- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2008

When the Washington Nationals search for positives in a mostly negative baseball season, they likely will point to their young and revamped outfield as evidence of progress being made at the major league level.

And indeed, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes (two players who were not with the organization one year ago) have shown potential to be good big leaguers and key pieces to this club’s long-term plan.

Getting his first crack at playing every day in the majors, Milledge looks like a quality offensive player, one capable of hitting 25 homers and stealing 25 bases next season. Dukes, who wasn’t supposed to be an everyday player this year but has been thrust into the role via injuries to others, looks like he could develop into one of the best players in the sport - a 40-40 guy with speed and defensive ability, provided, of course, he behaves himself.

So what’s not to like about the Nationals’ outfield heading into 2009? Well, perhaps the actual positioning of these guys.

Despite his insistence he’s a natural center fielder and most comfortable there, Milledge has looked less than comfortable this season. Though he made some strides over the course of the summer, he remains prone to misjudge balls hit over his head or just in front of him. And his arm, while hardly a liability, appears to be average at best (he has one assist in 2008).

All that has led to suggestions (including some from team personnel) that the Nationals move Milledge to left field next season.

Manager Manny Acta has bristled at the thought and has stood up for Milledge as a center fielder, pointing out the progress the 23-year-old has made while admitting he’s still learning the nuances of the position. Asked on more than one occasion in the last month whether he has considered a switch, Acta’s response has been clear: no way.

That doesn’t, however, mean there won’t be a new look in Washington’s outfield come spring training.

The conventional line of thinking has Milledge moving to left, Dukes moving to center and Austin Kearns (plagued by injuries this season) reassuming his starting job in right field.

That may be how the Nationals’ outfield ultimately shakes out, but that’s far from a certainty.

As much as Kearns is publicly lauded by the organization for his work ethic and solid defensive skills, privately members of the coaching and front office are coming to the conclusion that the 28-year-old is what he is: a .260-hitting, 20-homer, 70-RBI guy … in a best-case scenario.

Those numbers aren’t going to cut it anymore, certainly not from a player due to make $8 million next season (tied with shortstop Cristian Guzman for most on the roster).

Could the Nationals find a taker for Kearns? It’s going to be tough and certainly will require them to pay some of his salary, but indications are the organization is going to explore that option this winter.

Once lauded as part of the long-term plan in Washington, Kearns now doesn’t figure to last much longer. Even if he remains in 2009, he’s unlikely to return in 2010, with the Nationals exercising a $1 million buyout instead of picking up a $10 million club option.

That leaves the organization searching for one more player to join Milledge and Dukes in a revamped outfield. An in-house candidate like Roger Bernadina (who has looked more comfortable at the plate in his second call-up than he did in his first tryout earlier this summer) is a possibility.

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