VIERA, Fla., March 29 -- Just six days before the first game in franchise history, the Washington Nationals fundamentally overhauled their lineup Tuesday by sending a single player -- center fielder Endy Chavez -- to Class AAA New Orleans, a move that shows the team's frustration with Chavez's lack of production and has a ripple effect throughout the batting order.
Suddenly, the leading candidate to play center field next Monday in Philadelphia, when the Nationals take the field against the Phillies, appears to be 26-year-old Ryan Church, who thought only a day earlier that he -- not Chavez -- would head to New Orleans. And the player who will have the first official at-bat in Nationals history?
The Nats' Ryan Church is the last man left standing in competition for the center fielder's job. He'd expected to be demoted. "I was really thinking I was going to go down," he said. "I was shocked. I mean, shocked. I still am."
(John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
"That's a good question," Manager Frank Robinson said. "I don't know."
Since the Nationals assembled at spring training last month, everyone -- players, coaches and management -- had labeled Chavez, a fleet-footed 27-year-old, as the key to the lineup. If he could slightly alter his approach, they figured, he could become a catalyst, a player who could score 100 runs and steal 40 bases. Before workouts began, Robinson and General Manager Jim Bowden had separate conversations with Chavez about what they needed from him: more walks, more bunt base hits, more runs, more hits the opposite way and, generally, more pressure on the opposition.
Chavez failed to deliver. After posting a .291 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter last season -- a number Bowden called "unacceptable" -- Chavez hit .212 and had a .257 on-base percentage this spring, walking twice in 37 plate appearances.
"We made it very clear to Endy that what he had done the last couple years wasn't going to be acceptable enough, and that he had to get on base more and score more runs in that position," Bowden said. "I respect him as one of the better defensive center fielders in the league, but look: With our offense, you're going to have to produce more offense from that position. This spring, he didn't get it done -- bottom line. Potential's one thing. But after a while, you got to turn it into performance."
The move, which was being mulled over by the front-office staff and Robinson as late as Tuesday morning, came as a result not only of Chavez's lack of production, but also of a general offensive malaise over the past week. Entering Tuesday night's game against the New York Mets, the Nationals had scored two or fewer runs in five of six games.
"His offense has not been good enough to win baseball games," Bowden said of Chavez. "We gave up some defense in this decision, but we have got to be able to score more runs than what we've been scoring."
Chavez, who was consoled by coaches and teammates alike, declined to discuss his feelings after he packed his bags in the clubhouse. "I'm not going to answer nothing," he said.
Bowden said Church has made the club. He was in the lineup in center field against the Mets.
"I was really thinking I was going to go down," Church said. "I was shocked. I mean, shocked. I still am."
Church, the Montreal Expos' minor league player of the year in 2004, hit .343 with 17 homers and 78 RBI in just 347 at-bats with Class AAA Edmonton, posting a monstrous 1.048 OPS -- on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. He hit only .175 in 63 major league at-bats in September. The strongest indication that Church will start in center field came from Robinson, who said he still considers Terrmel Sledge his fourth outfielder. The Nationals feel Sledge, a talented hitter who cracked a two-run homer in Tuesday's 4-3 loss, can't play center field regularly.
Leadoff duty, though, may fall to Brad Wilkerson, who hit first 107 times in 2004, most on the team. Wilkerson, who also can play center, slugged 32 homers but drove in just 67 runs last year. He hit fifth for most of the spring -- and hit a homer from that spot Tuesday night -- and would like to remain lower in the order so he could drive in more runs.
"I understand there could be a little bit of panic because we haven't been scoring runs," Wilkerson said. "They're going to have to switch it around and try to find ways to score runs."
Robinson spent some of the wee hours and part of Tuesday working over potential new lineups on a sheet of paper. He said he came up with 10 or 15, but has no idea what he'll go with when the season begins. Shortstop Cristian Guzman, who has a .303 on-base percentage during his career, began the spring on an offensive tear, but entered Tuesday's game in an 0-for-14 free fall and has walked only three times in 46 plate appearances.
Yet it is a measure of the Nationals' desperate situation that when the lineup was posted for Tuesday's game, Guzman hit first. First baseman Nick Johnson was in a new spot as well -- second.
"It is very frustrating, as a matter of fact," Robinson said. "This is the first time I've gone this long in spring training, or this close to Opening Day, and not had a clear-cut feel for my lineup or the team that I was going to have Opening Day. It's not a good feeling, really. But we'll get it worked out."
Robinson said hitting Wilkerson first would be a "last resort." Bowden, however, said, "No question, on this roster, he's the best leadoff hitter we have." Bowden said the decision will ultimately be Robinson's.
Whatever the lineup, the optimistic tenor of spring training changed Tuesday. Bowden's voice rose when he talked about how the move set a tone for the remaining five days.
"There's two messages this sends to the clubhouse," Bowden said. "Number one, you're going to have to perform. Nothing is given to you. So step up and get it done, or don't be surprised if someone else is playing in your position. . . . The second message is: We're going with young players. We're building this thing long term."