How does a player go from an "equal" to the putative starting centerfielder one day to demoted to Double-A the next? Exist as property of the Washington Nationals, that's how. These guys make "vacillating" look like decisiveness.
I'm not going to slam the decision to send Ryan Church to Harrisburg. This resolution might be a product of trusting the management to do what is right, or it might be, as Harper explored the other day, a result of fatigue from incessantly applying suppositions that, for whatever reason, the team isn't giving Church a fair shake. Since I'm quite certain I do not trust the current management in most matters germane to managing a baseball organization, I am going to assume I am under the sway of the latter---maybe Church is a problem and/or a bad team player, and maybe he isn't so hot after all.
But, man, this team goes through centerfielders like a trucker goes through toilet paper after a spell at the friendly, all-night Waffle House: the cause is attributable to some substandard, sloppy cooking, and the result is rather unbearable.
There's Marlon Byrd, but the problem with him is that he's a fourth outfielder. There was Brandon Watson, but the problem with him was that he was not a prospect. There will be Alex Escobar, but the problem with him will be that he seemingly can't go two aspirations without injuring a body part.
Church is the one remaining unknown. We know he's no star of the future, but he figures to be a solid complementary piece; if on his game, he could be useful to a number of teams, including good ones. But he's not on his game---in his words, he's "not me" right now. Is that "coming up with excuses when everything goes wrong"? I don't know, but there must be a reason why New Orleans is being bypassed this time. Reader/commenter VladiHondo noted over at the BPG forum that it might be for Church to receive instruction from Harrisburg's hitting coach, Mike Hart. I don't know of Hart, but I figure that's as good a reason as any.
In the meantime, I suppose Escobar is the new flavor of the week. Robinson says he's been recalled "to play." Certainly, Escobar has been quite effective in the Eastern League, but is a 27-year-old's display of proficiency at Double-A all that impressive?
Plus, hot start at Harrisburg notwithstanding, Escobar has been a fairly low-batting average, low-OBP slugger since at least 2001, and that's a type of player the Nats don't need. Currently, they rank third in the National League in home runs, yet fourteenth in runs scored. Why? Among other reasons, they rank tied for thirteenth in batting average and fourteenth in on-base percentage. If anything, Escobar offers some isolated power skills offensively, but the Nats are already doing pretty well---compared to other categories---in that area, ranking eighth in the league.
Perhaps the solution, for the time being, requires something different than just plugging in a new centerfielder-of-the-week. Although I know there is no realistic chance of this happening, maybe the most stable move is to play Alfonso Soriano in center, with a non-disabled Jose Guillen resuming activities in right and left manned by some combination of Daryle Ward, Robert Fick, Marlon Anderson, and Byrd, who would provide late-inning defensive support for Soriano. I know, I know---it's crazy. Soriano can barely charge a ball adequately in left at times. It just seems to me that the team is spinning eighteen wheels trying to find a viable guy in center for more than a week at a time, and Soriano probably could handle the position, which would only enhance his trade value.
At any rate, it was just a musing. I'm sure it'll be time for the next guy in center before long. My money's on a return of Byrd.
As for Church, this might be it.
Update [2006-5-20 12:16:17 by Basil]: Thanks to commenter c60 for a link to the Post's write-up on the demotion. Also, MLB.com has a thorough story on the matter, although in one paragraph, it is not entirely clear whether the writer is presenting descriptions of Church's demeanor solely in spring training (it appears the writer is). The Washington Times account is also online. (None of these stories was available when I wrote my post late last night.)
The message from all three stories is that Church is in a funk and needs to get out of it some place other than Washington. Frank Robinson noted that Harrisburg is closer and represents a winning environment. In the meantime, Escobar will be in the lineup tonight against the Baltimore Orioles. We'll see what he can do. And, if he can't, you can be pretty sure that evaluation will be made within 20-40 at-bats . . .