Throwing a major wrench in the Washington Nationals outfield plans, 39-year-old outfielder Mike Cameron made the decision to retire this morning. The actual expected size of Cameron's role with the Nationals was unkown, but it was expected that the former All-Star, who had signed a minor league deal this December, would make the team's Major League roster in the spring.
Cameron is considered by some to be one of the best defensive outfielders of the past 20 years. He has three Gold Gloves to his name, but that is a number that likely would have been higher had his bat ever come close to matching his glove. Had he reported to camp this spring and made the team, he would have been a great role model to the team's young outfielders on the roster who could use some mentoring on how to turn athleticism into true fielding ability.
The Nationals are a team short on veterans. Cameron's experience on eight Major League teams, spanning over 17-seasons, surely would have been welcomed and respected inside the clubhouse. At some point however, every player has to make the decision whether or not they can leave their family and head to Florida in mid-to-late February for yet another season. For whatever reason, this was the year Cameron decided to stay home, and while it would have been better for the Nationals to know in December that his heart was no longer in the game, it's better that the team begin camp knowing that there is a hole to fill.
So what now?
The general plan prior to today's announcement was to run a platoon in centerfield until Bryce Harper would be able to join the Major League squad later in the season. Mike Cameron was slotted to be the right-handed side of that platoon, and the winner of Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina would fill the left-handed side. Now with just the two left-handers, neither of whom are particularly good with the glove or the bat, things are looking a little more dicey.
Fortunately for GM Mike Rizzo, he does have a stockpile of starting pitchers which, if he chooses, he can attempt to turn into a starting center fielder via the trade market. This is an option that has been on the table since the signing of Edwin Jackson to a one-year, $11 million deal earlier this winter. However, it is one that has not been acted on and there may be a reason for that. While Washington has six, or potentially seven MLB ready starting pitchers for a five-man rotation, there is arguably only one arm (Gio Gonzalez) in that mix that you can consider "rock solid."
The problem is Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Chien-Ming Wang all have had major arm surgeries/injuries in the past four years. We know that Strasburg will have an innings pitched limit in 2012, and it's hard to believe that Wang could pitch a full 30-start season given his history. On top of the injury concerns, Edwin Jackson is only in Washington on a one-year contract, and that's no accident. Jackson is here to use Washington as a platform for next year's free-agnecy as much as Washington is using him as a one-year filler until 2013 when Washington will make their strongest push toward the playoffs. Given that, can you trade both Ross Detwiler and John Lannan, knowing that you very well could need them at any given moment if a pitcher gets hurt? Or next year after Jackson chases a long-term deal?
The retirement of Cameron may force Rizzo's hand. If Washington does want to be a potential playoff team in 2012, they may not be able to afford yet another season with Bernadina and Ankiel floundering in centerfield. That being said, we may not see any such deal done until after the beginning of the season. The Nationals still must see how close Bryce Harper is to being Major League ready before they make any move to sure up their outfield woes. There is no reason to destabilize the pitching situation in order to acquire an everyday centerfielder if Harper, the team's offensive future, is ready to contribute by June or July.
The beauty of the timing of Cameron's decision, though, is that it does give Washington all of camp to make their decision. It allows them time to give Ankiel and Bernadina (and perhaps an unknown) to prove themselves as a viable solution in center. It also gives Harper a chance to see Major League pitching while also giving Rizzo an opportunity to evaluate his readiness. With flexibility in camp, no decisions have to be made right away, which is probably the best thing for the makeup of the Nationals roster.