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TOO MANY OUTFIELDERS, TOO LITTLE TIME

[January 2nd] -- Sigh. January 2nd is always a depressing day for me. After seemingly day after day of holidays and fun and food, the real world - and all its problems - returns. Unless you're a student or a banker, the next holiday is in May. And that is a long, long time away. Guess all we can do is concentrate on baseball and the upcoming season.

The Nationals roster seems more up in the air to me that it did this time last year, which is weird since the team brought in, what, 40 starting pitchers into Spring Training? I can live with the uncertainty at catcher (how much time is Jesus Flores going to get?) and first (gee, Nick Johnson is hurt?) but this whole outfield thing is bothersome. Unless something changes in the next couple of months, the Nats are going to arrive in Viera with four starting outfielders, of which only one - Austin Kearns - has ever played in the big leagues on a consistent basis. The other three, Wily Mo Pena, Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge, all deserve the opportunity to play every day based on what they've shown over the past couple of years (Dukes' .190 average doesn't particularly bother me). But the outfield glut doesn't stop there. By the end of the year, the Nationals might have two more guys - Chris Marrero and Justin Maxwell - who might deserve the opportunity to show what they've got, and another - Michael Burgess - who just might be the best of the lot, could be less than a couple of years away.

So what's the team going to do?

I wouldn't have a problem with the Nationals going north with those four guys if even one of them was a lefty. There are too many outfielders who are all right-handed. That's not a good thing regardless of how well they all hit.

At this point, I have to believe that just three of the four are going to make the team.

Left: Wily Mo Pena: Jim Bowden has been after Pena for too long, and he's too cheap, and too talented not to play every day, and he's proven in limited action that he can produce if given a chance. With the Nationals, he would have hit .293-32-88 in a 550 at-bat season. There is no reason to believe he can't do that in 2008. At the very least, the Nationals have to let him prove that he can, or can't, be a real slugger at the major league level. At 26, he is still young and hasn't reached his potential. I'm not even sure anyone knows exactly what his potential is. .280-40-120? Quite possibly.

Center: Lastings Milledge: Again, Bowden has lusted over Milledge, in his case since his days in high school. The only thing that kept Milledge from have outstanding numbers in 2007 was limited playing time. Based on a full season, Milledge would have hit .272-21-87. He'll be 23 next year and might be another player the Nationals build around. He's not going to be a slugger, but he will likely blossom into a .285-27-90 type player. He has to stay too.

Right: Austin Kearns: Yet another of Bowden's "boys." Kearns is the question mark in the Nationals outfield, but he has several things going for him. First, he plays the game right. Second, he's still cheap, though that's going to change in the coming years. And third, he's due. The Reds bandbox inflated his numbers while with Cincinnati, and RFK deflated his numbers since he's played in Washington. The new park should be just about right for Kearns. I wouldn't be surprised if Kearns finally becomes the offensive player that we all expected in 2008, hitting .270-25-90 or so while playing a superb right field.

That said, I think Kearns is a year away from a big trade. He'll be 28 this season, and will see his contract jump from $5 million in '08 to $8 million in 2009. My guess is that the Nationals will trade Kearns, perhaps package him with a prospect or two, and get a significant starting pitcher to help with a playoff run in 2009. That would leave right field available for ......

Elijah Dukes: Of the "fab four," playing Dukes at Columbus for a year makes the most sense. Though Dmitri Young is his designated mentor in Washington, I'm sure the team can find someone to watch over him at 'AAA.' Sure, he would have hit 31 homers and walked 103 times in a full season last year, but his .190 average shows the need for seasoning. Rather than force him to become an angel at the major league level, why not let him grow up in a less threatening, less volatile atmosphere?

I believe that the kid can become a decent person and superb player. The photos at the top of this post are of Dave Parker. While with the Pirates, he was a bad boy, perhaps the baddest of all. There is a picture of him smoking a joint in the dugout of a Spring Training game in the early 1970's. He drank a lot, fought a lot, and scared a whole lot of people. Tired of the troublesome outfielder, the Pirates shipped him and his declining skills off to the Reds, who told him to shave, shape up and stop screwing around. He had three of his best years with Cincinnati before ending his career with the Athletics.

The point is, if Dave Parker could turn himself around, so can Elijah Dukes.

With Kearns traded for pitching, what could this outfield produce in 2009?

Pena: .275-35-110 ---- Milledge: .300-28-90 ---- Dukes: .280-38-110

I know, if if if if if. But that is certainly better than Ryan Church, Nook Logan and Austin Kearns, right? Add those three guys to Ryan Zimmerman and [hopefully] Nick Johnson, and the Nationals have at least the chance of chasing a playoff berth.

But for now, at least, let Dukes play in Columbus, baseball's version of a Borg maturation chamber.

I don't demand that the Nationals contend in 2009, but I do demand that they at least have the opportunity to -- assuming things go there way.

Now, this entire exercise in guessing who goes where doesn't address the predominance of right-handed batters in the Nationals' lineup. I don't have an answer, though I am truly worried that Jim Bowden is perfectly willing to field this out-of-balance lineup. Rob Mackowiak was a great addition to the outfield and certainly can fill in against the nastier right-handed pitchers.

That said, without a few lefty hitters that we can count on, it's going to be difficult to field a productive offense night in and night out.

Coming up next: an in depth look at Matt Whitney. His is a particularly interesting story.


Comments:
A couple of months ago, I recall reading that the Nats had decided to convert Chris Marrero to a first baseman. If so, that will take him out the the outfield glut.
 
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