- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2008

If the Washington Nationals carry out next spring what general manager Jim Bowden told fans Friday afternoon, their outfield could look slightly different.

Bowden hinted during a question-and-answer session with fans at ESPN Zone in downtown Washington that there could be a defensive change in the outfield next season. The most logical move would be swapping left fielder Elijah Dukes for center fielder Lastings Milledge, who has struggled during his first season at the position.

Manager Manny Acta has continued to back Milledge during his sometimes-rocky progression.

But Milledge misplayed a ball during Thursday’s 7-2 loss to the Mets and lost a ball in the sun in a 14-inning win over the Braves on Sept. 7.

Though the 23-year-old has improved defensively in the season’s second half, his errors still contribute to the perception he isn’t cut out to be a center fielder in the long run.

Bowden’s comments about the makeup of the outfield next season only fueled that speculation.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to explore every avenue,” Bowden said. “I think as far as how the outfielders line up, Manny’s got to evaluate how everyone has done defensively, maybe find out if there’s an area, without getting specific, in one of the three spots where maybe we have to make an outfield position change just to upgrade the defense.”

Nationals roving outfield instructor Devon White, who’s in town working with the team’s young outfielders, said he hasn’t seen enough of Milledge to determine whether he’s a suitable a center fielder for the future. But the seven-time Gold Glove winner said Milledge is always willing to hone his defensive skills.

“In retrospect, we all know he messed up. He knows that, and he works at it. That’s the most important thing to me,” White said. “As a ballplayer, we try to correct his mistakes. That’s the main thing.”

Q&A; highlights

Bowden gave several other hints about next year’s team during the Friday event, saying Class AA Harrisburg starter Jordan Zimmermann has a good shot to be in the starting rotation.

He also said the team’s top priority is to “try and get a big bat in the middle of the lineup,” preferably a young left-hander, and said the team is not opposed to spending $10 million to $15 million a year on a player but stressed it has to be a young player who can help the team down the road.

Strasburg sweepstakes?

Given that the Nationals and Padres entered Friday’s game tied for the worst record in the National League and a half-game behind (or is it ahead?) the Mariners for baseball’s worst mark, there was plenty of tongue-in-cheek speculation the two teams were jockeying for the first pick in next June’s MLB draft.

Especially with the prize awaiting the team with the worst record.

That would be San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg. The 6-foot-4 starter with a fastball that grazes triple digits and a devastating slider is regarded as perhaps the best college pitcher of the decade. When asked about him Friday, Bowden said Strasburg is a “[Josh] Beckett-[Mark] Prior level talent.”

But manager Manny Acta chafed at any suggestions the Nationals and Padres were fighting to pile up more losses.

“Who considers it [a battle for the first pick]?” Acta said. “I’m not thinking about any of that type of stuff. I’m just trying to win the ballgame. I think it’s kind of sad that anybody will bring that up at all because it’s disrespectful to think that anybody is going to lose a game on purpose to get a first-round pick.”

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