Once upon a time there was a team called the Washington Nationals. They had a "plan" of sorts, which though some understandably derided it as more a PR gimmick than an actual strategy for building a winning team, there was some real substance to it. The team was committing to youth. Knowing that there would be ugly moments and growing pains, the team knew that the fastest way to build a championship team was to commit to a core of talented under-25 players who would get good together, and, somewhere around maybe 2012, we'd have a contender.
So we made deals like Jon Rauch for Emilio Bonifacio. We turned Mike Stanton into Shairon Martis. We didn't waste top draft picks signing shiny free agents like Aaron Rowand, Torii Hunter, and Andruw Jones. We went after young players with upside like Elijah Dukes. And in one of my favorite deals of the Bowden era, we turned decidedly mediocre Ryan Church and Brian Schneider into Lastings Milledge.
Now, it appears, that might be all over. Elijah Dukes, easily the most talented player on the team and arguably their best player right now, loses his starting job on opening day because he strikes out a few too many times in spring training. Now, he's doing better, but because we want to protect playing time for a couple 30-year-old bottom-tier corner outfielders, we're going to send Lastings Milledge down to AAA.
Milledge turned 24 years old last week. Last season, at the tender age of 23, he really struggled early on while being thrown into the deep end, playing every day and learning a new position no less, but he showed steady improvement at the plate all year. In the second half, he hit .299 / .355 / .448, easily the best 250-AB stretch of his young career. The most important development was the improvement in his on-base skills, which portended further improvement in 2009. That .355 second-half OBP was almost 30 points better than his career rate of .326. His walk rate improved to 7.2% in the second half, up from 6.4% career. He wasn't exploding, but he was progressing. And that was with Lenny Harris as his main source of guidance!
Now, 26 plate appearances into the new season, he's off to Syracuse. There's no argument really that Milledge struggled... for a week. You know who struggles for a week once in a while? Everyfuckingone. Babe Ruth had bad weeks, man.
If you want to take the pressure off, here's an idea--let him bat seventh in the order. If he's struggling with learning to hit and play centerfield at the same time, how about this idea: let him play left field once in a while. How many games did we watch him struggle in center last year while Willie Harris made play after play in left?
Now we get to watch Josh Willingham and Austin Kearns. Shit, if I we wanted a mediocre corner outfielder with no real upside, we had one of those. His name was Ryan Church. Hell, he was better than Willingham and Kearns. And we had a competent catcher too who would have saved us a season of looking at Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada.
Rizzo says this is just a temporary move to help Lastings get his swing figured out in a less stressful environment. Maybe he'll be back in a week, refreshed and ready. He better be. Because this team has rarely felt so totally rudderless.
I expected better, Rizzo, I really did.