- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

Jim Bowden and Frank Robinson wish the Washington Nationals had a center fielder in their minor league system begging for a promotion.

But as Robinson said: “We just don’t have anybody right now that’s ready.”

So the Nationals have no choice but to stick with the status quo. That means Marlon Byrd, who raised his batting average to .237 with three hits on Sunday, will start in center most of the time, with utilityman Damian Jackson as his backup.

A season-long problem, both Bowden and Robinson become testy when asked about the center field situation, but it’s not getting any better. Washington center fielders are hitting a combined .230 this season (fourth-worst in baseball) with seven homers, 21 RBI and an abysmal .307 on-base percentage.

“Obviously, we’re very concerned,” Bowden said. “We are not getting production there. And it hurts the team. Our defense has been pretty good in center field, but we’re not getting the offensive production we need.”

If the Nationals wanted to make a change, they would appear to have two options in their farm system: Ryan Church or Frank Diaz.

Church figured to be the guy all along after an impressive rookie season last year. But he slumped in spring training, opened the year at Class AAA New Orleans, made a brief stop with the Nationals, but again looked overmatched and was sent back down.

Church is showing few signs of improvement with the Zephyrs. He’s hitting .212 with four homers and 17 RBI in 34 games, and team officials don’t believe he deserves a promotion.

The club hasn’t soured on Diaz, who’s batting .267 with six homers and 36 RBI at Class AA Harrisburg, but Bowden doesn’t believe he’s ready for the big leagues. To wit: Diaz has drawn just nine walks in 255 plate appearances.

“Do we have anyone in our system right now that is performing at a level that can improve our situation here? No,” Bowden said. “Don’t go hit .212 at Triple-A or .250 at Double-A and tell me that you’re going to come up here and hit better than our guys that are underperforming here. …

“If somebody wants to get hot and play center field here, they’ll be playing center field,” Bowden added. “Believe me when I tell you.”

First-rounder signs

Outfielder Chris Marrero, the Nationals’ top pick in this month’s amateur draft, agreed to terms with the club last night on his first professional contract, one that includes a $1.625 million signing bonus.

Marrero, the 15th overall selection, will be at RFK Stadium on Saturday to formally sign his contract and take batting practice with the Nationals. He’ll then report to the team’s Gulf Coast League rookie team in Melbourne, Fla., where he’ll join fellow first-rounder Colton Willems (the No. 22 overall pick, who signed on Friday).

Rated by Baseball America as the top hitter in his high school class, Marrero (who turns 18 next week) hit .379 with 13 homers and 35 RBI this season for Monsignor Pace High School in Opa Locka, Fla. He played third base primarily, but the Nationals plan to convert him into an outfielder.

Soriano still in the running

Alfonso Soriano has dropped from second to third place among National League outfielders in the All-Star balloting, but he remains in line to start the July 11 game in Pittsburgh.

Through balloting released yesterday, Soriano has received 1,484,845 votes, trailing only the Pirates’ Jason Bay (1,706,105) and the Mets’ Carlos Beltran (1,537,849) among NL outfielders.

Soriano holds a lead of nearly 118,000 votes over the Reds’ Ken Griffey Jr. Online voting concludes at 11:59 p.m. Thursday. The final results will be announced Sunday.

No other Nationals rank among the top five at their respective positions.

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