New-Look Nationals Raise Hope, Questions
Sunday, December 9, 2007; Page D01
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."