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10/8/07 Did Ryan Church Just Have His Breakout Year?

     According to the baseballcube.com, the GM of the Cleveland Indians in 2002, John Hart, made his best pick of the draft in the 14th Round, with the 426th player taken overrall, Ryan Church, an outfielder out of the University of Nevada.

     Church went on to hit a combined .286 over 4 seasons, with 67 HR's, 92 doubles and 289 RBI's in Class-A and Double-AA ball in Cleveland's Minor League system before the Indians traded him to Montreal along with Macier Itzuris for relief pitcher Scott Stewart in January of 2004 in a move then-Expos GM Omar Minaya described, in a CBC article attributed solely to the "Sports Network" as, "...just another way of replenishing our (minor-league) system."

     Anyone with a sense of the Montreal franchise's history can probably find some humor in the idea of the Expos making deals to "replenish" their Minor League system which was decimated in the Expos last few years as a moribund franchise in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (And is only now, in 2007 in DC, being rebuilt).

     In the case of this trade, however, Omar Minaya was telling Expos fans the truth. Scott Stewart went on to pitch only 23 games for the Indians before being sent to and retiring with the Dodgers after the 2004 season while the two prospects Montreal acquired quickly rose to the Major League level.

     Macier Itzuris was traded to the LA Angels by the Expos later in 2004, along with Juan Rivera for Jose Guillen, and played the next two seasons with the Angels as a valued utility player, while Ryan Church put together parts of two good seasons with the Nationals in 2005 and 2006, hitting 32 doubles, 19 HR's and driving in 77 RBI's in 173 starts, in spite of the fact that he was sent to Triple-AAA New Orleans to start the 2006 season after having played in 102 games in the Majors the year before in the Nationals Inaugural campaign.

     Church worked his way back up from New Orleans in July of '06, and went on to hit 17 doubles and 10 home runs with a .276 average in 196 at bats on the year, which projects to around what Church managed to produce in 144 games of the 2007 season, when Church hit 43 doubles and 15 HR's for 70 RBI's in a home stadium (RFK) that is more than a little responsible for the two-baggers far outweighing the four. (20 doubles, 5 home runs at RFK vs 23 doubles, 10 home runs on the road).

     But still, as the Nationals head into the winter before the '08 MLB season, there seems to be no certainty for Church in an outfield that seemingly has new players thrown into the mix monthly. Kory Casto, Brandon Watson, Chris Snelling, Ryan Langerhans, Nook Logan, Wily Mo Pena, Michael Restovich, Justin Maxwell, and Ryan Church all saw time in the outfield alongside stalwart right fielder Austin Kearns in '07.

      None of the ten outfielders was able to nail down the starting spots in left or center, however, and though Logan and Church saw a good deal of time on the field and ended 2006 on the Nationals roster, Wily Mo Pena and Justin Maxwell were getting a good "look" from Management as the 2007 season came to a close.

     Is that it for Ryan Church's attempts to crack the Nationals starting roster? Have the Nationals seen the best of what Church has to offer and decided to move on? Opposing team annoucers' had nothing but praise for the Nationals left/center fielder toward the end of the Nationals 2007 season, and Church's 5 hits in 9 at bats, with 3 doubles, 1 HR and 6 RBI's in the last series with New York might have single-handedly ended the Mets season.

      That alone is reason enough to give Church one last chance to nail down the center field spot next season. An outfield of Pena, Church and Kearns with Nook Logan as a late game runner or defensive replacement/4th outfielder holds promise. Justin Maxwell doesn't seem quite ready, and though prospects Chris Marrero and Kory Casto are knocking at the door, Church seems most fit to start of the outfielders on the roster.

     Will Ryan Church now be the player moved to bring prospects to the Nationals in return, or will he finally become the player Cleveland expected when they plucked him out of Nevada in the 2000 draft and Montreal hoped for when they traded for him in 2004? Or is 2008 too late to still be hoping for a true breakthrough season?