Early in the season I joked that, of course Laynce Nix wasn't in the mix to start for the Nats, he was only the best fielder of the bunch and the one guy to hit at all in the previous year. This was only mild mocking because the situation didn't demand that Nix start. The Nats had committed to Mike Morse. They saw some future in Roger Bernadina. They paid money to Rick Ankiel. Laynce Nix might be better than these guys but that judgement was based on a single year of batting data, and really I was looking to play him in CF - a position he hadn't played all that much.
Now though, we're a month into the new season and new decisions can be made. Let's go over the reasons that the other guys were deemds more likely to start in the first place...
Rick Ankiel plays good defense and can give the Nats some needed lefty power. We went over last week that Ankiel was failing at hitting for power. He had a decent week since then with 7 hits in 26 at bats, but only 2 doubles to show for it. It's kind of silly to judge defense with this little information but there is nothing going on that makes me change the conclusion reached by the last few years of numbers. He's not a good CF, maybe an average corner one.
Mike Morse could be the next Jayson Werth. Yes, the Nats bought into a hot spring too much. It's almost funny how bad Mike Morse is doing because he's NEVER done this poorly. At the very least the Nats expected him to mash lefties. Instead he's putting up a .091 / .200 / .136 line. The .143 BABIP says that number will improve but by how much? On the fielding side Morse has been pretty terrible. That was expected though. It was supposed to be a tradeoff for the hitting. If he's not hitting...
Bernadina is the future! Bernadina might have been the future. After scuffling along in the minors for his first few years he suddenly "got it" in 2008 and smacked the ball around in AA and AAA. His cup of coffee in the majors wasn't impressive, but at 24 going on 25 it was worth it to start him in 2009 to see if '08 was just a fluke year or the sign of something more. Roger promptly broke his ankle and missed most of 2009. They hoped he'd bounce back last year, but while he had another nice stop in AAA, his 450+ plate appearances in the majors didn't show anything different than in 2008. It would help if he was a great fielder, but in all honesty he's not anything better than average either.
Nix's 2010 was a fluke. Perhaps. Prior to last year's .291 average, he had never hit about .255. But in the past 3 years he has turned up the slugging showing isoSLG numbers of .237, .164, and .263 (great, ok, and great). Even including all those early years when he was in and out of the majors his career isoSLG is virtually identical to Rick Ankiel's career numbers. In other words - he hits for the power the team expected from Rick Ankiel, and unlike Ankiel he does not appear to be dead yet. Defensively... well he hasn't shown that he's better than Ankiel or hypothetical Bernadina (like his career stats suggest), but he hasn't shown he's any worse.
There is no good reason not to start Nix. But on the flipside the argument FOR starting him isn't all that strong. First off like we just said, chances are he wouldn't be much better in CF than Ankiel. He'd definitely be an improvement over Morse, but assuming Morse could bounce back, you are basically conceding a spot in the lineup whenever a lefty is pitching. Nix can't hit them. Ankiel isn't good at all vs lefties, but he's historically a step better than Laynce and is handling himself against them this year. Nix's older than Morse and Bernadina, and just a smidge younger than Ankiel so that's not a selling point either.
I'd like to see him start in center over Ankiel and let Morse work out his issues in left. Again - he would likely be a hole in the lineup vs lefites, but I think overall he'd be better than Rick and I want to run Morse out there as much as possible so at year's end the Nats can make an informed decision about the guy. Logic would probably dictate a platoon with someone, most likely Morse. The benefits of this are only theoretical though until Morse starts hitting lefties again, and you are spending a quarter of your games with a terrible defensive OF. A platoon with Bernadina might make more sense (Bernadina has been equally substandard vs righties and lefties in the majors) but what team does a lefty /lefty platoon with the only promised benefit being a slight defensive gain in yoru least important defensive position?
The real problem is the Nats are an OF short. You can jury rig a decent 3rd OF from the parts of Morse/Bernadina/Nix/Ankiel. But to fill two spots with these guys is asking too much. Now you're needing to get lucky and have someone hit like a regular. Right now, Nix seems most likely to be that guy with the luck, so the team almost has to run with him and see if they do get lucky or if it's just an illusion.
(In my head I imagine Rizzo having the same reaction to signing Nix to a minor league deal after giving Ankiel a contract, as I have when I see paper towels on sale somewhere right after I bought them. Grumble grumble... stupid me.... grumble... should have done more research... grumble gotta pick this up, too good a deal to pass... grumble.. )