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MLB Baseball Scouting Reports

Washington Nationals

SI Prediction: 4th in NL East
The Nats pulled off a major heist when they acquired Milledge, whose well-rounded game belies the bad rap he got in New York.
The Nats pulled off a major heist when they acquired Milledge, whose well-rounded game belies the bad rap he got in New York.
Paul Sancya/AP
Washington Nationals MANAGER MANNY ACTA
second season with Washington
Team Page | 2008 Schedule
Combined assists by the Nationals' 11 outfielders in '07, a major league low -- and two fewer than the individual totals of Alfonso Soriano, Jeff Francoeur and Michael Cuddyer. The addition of Lastings Milledge, however, will give opponents pause before they try to take the extra base. In 816 innings (or roughly 91 games) in the majors, Milledge has thrown out six base runners -- a higher rate than those of Vladimir Guerrero, Ichiro Suzuki and Bobby Abreu.
Closer Chad Cordero, one of the Nationals' few remaining links to Montreal, has been an All-Star and even finished in the top 15 of the 2005 NL MVP vote. Washington, however, is rebuilding, and it needs to move the 26-year-old righthander while his trade value is still significant. Cordero's 37 saves last year (and 113 since the start of the 2005 season) belie other statistics that suggest he peaked two years ago. His walk rate has climbed steadily (3.5 in '07 versus 2.1 per nine innings in '05), and his home run rate was one every 7 1/3 innings over the last three seasons, a very high rate for a closer. As a fly ball pitcher who pitches to contact much more than he used to -- his strikeout rate has dropped nearly two whiffs per nine innings since '04 -- Cordero could be heading for an even sharper decline.
SS CRISTIAN GUZMAN S-R 256 .328 2 14 2
CF LASTINGS MILLEDGE R 101 .272 7 29 3
3B RYAN ZIMMERMAN R 90 .266 21 91 4
1B NICK JOHNSON L 189 .290 23 77 10
RF AUSTIN KEARNS R 163 .266 16 74 2
LF ELIJAH DUKES R 220 .190 10 21 2
C PAUL LO DUCA R 257 .272 9 54 2
2B RONNIE BELLIARD R 232 .290 11 58 3
IF FELIPE LOPEZ R 144 .245 9 50 24
OF-1B DMITRI YOUNG S-R 218 .320 13 74 0
OF WILY MO PEŅA R 288 .253 13 39 2
LH ODALIS PEREZ 216 8 11 4.2 1.66 5.57
LH MATT CHICO 244 7 9 5.1 1.54 4.63
RH TIM REDDING 247 3 6 5.0 1.45 3.64
RH JASON BERGMANN 180 6 6 6.7 1.22 4.45
RH SHAWN HILL 140 4 5 6.0 1.14 3.42
RH CHAD CORDERO 49 3 37 7.4 1.39 3.36
RH JON RAUCH 143 8 4 7.3 1.10 3.61
RH SAUL RIVERA 168 4 3 6.2 1.40 3.68

" 'The goal is clear: to win more than we lose.' That goal's still a year away."

The first time general manager Jim Bowden saw Lastings Milledge play was five springs ago, when Bowden was G.M. of the Reds and Milledge was a senior at Lakewood Ranch High, in Bradenton, Fla. It was love at first sight. "He was going to draft me, but the Mets took me with the 12th pick [of the 2003 draft], and the Reds picked 14th," Milledge recalls. "He always used to joke with me and say, 'You're going to play for me one day. I'm going to get you one day.' "

He got him. In a Nov. 30 trade that many baseball execs view as lopsided in Washington's favor, Bowden acquired Milledge from the Mets for weak-hitting catcher Brian Schneider and platoon outfielder Ryan Church. "He's got Gary Sheffield-type bat speed, and he's only 22 years old," says Bowden of Milledge. "By the time he's 25 or 26 he has the chance to develop into a middle-of-the-order bat." Manny Acta, the Nationals' second-year manager, believes that Milledge's impact will be immediate. "We've finally stopped that revolving door that we've had here over the last couple of years in centerfield," he says of the position at which seven players combined to hit .255 with 11 homers in 2007.

Three days after Bowden finally landed Milledge, he further upgraded his outfield by acquiring Elijah Dukes, 23, from the Rays, another high-ceiling, high-risk player with whom Bowden has long been enamored. Milledge and Dukes have frequently been lumped together as "trouble" players though their transgressions are distinctly different. Milledge's greatest offenses as a Met were slapping five with fans after hitting his first major league home run in '06 and uttering a few hackneyed slurs on an amateurish rap song. Dukes's actions have been far more insidious: He's been arrested five times in the last five years, and last May he allegedly threatened his estranged wife and her children in a well-publicized voice mail. On June 22, Tampa Bay placed Dukes, who slugged 10 homers in his first 40 big league games, on the inactive list for the remainder of his rookie season while he underwent counseling.

The Rays and the Nationals believe that the move from Tampa, where Dukes struggled to escape the influences of the neighborhood in which he grew up, might save his career. "I didn't know what to expect, because you hear a lot of things around the league, like, 'That guy's crazy,' " says veteran utilityman Willie Harris. "[Elijah] has a beautiful sense of humor about himself, and it seems like he has his attitude in the right place."

To Bowden, Dukes's baseball upside is obvious. "We know if we can get him at peace and he becomes a better person off the field, that on the field he's capable of being a 40-home-run player," he says. Even if Dukes, who will begin the season as Washington's fourth outfielder, doesn't work out, the Nats' offense is destined to improve from a year ago, when it ranked last in runs. They'll benefit from a full season of rightfielder Wily Mo Peņa as well as the return of first baseman Nick Johnson, who missed all of '07 with a broken left fibula after finishing behind only Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera in the NL in on-base percentage in '06.

The offense also will benefit from the move from cavernous RFK Stadium, which last season was the most difficult major league ballpark in which to hit a home run, to new Nationals Park. "RFK was to hitters what Coors Field used to be for pitchers," says Bowden. "But it won't matter what our hitters do if our starting pitchers can't keep us in games." Last season Washington's rotation was beset by injuries; 13 pitchers started at least one game, and that group accumulated an NL-low 856 innings. Still, the team confounded prognosticators everywhere by playing .500 ball over the last 128 games thanks to timely hitting and a solid bullpen. With a healthier rotation in place, Bowden says the goal is clear: "To win more than we lose."

Bowden has proved himself to be a man who gets what he wants, but that goal is still a year away. -- Ben Reiter

Issue date: March 31, 2008