- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

For more than a year now, the Washington Nationals have touted Lastings Milledge as a cornerstone in their efforts to build a winning club. On Tuesday, they decided the struggling center fielder isn't quite ready for the job.

The Nationals optioned Milledge to Class AAA Syracuse because the 24-year-old has gotten off to a dismal start this season.

Milledge recorded just four hits in 24 at-bats, struck out 10 times and came under scrutiny for his play in center field. He also received a fine for arriving late to the team's pre-Opening Day meeting in Miami last week, which upset many in the organization, though acting general manager Mike Rizzo insisted on-field performance was solely behind this decision.

“That was the reason we sent him down,” he said. “To get him more comfortable with his swing, to get him more comfortable with his position and to do it in a less stressful situation than the National League East.”

Milledge, acquired in December 2007 from the New York Mets for Brian Schneider and Ryan Church, led the Nationals in RBI (61) and tied for the lead in home runs (14) last season. Nationals manager Manny Acta designated him as the team's leadoff hitter and center fielder in mid-March.

But he struggled over the final few weeks of spring training and got off to a ragged start last week, leading to a daily barrage of questions about his place in the lineup and status in the organization.

“Guys go down to the minor leagues when they're struggling all the time,” Rizzo said. “And Lastings is struggling to the point where we thought that a less stressful environment where he can relax… is better than just to be thrown into the fire of major league competition.”

Rizzo said Milledge, who has 1,004 plate appearances in the major leagues, was upset when informed of the move Tuesday but that he handled it “professionally.” The club expects Milledge to continue to play center field primarily, though he occasionally will move to a corner outfield spot so Syracuse teammates Justin Maxwell and Corey Patterson can play their natural positions. He will bat out of several spots in the Chiefs' lineup.

Milledge's demotion clears up the Nationals' crowded outfield somewhat and opens the door for Elijah Dukes to become the everyday center fielder. Dukes had split time between center and right fields in the last week, and he has seven hits in his last 16 at-bats with a homer and five RBI.

With Dukes in center field and Austin Kearns in right, there should be more opportunities for Josh Willingham (who has started only twice so far) to crack the lineup.

The Nationals won't announce a corresponding roster move until Wednesday, but it's likely they will promote an infielder after watching Cristian Guzman, Willie Harris and Ronnie Belliard all get injured in the last few days. Guzman, who strained his left hamstring Monday in the final at-bat of a 5-for-5 performance, probably will be unavailable for at least a couple of days.

For an organization that has preached patience with its young players for the last two years, the decision to demote Milledge one week into the season comes as a surprise. But after an 0-7 start on the heels of a 102-loss season, perhaps a message needed to be sent - both to Washington's players and fans - that results matter at some point.

“Messages are sent all the time,” Rizzo said. “This is certainly a message that we need for players to perform. We need for players to adapt to the major leagues. And we need players to succeed. That's what it's all about.”