VIERA, Fla. — Asked by a reporter yesterday afternoon whether he felt like he should be the Washington Nationals’ starting center fielder, Endy Chavez succinctly replied, “Yes.”
Asked whether he thought he had shown enough to club officials this spring to ensure his job, Chavez again simply said, “Yes.”
Fifteen minutes later, Chavez was packing his bags for New Orleans, and the Nationals were scrambling to reconfigure their starting lineup six days shy of Opening Day.
In their boldest move of the spring, Washington general manager Jim Bowden and manager Frank Robinson optioned the struggling Chavez to Class AAA, sending a message to the rest of the club and admitting to the world they have no idea who will be at the plate Monday for the first at-bat in Nationals history.
“It’s very frustrating,” Robinson said. “It’s the first time I’ve gone this close to Opening Day without having a clear-cut feel for my lineup. It’s not a good feeling. But we’ll get it worked out.”
Chavez’s surprise demotion was a product not only of his own struggles this spring (he hit .212 and drew just two walks in 35 plate appearances) but also of Washington’s overall struggling lineup, which scored a total of 11 runs in six games going into last night’s exhibition against the New York Mets.
With time running out before the club breaks camp and heads north, Bowden felt drastic action was necessary.
“We’ve all watched what this team has done the last eight days,” he said. “Spring training or not, I’m not going to watch it anymore. …
“Potential’s one thing, but after a while, you’ve got to turn it into production. This offense has not been good enough to win baseball games.”
Chavez, the Montreal Expos’ regular center fielder for the last two seasons and owner of a .277 batting average in 2004, took the news hard. He was consoled at his locker by bench coach Eddie Rodriguez and special assistant Jose Cardenal for 30 minutes and would not speak to reporters after learning of his demotion.
Earlier in the afternoon, he said he was pleased with the adjustments he made this spring and believed he had earned the everyday leadoff job.
“I’ve been more selective, waiting for my pitch,” Chavez said. “I’ve tried to get better hitting the ball. I know my training’s there. I’m ready for the season.”
Clearly, the organization had a different opinion.
“I’m not saying everything you do here is [stats-related],” Robinson said. “But you look at his stats, and his on-base percentage is .257. And off of 35 [plate appearances], he’s drawn only two walks. That’s not enough to hold a job up here.”
Chavez’s demotion leaves the Nationals with no true leadoff hitter on their roster. Left fielder Brad Wilkerson held the role for an extended period of time last year and wound up reaching base at an impressive .382 clip. Wilkerson, though, drove in just 67 runs despite 32 homers, and the club would prefer to have him bat fifth to maximize his production.
Robinson said he will try out several lineup combinations over the final days of camp. Last night, he had shortstop Cristian Guzman batting leadoff with first baseman Nick Johnson second. But he will consider all other options at the top of the order, including Johnson, and ultimately would go with Wilkerson if all else fails.
“Wilkerson is the last resort,” Robinson said. “I don’t think he has to audition for it, because I feel like he can do the job. He has done it. That would be the last resort.”
Robinson also must decide who will replace Chavez in center field. Again, Wilkerson is an option to move over, with Terrmel Sledge taking over in left field, but indications from club officials last night suggested Wilkerson will remain in left with rookie Ryan Church in center.
Church is now a lock to make the Opening Day roster after spending the entire spring teetering on the bubble. The 26-year-old outfielder, though, put up impressive numbers at Class AAA last year (.343 average, 17 homers, 78 RBI) and has continued to impress this spring with his vision and his bat speed.
“He’s got all the tools,” Bowden said. “If you give him 500 at-bats, he’ll hit.”
Though Church only began playing center field regularly last season at Edmonton, he believes he has come a long way defensively and can handle the pressures of playing in the majors.
“Yeah, I’ve only played maybe a year out there, but I read the ball well, I can move, I get a good jump. I can play a good center field,” Church said. “Right now, I have no clue. If I’m starting on Monday or not, it doesn’t matter. I just want to put on that Nationals uniform.”
Something Chavez won’t get a chance to do, much to the shock of his teammates.
“It surprised a lot of people,” Wilkerson said. “It surprised me. I hate to see it happen, but [Bowden’s] correct in saying that. Endy knows what he needs to do; he just needs to start doing it. If he starts to draw walks and gets on base, he’d be a great fit for this ballclub. But until that happens, I think we have to go with the best team possible.”