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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 Peña 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.
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