Dillon Gee sported a 5.25 ERA in the second half after a blazing start (8-3, 3.76).
In addition, the fences at Citi Field have been brought in and while that will aid the Mets' offense, it will likely work against the pitching staff as well.
New York Yankees: None
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At the beginning of the offseason, without question the biggest gaping hole for the New York Yankees was their starting pitching.
Beyond CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova, there were question marks galore. As the offseason progressed and the Yankees were uncharacteristically quite, the questions kept growing.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman answered those questions in one fell swoop in January, trading for Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Michael Pineda and signing free-agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda.
Now, the only questions are related to health and age. Will the plasma-rich platelet injections help Alex Rodriguez stay on the field this year? Can Raul Ibanez be the answer at designated hitter? Will Derek Jeter finally show signs of aging?
Oakland Athletics: Bullpen
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With the many trades made by the Oakland Athletics this offseason, they certainly left holes in several areas. The largest trench needing to be filled is the bullpen.
With Andrew Bailey, Craig Breslow and Brad Ziegler (traded to D-Backs last year) all gone from last year's pen, manager Bob Melvin will have some hard choices to make. Brian Fuentes is the de facto closer for now and Grant Balfour will add great support in a setup role. However, beyond that, who knows.
Fautino De Los Santos is looked upon as the closer of the future, but his impact this year is up in the air. Jerry Blevins and Jordan Norberto could end up being lefty specialists, but neither have proven themselves in that role. Joey Devine is solid, and youngster Ryan Cook could possibly make the team out of spring training.
Losing three key pieces is a major bite and while it gives some promising youngsters a chance to shine, it could be a matter or hit or miss with the 2012 bullpen.
Philadelphia Phillies: Third Base
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When looking at the roster for the Philadelphia Phillies, one can easily see why they have become one of the elite teams in the majors. Even with Ryan Howard hobbled by his Achilles heel surgery, pieces are in place (John Mayberry, Ty Wigginton, Jim Thome) to pick up the slack until his return.
However, third base could still be an issue. Placido Polanco is still a pesky producer, but the big question is whether or not he can stay on the field. Polanco has suffered through a series of injuries since his return to Philly in 2010 while winning a Gold Glove Award and earning an All-Star selection despite missing 40 regular season games.
Polanco's .105 average in last year's NLDS loss still stings as well.
GM Ruben Amaro brought Wigginton in as insurance, but the Phillies clearly need a healthy Polanco to provide his normal excellent defense and solid production towards the bottom of the lineup in order to be truly effective.
Pittsburgh Pirates: First Base
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With Derrek Lee not willing to play for $7 million for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012, general manager Neal Huntington was forced to look at other options.
He settled on a platoon of Garrett Jones and the newly acquired Casey McGehee. A platoon certainly makes sense, given Jones' abysmal .147 average against left-handed pitching last year.
However, McGehee has played exactly one game at first during his career and combined with his miserable performance at the plate for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011, Pirates fans could be pining for Bell again.
San Diego Padres: Right Field
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There are definitely going to be plenty of questions for the San Diego Padres this spring after a very busy offseason that saw changes throughout the roster.
With hometown native Carlos Quentin now in place in left field, however, the other corner outfield position remains a mystery.
There will likely be a spirited competition this spring between Will Venable, Kyle Blanks and Chris Denorfia. None of them have been able to break through as regulars during their career and while Venable and Denorfia have at times started, neither boast production that is overwhelming.
San Francisco Giants: Shortstop
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The San Francisco Giants are looking to provide more offense after finishing last in runs scored in the NL last season.
Obtaining Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan will help and bounceback seasons from Aubrey Huff and the returns of Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez will help as well. But what about at the shortstop position?
The Giants are very high on youngster Brandon Crawford, who is a wizard with the glove but struggled offensively in 66 games with the Giants last year, hitting just .204. For the Giants to succeed offensively, they'll need better production from the bottom of their order and Crawford could be ceding at-bats to Ryan Theriot if he can't adjust to major league pitching.
Seattle Mariners: Leadoff Spot in Batting Order
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It would be safe to say thus far that Chone Figgins has been a major bust during his time with the Seattle Mariners.
However, manager Eric Wedge isn't convinced that Figgins has seen his best days. Wedge plans to utilize Figgins in the leadoff spot in his batting order, despite hitting just .236 with a .309 on-base percentage during his two seasons in the Northwest.
Wedge discussed his plans with Figgins during the offseason.
"Obviously, it's great to have your manager back you up," Figgins said. "He's seen what I've done and knows what I can do. Now I'm healthy and he sees it. That's the main thing. He knows that I'm ready, and I'm going to perform."
Seattle fans are certainly hoping he's ready and it will take a lot to convince them that Figgins' first two seasons were an aberration.
If Figgins is able to return to his form of the mid-to-late 2000s that endeared him to Angels' fans as a pest at the top of the order, the Mariners will be more than happy. If not, he may well go down as one of the biggest busts in Mariners' history.
St. Louis Cardinals: None
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Looking up and down the roster of the St. Louis Cardinals, it's difficult to find a true weakness that can be exploited.
While the loss of Albert Pujols stung, GM John Mozeliak addressed the departure by signing Carlos Beltran and moving Lance Berkman to first base in the process. There won't be a lack of power with Berkman, Beltran and Matt Holliday in the lineup.
The biggest questions for the Cardinals center around health. Can shortstop Rafael Furcal stay on the field after an injury-riddled 2010 and 2011? Can Beltran's knees hold up? Can Allen Craig come back from knee surgery and be a force in the outfield? Will Adam Wainwright return to form after Tommy John surgery?
The answers to those questions will likely have a huge impact on the Cardinals' fate in 2012 and their quest to defend their World Series championship.
Tampa Bay Rays: Shortstop
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The production from the shortstop position in 2011 for the Tampa Bay Rays was a major issue, as Sean Rodriguez, Elliot Johnson and Reid Brignac combined to hit just .193 with 9 HR and 45 RBI while playing shortstop.
GM Andrew Friedman addressed concerns regarding power, adding DH Luke Scott and catcher Jose Molina and bringing back 1B Carlos Pena. However, the same men who manned the shortstop position last year are returning and the ninth spot in the batting order could very well to continue to be close to an automatic out.
Texas Rangers: Center Field
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The two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers will be returning with their core lineup largely intact, and with an offense that led the league in batting, that's certainly not a bad thing. However, who will be the man that steps up in center field?
There will be a spirited battle this spring between Craig Gentry, Julio Borbon and Leonys Martin. Gentry hit .271 last season in 64 games, adding 18 stolen bases. Borbon hit .270 in 32 games and Martin hit .375 in his late September showing.
Rangers manager Ron Washington is hoping that one of the three can take the bull by the horns, so to speak.
"We've got some talent there, but we don't give away things in Texas anymore," Washington told MLB.com. "You've got to earn it."
Toronto Blue Jays: Fifth Starter
The Toronto Blue Jays went out and revamped their bullpen, grabbing (stealing) closer Sergio Santos and reliever Jason Frasor from the Chicago White Sox in separate deals while signing Francisco Cordero as the primary setup man.
The top four in the starting rotation appear set, with established ace Ricky Romero, solid No. 2 man Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil and Henderson Alvarez, who was strong down the stretch after his promotion from Double-A.
The big question is filling the final spot in the rotation. Dustin McGowan showed promise after returning from two shoulder surgeries that kept him on the shelf for two years, Kyle Drabek was a massive disappointment and will look to rebound and prospect Drew Hutchison could leapfrog both of them with a strong spring showing.
Washington Nationals: Center Field
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When Mike Cameron announced last week that he was going to retire, the Washington Nationals' plans for center field took a drastic turn.
The options now come down to Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina and possibly Bryce Harper.
Harper will need a huge spring to head north with the Nats, and while Ankiel offers solid power, a .296 on-base percentage is a clear negative. Bernadina is much better suited as a bench guy.
Presuming that Harper does impress enough to head north, Jayson Werth could slide over to center with Harper in right. An outfield of Michael Morse, Werth and Harper is what Nats' fans may be hoping for, but if the Nats choose to get Harper more seasoning in the minors, the options are indeed limited.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle. Follow Doug on Twitter, @Sports_A_Holic.