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Thomas Boswell

Leadoff Man Has the Tools, But Not a Clue

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla. -- What the Nationals asked of leadoff man and center fielder Endy Chavez wasn't much.

They just wanted him to get on base 4 percent more often than he did last year. That's all -- 4 percent.

And it would have been so easy. Everybody showed him how. But, for some reason, Chavez couldn't or wouldn't listen. All advice was ignored. No attempt at improvement was made. For weeks the camp has buzzed with befuddled amazement at Chavez's oblivious inability to sense the precariousness of his position. His career was slipping away and everybody knew it.

Except him.

Yesterday, in a stunning move that some hope will finally serve as a wakeup call, the Nats shipped Chavez to the minor leagues even though it meant making an enormous mess of the entire Washington lineup less than a week from Opening Day.

Except for Chavez, the Nationals have no natural center fielder. Except for Chavez, with his 32-steal speed and knack for making contact, the team also lacks any player who has the classic tools of a leadoff man.

Maybe that's what lulled Chavez into thinking he was irreplaceable. Now, he knows differently. But the Nats are in a classic baseball predicament. Who bats leadoff?

"I'll be willing to look at anybody for leadoff, even [catcher Brian] Schneider," said Manager Frank Robinson, who has been as mystified and frustrated by Chavez as anyone.

"I've agonized with him," Robinson said. But to the manager's amazement, when he told Chavez he was being shipped out, the 27-year-old seemed not to understand how everything had gone so wrong. "It was strange," Robinson said, twice.

The Nats also don't know who their center fielder will be. Their minor league player of the year, Ryan Church, will get the first shot. "This is just the opportunity I've never gotten and always wanted. Now I have to seize it," said Church, 26, who nagged his Class AAA manager last year to give him more time in center field, just to increase his chances of cracking the lineup. "I'm ready. I got my feet wet last season. I was jumpy. But now the game is slowing down. This is my chance. I'm ready."

He better be. Because if Church doesn't work out, Brad Wilkerson might have to assume the unnatural center field position, something neither he nor the team prefers.

It should never have come to this because that 4 percent improvement could have come so easily. In baseball stats terms, 4 percent is the difference between Chavez's atrocious .318 on-base percentage last year and a mark near .360 that would be acceptable for a speedy leadoff-hitting center fielder.

Please, Endy, the Nats begged, listen to us. Robinson, hitting coach Tom McCraw, General Manager Jim Bowden and coach Jose Cardenal, as well as several teammates, all made the same point. Endy, we like you. We need your glove in center field. But our offense was the second-worst in baseball last year. We can't afford a .318 leadoff anchor. If you don't improve -- not a lot, but just a little -- you're going to lose your job. Just show us you're trying. Just make progress.

And not much progress. After all, how much is 4 percent? Here's how little it is.

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