- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

At this juncture in the Washington Nationals‘ 2008 season - just past the midpoint of a year that general manager Jim Bowden said has been a “nightmare” so far - the team’s best chance at finding some redeeming value is in what it can do to identify key pieces of a core for the future.

It has even been difficult to see those efforts bearing fruit at times this season. But the last few weeks have brought signs that the Nationals have an important part of their lineup already in place and growing up.

If the baseball adage holds true - that contending teams have to be strong up the middle - then the Nationals have reason to be optimistic. Their young catcher, Jesus Flores, has blossomed quicker than even the front office expected, so much so that the Nationals are comfortable shelving Paul Lo Duca and his $5 million salary.

Center fielder Lastings Milledge, who frequently wrung every moment of excitement out of routine fly balls early this season, has begun to make them look, well, routine. Though he will miss the next two to four weeks with a right groin injury, the Nationals feel he has progressed to the point where even if he’s not an outstanding defender, he’s at least not a liability.

“He has improved dramatically in the outfield,” Bowden said. “He has worked extremely hard at it. His jumps and angles are better. He’s running down balls.”

Though there are still some in the Nationals organization who question whether Milledge would be better in left field in the long run, Elijah Dukes has the speed, instincts and arm to play center, as well

And just as importantly, Flores, Milledge and Dukes are all showing signs they can be legitimate offensive fixtures in Washington’s lineup.

Milledge homered twice in a five-game span from June 21 to 25 and leads the Nationals with 32 RBI. Dukes arguably has been Washington’s best hitter the last month, batting .310 in his last 32 games and showing glimpses of the prodigious power he was touted to have when the Nationals acquired him last winter. He went 4-for-6 with four RBI and a walk-off homer on June 5 against the Cardinals, went 5-for-6 with a homer against Texas on June 20 and was 2-for-3 with the game-winning run on June 25 against the Angels.

Flores is hitting .292, making big enough strides offensively that manager Manny Acta batted him cleanup three times last week.

“He’s impressive for his age. I think it helps him a lot that he has a very good knowledge of the strike zone despite his age,” Acta said. “He gives you quality at-bats more times than not. He’s got good bat speed, and you know he doesn’t get rattled. He’s been able to survive here, not only because of his tools but because of his makeup, too, despite his age.”

As promising as Washington looks behind the plate and in the outfield, however, there is one place where its middle looks soft. It’s in the infield, where the Nationals’ top prospects are nowhere near the majors and their current options could have different addresses by next spring.

Shortstop Cristian Guzman is a free agent after the season, as is second baseman Felipe Lopez. At present, the Nationals seem to have different plans for the two players - they reportedly offered Guzman a two-year contract extension last week while discussing a possible Lopez trade with the Baltimore Orioles.

Lopez started just once in the last four games and chafed at what he perceived to be a lack of communication from Acta. In response, Acta said: “I think I talked to him enough from last year about everything that we expect out of him.”

There’s almost no chance of Lopez being with the Nationals in 2009, but if Washington re-signs Guzman, he and Ronnie Belliard could give the Nationals a serviceable double play combination until the likes of Ian Desmond and Stephen King are ready.

Even if that’s still a year or two away, there’s at least some sign that a foundation’s on the way.

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