THE FIRST timegeneral manager Jim Bowden saw Lastings Milledge play was five springs ago,when Bowden was G.M. of the Reds and Milledge was a senior at Lakewood RanchHigh, in Bradenton, Fla. It was love at first sight. "He was going to draftme, but the Mets took me with the 12th pick [of the 2003 draft], and the Redspicked 14th," Milledge recalls. "He always used to joke with me andsay, 'You're going to play for me one day. I'm going to get you oneday.'"
He got him. In aNov. 30 trade that many baseball execs view as lopsided in Washington's favor,Bowden acquired Milledge from the Mets for weak-hitting catcher Brian Schneiderand platoon outfielder Ryan Church. "He's got Gary Sheffield--type batspeed, and he's only 22 years old," says Bowden of Milledge. "By thetime he's 25 or 26 he has the chance to develop into a middle-of-the-orderbat." Manny Acta, the Nationals' second-year manager, believes thatMilledge's impact will be immediate. "We've finally stopped that revolvingdoor that we've had here over the last couple of years in centerfield," hesays of the position at which seven players combined to hit .255 with 11 homersin 2007.
Three days afterBowden finally landed Milledge, he further upgraded his outfield by acquiringElijah Dukes, 23, from the Rays, another high-ceiling, high-risk player withwhom Bowden has long been enamored. Milledge and Dukes have frequently beenlumped together as "trouble" players though their transgressions aredistinctly different. Milledge's greatest offenses as a Met were slapping fivewith fans after hitting his first major league home run in '06 and uttering afew hackneyed slurs on an amateurish rap song. Dukes's actions have been farmore insidious: He's been arrested five times in the last five years, and lastMay he allegedly threatened his estranged wife and her children in awell-publicized voice mail. On June 22, Tampa Bay placed Dukes, who slugged 10homers in his first 40 big league games, on the inactive list for the remainderof his rookie season while he underwent counseling.
The Rays and theNationals believe that the move from Tampa, where Dukes struggled to escape theinfluences of the neighborhood in which he grew up, might save his career."I didn't know what to expect, because you hear a lot of things around theleague, like, 'That guy's crazy,'" says veteran utilityman Willie Harris."[Elijah] has a beautiful sense of humor about himself, and it seems likehe has his attitude in the right place."
To Bowden, Dukes'sbaseball upside is obvious. "We know if we can get him at peace and hebecomes a better person off the field, that on the field he's capable of beinga 40-home-run player," he says. Even if Dukes, who will begin the season asWashington's fourth outfielder, doesn't work out, the Nats' offense is destinedto improve from a year ago, when it ranked last in runs. They'll benefit from afull season of rightfielder Wily Mo Pe√±a as well as the return of first basemanNick Johnson, who missed all of '07 with a broken left fibula after finishingbehind only Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera in the NL in on-basepercentage in '06.
The offense alsowill benefit from the move from cavernous RFK Stadium, which last season wasthe most difficult major league ballpark in which to hit a home run, to newNationals Park. "RFK was to hitters what Coors Field used to be forpitchers," says Bowden. "But it won't matter what our hitters do if ourstarting pitchers can't keep us in games." Last season Washington'srotation was beset by injuries; 13 pitchers started at least one game, and thatgroup accumulated an NL-low 856 innings. Still, the team confoundedprognosticators everywhere by playing .500 ball over the last 128 games thanksto timely hitting and a solid bullpen. With a healthier rotation in place,Bowden says the goal is clear: "To win more than we lose."
Bowden has provedhimself to be a man who gets what he wants, but that goal is still a yearaway.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
SECOND SEASON WITH WASHINGTON
New acquisitionB-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
a modest proposal...
Closer ChadCordero, one of the Nationals' few remaining links to Montreal, has been anAll-Star and even finished in the top 15 of the 2005 NL MVP vote. Washington,however, is rebuilding, and it needs to move the 26-year-old righthander whilehis trade value is still significant. Cordero's 37 saves last year (and 113since the start of the 2005 season) belie other statistics that suggest hepeaked two years ago. His walk rate has climbed steadily (3.5 in '07 versus 2.1per nine innings in '05), and his home run rate was one every 7 1/3 inningsover the last three seasons, a very high rate for a closer. As a fly ballpitcher who pitches to contact much more than he used to—his strikeout rate hasdropped nearly two whiffs per nine innings since '04—Cordero could be headingfor an even sharper decline.
Combined assistsby the Nationals' 11 outfielders in '07, a major league low—and two fewer thanthe individual totals of Alfonso Soriano, Jeff Francoeur and Michael Cuddyer.The addition of Lastings Milledge, however, will give opponents pause beforethey try to take the extra base. In 816 innings (or roughly 91 games) in themajors, Milledge has thrown out six base runners—a higher rate than those ofVladimir Guerrero, Ichiro Suzuki and Bobby Abreu.
NOW AT SI.COM
APRIL 4, 1983
GARY CARTER is sodismayingly cheerful, so relentlessly positive about all things, souncompromisingly friendly that the more cynical of his contemporaries inbaseball question his sincerity. Carter is sure that there are those whoconsider him, in his own words, "too good to be true." It bothers himnot a whit. "I've always had this personality," he says. "I'vealways been smiling. I might get ridiculed for it, but it's just me. You can'tfake being nice, you know."
Free access to allNats and Expos stories and photographs from the SI archive, plus videoclips.
A STEAL The Nats pulled off a major heist when they acquired Milledge, whose well-rounded game belies the bad rap he got in New York.
CHUCK SOLOMON (CORDERO)
RONALD C. MODRA (COVER)