- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

The buzzword to this Washington Nationals‘ season very well might be “development.” Much of 2008 is being devoted to giving young players a chance to play on an everyday basis, some for the first time in their big league careers.

It can be a frustrating process at times, especially when a player’s inexperience supersedes his talent and leads to cringe-inducing results. More often than not, that has been the case this season with the Nationals’ trio of young outfielders: Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Wily Mo Pena.

The combined offensive totals of those three players - a .222 average, four homers, 31 RBI and a .310 slugging percentage - would look bad if they were attached to only one name, let alone three. And their lack of production is a major reason for Washington’s overall woes at the plate this season.

The Nationals, while hardly satisfied with the job Milledge, Dukes and Pena have done to date, have no intention of replacing any of them in the near future. The organization believes all deserve more time to develop as players before making any final judgments.

In the cases of Milledge and Dukes, that approach seems to make sense. These 23-year-olds have a world of ability. No one questions that. And while they may have flaws - and we’re only talking about on-field stuff here - neither has spent considerable time in the major leagues, instead being forced to learn on the job.

Milledge has 170 games of big league experience over the last three seasons, including 553 at-bats. Dukes has even less experience: 72 major league games and 234 at-bats.

So to judge either player on their career numbers to date (a .253 average, 14 homers and 72 RBI for Milledge and a .184 average, 10 homers and 23 RBI for Dukes) seems unfair.

Pena, though, is a different story. As much as the Nationals continue to refer to him as a young and inexperienced player, he’s now 26 years old and has played in 533 big league games totaling 1,507 at-bats. So his career numbers - .255 average, 76 homers, 223 RBI and a strikeout once every three at-bats - carry significantly more weight and make it reasonable to question whether this is as good as it’s ever going to get for him.

Pena certainly isn’t as bad as his performance this season would suggest. He’s not a .205 hitter who even over a full year would total three homers and 24 RBI (his current rate).

But what evidence is there that his best days are still ahead of him? The book on Pena hasn’t changed since the day Jim Bowden brought him up to the Cincinnati Reds at age 20. He has some of the most prodigious power potential anyone has ever seen, but he can’t produce that power with enough consistency to offset his other major liabilities (an inability to hit breaking balls or catch fly balls).

Pena spends countless hours in the batting cage, working with hitting coach Lenny Harris and others on refining his swing, learning how to lay off certain pitches and drive others to right field instead of trying to jerk them into the left-field upper deck. But he has been doing that for parts of seven big league seasons now. How much longer can the baseball world wait to see if he finally figures it out?

Milledge and Dukes still can hide behind the youth crutch. That argument isn’t going to work for Pena much longer.

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