By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Dissatisfied with his production and tired of waiting for it, the Washington Nationals optioned Lastings Milledge to Class AAA Syracuse yesterday, indicating to their center fielder that long-term potential does not guarantee a job in the short term. Milledge's demotion represents an abrupt decommitment; only one week ago, Milledge was entering the year with a secure job -- batting leadoff, and playing every day -- and reigning status as the team's 2008 leader in home runs and RBI.
But Milledge played himself out of his role, and then out of the big leagues, in seven games. Just before Opening Day, he missed a team meeting. He misplayed several fly balls in center and took wandering routes toward even the balls he caught. He walked too infrequently to fulfill the leadoff role, and went just 4 for 24 (.167) with 10 strikeouts.
"We've all seen the struggles that he's had adjusting to the new spot in the batting order and adjusting to being a center fielder in the big leagues," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. "That was the reason we sent him down."
Milledge's departure frees the Nationals to find more playing time for their deep cadre of outfielders, each of whom has outperformed Milledge in the season's opening week. No longer will Josh Willingham be stuck as a fifth outfielder. No longer will Elijah Dukes, perhaps the team's most talented player, encounter a blocked path to the starting lineup.
Washington will determine the corresponding roster move today.
So long as Milledge is gone, Dukes will handle the center field duties. Though Dukes dealt with a massive slump during spring training, his first week of the regular season reminded the organization of his merits, that he should be in the starting lineup every day. On Monday, Dukes flicked one forearm at a low-and-away two-strike pitch, forcing it over the left-center wall. This year, he's batting .381.
"He's so talented," Manager Manny Acta said. "You've seen what he's able to do already, and we need him like that."
Syracuse is already logjammed with center fielders, including Justin Maxwell and Corey Patterson, but Milledge will get most of the starts there. The 24-year-old, though, will play the corner positions several times a week, and there is no guarantee he will bat leadoff.
The length of Milledge's time in the minors depends on his progress, Rizzo said. A first-round pick by the Mets in 2003, Milledge has not spent time in the minors -- discounting last year's rehab assignment -- since 2007. Rizzo described Milledge, upon hearing of his demotion, as "unhappy, which I expected. I don't want a player that is glad to go down to Class AAA. But he took it like a professional."
During the Nationals' 0-7 start, Milledge contributed several of the signature moments. His flopping attempt to catch Emilio Bonifacio's Opening Day fly ball led to an inside-the-park home run. In a weekend series with Atlanta, Milledge, after striking out on a check swing, slammed his bat to the ground and tossed his helmet.
Just two days ago, Milledge, discussing his slow start, said: "You know you're going to come around. It's just how long it will take and how long they'll keep running you out there and letting you fail. But I know I'm a way better player than what I'm doing now."
Privately, those in the Nationals' front office have long regarded Milledge as a corner outfielder who has been forced into an unnatural position. Acta, though, has advocated patience with Milledge, saying even this weekend: "I'm not worried about him. Things will change for him. It's a very small sample so far."
While adjusting to center field, a position he rarely played before coming to Washington in a November 2007 trade, Milledge was also adjusting to a new spot in the order. In 2008, the Nationals' attack of injuries shuffled Milledge through the middle of the lineup. Only three weeks ago, though, did Acta name Milledge as the team's permanent leadoff hitter, citing his improving patience and ability as a base-stealer. Milledge didn't relish the idea of patience, though. From the beginning, he promised to be "an aggressive leadoff hitter," somebody whose performance wouldn't be measured by walks. In 26 plate appearances this week, Milledge walked once.
Milledge's demotion, Rizzo said, doubled as a "message that we need for players to perform. We need players to adapt to the major leagues, and we need players to perform."