Behind Plate, There's a Bat And a Leader
The other shoe has fallen in the Lastings Milledge for Brian Schneider and Ryan Church trade. And it's a big one. Fiery four-time all-star Paul Lo Duca, who batted .297 over the past two years for the New York Mets, will now be the Nationals' catcher when they open their new ballpark next spring. Lo Duca can't throw worth a darn, but he can do the rest. Now, with this one-year, $5 million free agent deal, the Nats have removed the dark Brian's Gone cloud over their offseason. After weeks of wheeling and dealing by General Manager Jim Bowden, the sky over South Capitol Street looks brighter than expected.[an error occurred while processing this directive]
"Paul is one of my favorite teammates I ever played with," said 303-game winner Tom Glavine, who threw to Lo Duca the last two seasons with the Mets. "He's a gamer, great in the clubhouse and a little underrated because of his arm. Calling a game, helping his pitcher through the rough spots, that's the stuff he really cares about. His arm doesn't dazzle people, but I would take his total package against most of the catchers in the league. He's a tough out and he does all the little things to win."
So if you just let your breath out when you heard the Nats had gotten Lo Duca for a year until 23-year-old Jesus Flores can develop enough to take over the job full time, then you have plenty of company in the Washington locker room. It's well and good to get a blue-chip prospect like Milledge, 22,whose minor league stats at the same age are slightly better than hot young players such as Hanley Ramirez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Nick Markakis, and don't compare too badly with a young Gary Sheffield. But the total value of a tough-guy catcher with a passion for the game, the grit to grind out the sweltering days in July and August, and the brains to make everybody follow his lead and toe the line -- that's rare. Schneider had it. Few others do. Lo Duca does.
The difference between the two backstops -- besides Lo Duca's better bat (career .288) and Schneider's superior arm -- is five years. The Mets think Lo Duca, 36 next April, is near the end of the road. They didn't like the way his average fell from .318 to .272 this season and lumped him as part of the Mets' historic fold in September. If he's such a hot leader, what happened?
As for Lo Duca, a one-year contract will give him a chance to groom Flores. If he hits .300, as he did twice with the Dodgers, or has 39 doubles as he did in '06 or if the 370-foot left field porch in the Nats' new park brings back some of the pop that let him hit 25 homers once with Los Angeles, he could sign a fat deal next winter.
The difference in defense between Schneider and Lo Duca may be easy to overestimate. In the last two seasons, both men threw out 49 runners, but opponents had 156 steals against Lo Duca to 111 against Schneider. So the Nats will probably allow about 22 more steals this year. If Lo Duca matches his normal career offensive numbers and Flores matures on schedule, the Nats may end up happy some day, because it's rare to grab a division rival's top offensive prospect like Milledge.
It is no accident the Nats added Lo Duca and classy veteran Aaron Boone immediately after acquiring the flamboyant Milledge and troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes. Manager Manny Acta built a model clubhouse last year. That must stay, no matter what. However, Milledge, who was a favorite of Acta's when he was a Mets coach in '06, probably won't be a problem.
"Lastings is a young kid who has some flair to him right now. But some of his reputation is overblown," Glavine said. "Did he make some mistakes? Yes. But I'd say it was youthful exuberance, not, 'This is a bad guy.' He has some growing up to do, learning to respect the game. But he has talent and he works hard at what he's trying to do."
In 1,173 minor league at bats, Milledge has a .306 batting average and an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .864. For comparison, in more than 1,000 minor league at bats, Ramirez, Ellsbury and Markakis hit .297, .313 and .301 with OPS of .782, .814 and .851, while Sheffield, to whom Milledge's bat speed is sometimes compared, hit .310 with a .922 OPS. The highest hopes the Nats could hold for Milledge are that, in a couple of years, he would be a smaller, faster, less powerful Sheffield.
If Milledge can tone down his homer celebrating, fan-hand-slapping antics a bit, he may find it has unexpected benefits. In parts of two seasons, Milledge has been hit by about 17 pitches per full season. "A message is being sent, I guess," Glavine said, wryly.
The message the Nats will almost certainly send to the National League this season is that they are no longer the lowest-scoring team in baseball. In fact, the improvement may be shocking, in part because it began in May, though few noticed it. Before May 11, the Nats scored 2.91 runs a game and went 9-25. After that, they scored 4.48 -- which would have been better than five NL teams -- and finished the season 64-64. In a new and normal-size park, the Nats would probably have moved near the middle of the league in offense if they had done nothing all winter, especially because Cristian Guzman (.328) should be healthy and Nick Johnson told the Nats yesterday that he expects to be 100 percent healthy by spring training.
However, with the second-half arrival of slugger Wily Mo Pe¿a, plus Milledge as an everyday player and, perhaps, Dukes as part of the puzzle, too, the Nats suddenly have more credible hitters than they can put on the field at one time. The Nats could take the field on opening day with Ronnie Belliard (.290), Johnson or Dmitri Young (.320), Flores and Dukes on the bench.
"We're making progress," Bowden said yesterday, just days after locking up Pe¿a with a new contract. Now if he could only get the Orioles to trade Brian Roberts (a long shot) and sign free agent pitcher Livan Hernandez (unlikely, but conceivable), the GM might have nothing left to do but hibernate the rest of the winter.
Until the moment he grabbed Lo Duca, Bowden's offseason pyrotechnics had been exciting but extremely dangerous. Without a veteran catcher to replace Schneider -- and the right kind of forceful leader behind the plate, at that -- then he might have reconstructed the Nats along lines that looked promising on paper but could easily have come unglued on the field.
Now, with Lo Duca in hand, the plan has come together. The Nationals have built a respectable major league offense, without sacrificing any pitching or too much defense. Anyone who wants to imagine a Nats attack without a weak hitter at any position can actually do so. And just in time to move to a park where long blasts in the gaps will land five rows up in the seats, where they belong, not in a glove on the RFK Stadium warning track.
Normal baseball will soon arrive in Washington.