By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007
The Washington Nationals yesterday made a move General Manager Jim Bowden believes adds an explosive player for next year and beyond, acquiring dynamic 22-year-old outfielder Lastings Milledge from the New York Mets for veteran catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church.
The trade is Washington's first of what could be an active offseason, and it immediately addresses a need for an offense that scored fewer runs than any other team in baseball. Last year at this time, Milledge was considered one of the top prospects in baseball. Though his stock fell slightly among scouts and executives during an occasionally tumultuous stint with the Mets, Washington likes his long-term potential to develop into, as Bowden said, "a middle-of-the-lineup, impact player."
"When you look at a trade like this from our club's perspective, the deal isn't made for the 25-man roster in 2008," Bowden said in a conference call with reporters. "The deal is made to build a championship club."
Milledge, the 12th overall pick in the 2003 draft, comes with both an electric set of skills as well as a slightly troubled reputation. A .257 hitter with 11 home runs in 350 major league at-bats over the 2006 and '07 seasons, Milledge drew criticism from New York media and teammates when he boisterously celebrated his first big league homer in 2006 by exchanging high-fives with fans. The more serious problems, though, arose earlier this year when he recorded a sexually explicit rap song called "Bend Ya Knees" that contained misogynous lyrics.
Milledge, though, said he was excited to be traded to Washington, where he not only will almost certainly play every day but will be reunited with Manager Manny Acta, who was the Mets' third base coach in 2006. Milledge said he often turned to Acta for support.
"When I was struggling a little bit up there and everybody seemed to be against me, Manny was there for me," Milledge said. "He gave me some words of encouragement. . . . It made me a better person. It made me a better ballplayer. It helped me, at a young age, to really play in a big market and really have everyone against you at one point."
Acta vouched for Milledge's character.
"I can assure you that Lastings is a good kid," Acta said. "He came up to the big leagues very young in a very tough spot. . . . He just wasn't prepared to handle that."
Neither Acta nor Bowden would commit to a position for Milledge on the field or in the batting order. Considering the Nationals' current alignment -- Austin Kearns in right and Wily Mo Pe¿a in left -- it would make sense that Milledge would take over in center. Though he appeared in just 14 games there for the Mets -- compared with 89 in left and right -- Milledge called center his "premier" position and said he was more comfortable there. Mets GM Omar Minaya said, "He is a center fielder."
"He'll be able to play it," said one scout who regularly covers the NL East. "No problem there."
Milledge can't be a free agent until after the 2012 season, a key in making the trade, Bowden said. The Nationals, thus, will save significant money -- opening up funds to spend elsewhere either this offseason or at the July trade deadline. Schneider was due $9.8 million over the next two seasons, and he will earn a $500,000 bonus because he was traded. The Mets are responsible for paying all of that money. Church is eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason.
Still, acquiring Milledge came at what Bowden called a "very, very steep price." Schneider, 31, has a reputation as one of the best defensive catchers in the National League. Though his offense has been stagnant recently -- he hit just .235 in 2007, 20 points below his career average coming into the season -- Bowden and Acta constantly praised his ability to handle the Nationals' patchwork pitching staff.
Schneider also had spent his entire 13-year professional career with the Montreal-Washington franchise.
"Obviously, it's mixed," Schneider said in a phone interview. "I've spent my whole career with the Nationals. It's not like it's just quick, just forget about it. I've got a lot of close friends on that team, and it's weird to think I'll be playing against them."
Church, 29, has had what he called an "up-and-down" career thus far. He hit .272 with 15 homers and 43 doubles in a career-high 144 games in 2007.
"I've been through a lot of trials, [including] being sent down last year," Church said on a conference call, "but I think I've ultimately come out on top, and I think it's only made me a stronger person on and off the field."
The remaining question after the trade -- and with the annual winter meetings beginning Monday in Nashville -- is who will catch for the Nationals in 2008. Bowden said the Nationals believe 23-year-old Jesus Flores, a Rule 5 draft pick and rookie in 2007, "can develop into being a number one catcher," but added quickly, "I can't tell you how the rest of the offseason is going to play out."
"We're not done," Bowden said.
Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.