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New-Look Nationals Raise Hope, Questions

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 9, 2007

In the hours after he was traded from the Washington Nationals to the New York Mets on Nov. 30, Brian Schneider's cellphone buzzed with text messages from friends who, only minutes before, had been his teammates. The Nationals' -- make that Mets' -- catcher was on a long weekend in Napa Valley, Calif., with his wife. Many of the Nationals were close to Schneider. They knew the man for whom he was traded, outfielder Lastings Milledge, only by reputation.

As it turns out, that was only the first of a slew of jarring moves that have transformed the Nationals on the field and in the clubhouse. And since the departure of Schneider and Ryan Church and the addition of Milledge, outfielder Elijah Dukes, pitcher Tyler Clippard and veteran infielder Aaron Boone, the Nationals who remain on the roster have grappled with the changes. The shock has worn off. The impact remains. And the fallout is just beginning.

"I think it's a good thing, because it's not like a fire sale or something," right fielder Austin Kearns said in a telephone interview Friday. "I went through one of those in Cincinnati [when he was with the Reds], and that's not fun. These are moves that are going to help our team. I don't look at it like it's going backwards to eventually going forwards. They're positive."

Which is exactly how the Nationals' front office is viewing them. With the exception of Boone's one-year contract -- offered to bring leadership to a young clubhouse -- each of the Nationals' recent moves has been for the long term.

What results is a lineup that has a distinctly different feel -- not to mention a slew of unanswered questions. Milledge, 22, and Dukes, 23, have each had their issues on and off the field, but scouts and executives at last week's winter meetings in Nashville uniformly acknowledged that they have talent. In the case of Dukes, who has a long history of legal problems, Bowden and team president Stan Kasten essentially said the risk of the acquisition is worth the potential reward. Players tend to agree.

"The truth is, we got younger, and if you look at the game and the teams that are winning, they're letting kids play," Ryan Zimmerman, the 23-year-old incumbent third baseman, said by phone Friday. "They might make a few mistakes here and there, but they're obviously a lot more talented than some of the guys that have been in the game 10 or 15 years. I guess you could say we're kind of taking a chance, but at the same time, it might be a chance that's worth it."

Milledge and Dukes, who have combined to play just 167 games in the majors, give the lineup badly needed pop. Dukes has more raw power, but Milledge's pure bat speed has been compared to that of Gary Sheffield, the Detroit veteran who generates one of the most vicious swings in the game. One scout at the meetings said that, should those two harness their abilities, the impact on the Nationals' offense -- which scored fewer runs than any team in baseball in 2007 -- could be enormous.

"They have more explosiveness than they had before," the scout said. "They're younger, more athletic and have much more upside."

Throw in a contract extension signed by slugger Wily Mo Pe¿a, and the Nationals have four outfielders they believe are capable of starting -- Kearns, Milledge, Dukes and Pe¿a -- for three spots. Top club officials, though, said they don't intend to trade any. Kearns, the only one on the roster for Opening Day '07, is a favorite of Bowden and Manager Manny Acta despite a sub-par offensive year, and both said he is unlikely to be dealt.

"With four young outfielders, if three succeed we're in good shape," Bowden said. "If one gets hurt, we're in good shape. . . . We feel comfortable with four good young outfielders that are developing."

Bowden said the decision on whom to play where -- and, indeed, who would start -- would be up to Acta. The manager said he would use spring training to sort out the situation, but he has expressed a desire to give Pe¿a an opportunity ever since he arrived in a trade with Boston last August.

"Hopefully, Wily Mo can hit 30 to 35 home runs for us and continue to put fear in the opposition, which is what he did for us once he joined our club," Acta said. "I didn't think we had anybody [else] that could intimidate another club."

There is a possibility, Bowden said, that even if all four are healthy they each could get 400 at-bats. Kearns said he was unconcerned. "Those things usually play themselves out," he said.

For now, the options in the infield remain the same. First baseman Nick Johnson, who missed all of 2007 with a broken leg, is "hitting all his marks" in rehab, club officials said. If he is indeed healthy by spring training, his battle with Dmitri Young for the first baseman job could be the most intriguing story line in Viera, Fla. The middle infield involves three players for two spots -- Cristian Guzman, Felipe Lopez and presumed backup Ronnie Belliard -- and it's still possible Lopez will be traded.

The rotation also will have a completely different feel than last year's come-one-come-all approach in spring training. Bowden said he would bring back right-hander John Patterson to join a cast of pitchers in their 20s -- Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, Matt Chico, John Lannan, Garrett Mock, Ross Detwiler, Collin Balester and Clippard, acquired in a trade with the New York Yankees last week. Though there's a chance the club could still sign a player rebounding from an injury -- such as former Houston right-hander Jason Jennings -- they won't participate in the market for middling free agent pitchers such as Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse.

So though the roster's not set and the offseason's not over, the front office is pleased with most of the dilemmas it has.

"This year, they're good questions," Kasten said. "Last year, they're, 'Oh my God, who's going to play here?' This year, we have questions, but it's going to be, 'Which of these guys?' Like the outfield -- we have guys. Like the middle infield. Like the pitchers. The questions of what we'll do with them are way better than last year's questions."

One question that can't possibly be answered until spring training -- and maybe until well into the season -- is what personality the clubhouse will take. Club insiders believe that the 2007 clubhouse, while cohesive, may have been a bit lax. Zimmerman, for one, said it is up to him to help change that.

"I've been here two years," Zimmerman said. "It's to the point where I used to be -- not nervous, but cautious because I was so young and didn't have so much time in, and just out of respect for the other guys, I didn't say anything.

"Now, it's to the point where I'm kind of past that. We're just kind of tired of losing and tired of being fed up with stuff that shouldn't happen. Someone's got to do it. There's a few guys who have been here a couple years. We have the ability and the right to do that stuff, and I think we will."

Which would be just another change to the ever-evolving Nationals.

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