Nationals' new-look outfield filled with a lot of potential

WASHINGTON -- If you want Jim Bowden to talk even faster than usual -- at Joey Gathright, jackrabbit-caliber velocity -- just mention the conventional wisdom that he's obsessed with "tools.'' Bowden, the thinking goes, is infatuated with players who run like the wind, have cannons for arms and hit the ball 450 feet in batting practice.

Not true, maintains the Washington Nationals general manager. After a discourse on his amateur draft history, Bowden points to Nick Johnson, Ronnie Belliard and several other Nationals as evidence that Joe Average has a place in the Washington lineup provided he possesses two of the standard five baseball tools.

"I like hitters who can play defense,'' Bowden says. "I don't worry about running, arm or power. I want a hitter who can catch the ball, and you'll win.''

The subject arose late in spring training, as Bowden watched his team from a third-row seat amid the popcorn vendors, because of the three new outfielders the Nationals have brought in to complement incumbent right fielder Austin Kearns.

Lastings Milledge, Washington's new center fielder, is known for his extraordinary bat speed. Elijah Dukes, the left fielder, has an array of skills staggering enough to outweigh his checkered personal history. And when Wily Mo Pena catches a fastball on the sweet spot, no light tower or scoreboard is safe.

The three players recently hit in the same batting practice group with former fourth-round pick Justin Maxwell, and in the words of Washington manager Manny Acta, it was a "beautiful thing'' to watch.

"These are very athletic, gifted guys,'' Acta says. "I really love the combination we have here.''

While the long-term ramifications are intriguing, the ability of Washington's outfielders to progress on the fly could mean the difference between a six-month beatdown and a team with the potential to be a disruptive force in the National League East.

After posting a 73-89 record in 2007, the Nationals resisted the temptation to spend big money on free agents Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter or Aaron Rowand in the offseason. Instead, the Nationals opted for a cost-efficient, youth-oriented approach.

In late November, Bowden acquired Milledge from the New York Mets for catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church. A few days later, he picked up Dukes from Tampa Bay for minor league pitcher Glenn Gibson. The two newcomers joined Pena, who came over from Boston by trade in August.

The Nationals ranked last in the majors with 673 runs scored, and the outfield, along with the starting pitching, will play a big role in determining whether the team can make inroads toward .500 this season. The Nats will christen their new, $611 million ballpark in a nationally televised game against Atlanta on Sunday night.

For the principals, the new environs bring a sense of liberation. Bowden says the Nationals won't know what they have in Milledge until they give him 500-600 at-bats a year over the next two seasons. That's a liberal timeframe in today's game, when a young player's leash can hinge on talk-show sentiment and managerial whims.

"I'm going to be here and have my chance to fail or succeed,'' says Milledge, 22. "That's the biggest thing for young players -- just to get the repetition and the at-bats.''

If there's a source of irritation in Washington, it lies in the perception that Milledge and Dukes are somehow a package deal -- matching "head cases'' with personal baggage and the potential to be huge irritants in the clubhouse. In reality, Milledge arrived with an overnight bag, while Dukes was carrying a steamer trunk.

Milledge's first encounter with trouble came in 2002, when he was expelled from his Florida high school for alleged sexual misconduct. The Mets signed him to a $1.9 million bonus out of the draft a year later and dealt with several youthful indiscretions during his brief time in New York.

The postmortems inevitably cited two incidents: (1) Milledge's hip-hop music label, Soul-Ja Boi Records, produced a song called "Bend Ya Knees" with sexually explicit lyrics; and (2) he violated baseball etiquette by high-fiving fans in celebration after hitting his first career home run in June 2006. Milledge's perceived flamboyance later prompted Mets closer Billy Wagner to hang a sign in his locker with the message, "Know your place, Rook!''

If the initial reception in Washington means anything, Milledge arrives with a clean slate and the benefit of the doubt. Some Nationals who watched his bonding act with the Shea Stadium crowd got a huge kick out of it.

"They want us to be fan-friendly and interact with the fans, and you can't get any better than that,'' says first baseman Dmitri Young. "I'm really jealous that I didn't come up with that. He gets 10 for originality on that one. If he does that in D.C., the fans will love him forever.''

Acta was a coach in New York when Milledge debuted with the team, and he would offer Milledge a seat on the bus and words of counsel when the youngster felt alienated in a veteran clubhouse. It's hard not to be sold when Acta looks you in the eye and refers to Milledge as a "great kid'' with the best intentions and a solid family background. Indeed, Milledge's parents routinely travel in an RV to watch him, and they were ever-present at Nationals camp in spring training.

"Lastings is one of those kids, because of the demand for talent in the big leagues, who don't spend enough time in the minor leagues and probably didn't learn as much as they should,'' Acta says. "He came up with a team that was expected to win, in a big market, and everything was magnified a little bit.''

Acta gives Milledge the same advice he uses with his own children: Dare to be different. But he knows the big league clubhouse isn't the most tolerant environment.

"If you don't like to wear wrist bands, don't hold it against him because he likes to wear wrist bands,'' Acta says. "If you don't wear your hair braided, don't hold it against him because he does it. He likes to wear his pants long, so don't hold it against him. Those are little things. It's just a personal preference.''

Dukes, in contrast, has had serious issues to overcome. The list includes a difficult upbringing in a crime-riddled section of Tampa; a father in jail for murder; several arrests for offenses ranging from marijuana possession to assault; highly publicized marital problems followed by an ugly divorce, and numerous run-ins with teammates, coaches and umpires.

The party line in Washington is that Dukes lacked guidance in Tampa Bay -- that he could have used a veteran player to pull him aside and tell him to tone down his act. Whether that could have prevented Dukes' numerous temper flare-ups is impossible to determine, but the Nationals aren't leaving anything to chance.

During Dukes' media interviews, a club official is always on hand to monitor the proceedings. James Williams, a youth minister and former cop, keeps a fatherly eye on Dukes in his role as the Nationals' special assistant for player concerns. Veteran utilityman Willie Harris provides video game competition, hitting coach Lenny Harris keeps Dukes loose and Young is on hand to remind him of the "world famous baseball rules'' -- show up on time and play hard if you want the respect of your teammates.

It's early yet, but Dukes, 23, claims he's more relaxed now than he ever felt in Tampa.

"I got in so much trouble over there, I was scared to do anything because I didn't want to mess up again,'' Dukes says. "Over here, I have a second chance and I can just be myself. I've learned from the past, and it's a habit for me now to steer clear of any present danger. I just want to make sure the team can stay focused, and not distract the team.''

If Dukes can apply himself, stay healthy and refine his skills in the big leagues, the Nationals think he could hit 40 homers some day. And if Milledge can overcome his allergy to breaking pitches, management is convinced he'll be a consistent 25-homer, 85-RBI, .280-guy. Those numbers might not seem overwhelming, but Hunter, Jermaine Dye and Jose Guillen have made a lot of money with similar production.

I like hitters who can play defense. I don't worry about running, arm or power. I want a hitter who can catch the ball, and you'll win.

--Nationals GM Jim Bowden

The word "enigmatic'' applies to the Washington outfield as a whole. Kearns, a former first-round draft pick by the Reds, has been hailed for years as a star-in-waiting. But he was bedeviled by injuries in Cincinnati, and his power numbers suffered from the gargantuan outfield dimensions at RFK Stadium. While Kearns is known for his solid defense, prudent baserunning and ability to hit cutoff men, he's a .265 career hitter who has yet to surpass 24 homers or 86 RBIs in a season.

Pena, like Milledge, is prone to waving at breaking balls and running the bases haphazardly. At a sculpted 6-foot-3, 245-pounds, he's also a muscle pull waiting to happen.

"He's a classic tryout camp player,'' says a scout. "He has as good a raw power as there is in the big leagues, but it's difficult for it to translate to game conditions because he has so many holes at the plate.''

Nevertheless, Pena fills out a uniform like few others. Harris was roaming the clubhouse this spring when he came upon Pena, sitting shirtless at his locker, and did a mock double-take.

"Look at that body right there -- it's the Jolly Green Giant,'' Harris said. "They don't make 'em that big in baseball. It's like, 'Welcome to an NFL camp.'''

If size and tools really matter, the Nationals are on the right track. Can potential translate to performance? Win or lose, it should be a fun summer finding out.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.