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Nats' game of chance

The Baltimore Sun

Viera, Fla. -- Since the Washington Nationals settled in the nation's capital in 2005, their outfield has been caught somewhere between experiment and wasteland.

They've searched waiver wires. They've repositioned an All-Star infielder. They've handed a starting job to a guy named Nook.

None of it stuck. In their three years of existence, the Nationals have used 24 left fielders, 15 center fielders and 22 right fielders. Only four Nationals have played at least 100 games at the same outfield position in a season.

So this winter, the club struck boldly to find outfield stability.

In separate trades, the Nationals acquired talented but raw center fielder Lastings Milledge from the New York Mets and, in a much riskier endeavor, Tampa Bay outfielder Elijah Dukes, who has been arrested multiple times since 1998 on charges ranging from marijuana possession to assault.

Eyebrows were raised, but the Nationals didn't care. While he was a Mets coach, Nationals second-year manager Manny Acta got to know Milledge. He had no concern that Milledge's reputed cockiness, which irked some Mets veterans, would be a problem in Washington's clubhouse. "From day No. 1, I was on board with the Milledge situation," Acta said, "because I knew Milledge from New York and I know the type of player he can be, and all he needs to do is play."

As for Dukes, whose violent outbursts have overshadowed his ability, the Nationals figured it would be worth the gamble because they gave up only a low-level pitcher.

"Adding Elijah here, everyone knows his off-the-field problems, but he is so young. And I always think that people can become better persons, especially when you are 23 years old," Acta said. "It's a low-risk type of acquisition, too. Elijah knows what he is getting into, and we are not going to put up with anything."

The duo was added to an outfield mix that includes two other highly regarded but underachieving players, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena - forming a hulking quartet that has a ceiling as high as any in the game.

"I think if everybody plays how they are capable of it obviously could be pretty exciting," said Kearns, the old man at 27. "You've got some guys who can hit the ball out of the park and can steal some bases. Potentially, we could be pretty good."

The key word, of course, is potentially.

"At one time or another we were all among the top prospects. There's no question we have talent," said Milledge, who turns 23 in April. "But we have to apply that here in the big leagues. Because, really, the minor leagues doesn't matter."

Milledge, who was rated by Baseball America as the Mets' top prospect in 2005 and 2006, clashed with some veterans because of a lackadaisical attitude and a brash demeanor, and was rebuked by the New York media.

"It doesn't matter what people write. It's the front office writing the checks, not the media," Milledge said. "So I don't really pay attention to what anybody says. People can say whatever they want to say. But if I am getting the job done between the lines, none of that [other] stuff matters."

With Kearns cemented in right field and Milledge handed the spot in center, Pena and Dukes started the spring battling for the left-field job. But Pena is on the disabled list with an oblique strain and won't play until mid-April at the earliest. So left became Dukes' position to lose.

"That's the way we look at it," Acta said. "He is pretty much going to play left field if he is healthy. He was battling for that [third] spot, and it opened up for him."

Of the four outfielders, Dukes might be the most talented. Built like a linebacker, he has size, speed and power - if he can only stay out of trouble long enough to demonstrate it. That's why the Nationals hired an employee to stay with Dukes nearly all the time. And his teammates have been looking out for him. First baseman Dmitri Young, who also battled personal demons, has become a mentor.

One morning this spring, when Dukes wasn't in the clubhouse as reporting time neared, Pena rushed around looking for Dukes' cell phone number.

"He'll be fine," Milledge told Pena. And, sure enough, Dukes filed into the clubhouse and onto the field just in time for team stretching.

"He is going to be a piece of the puzzle, so of course we are going to make sure everything is going good," Milledge said. "He is a grown man. ... We just want to make sure he is going to be the best player he is going to be."

If Milledge, Kearns, Dukes and Pena can come close to matching their collective potential, the revolving door in the Nats' outfield might finally stop moving.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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