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Washington Nationals Send Message to Lastings Milledge

The words in the two sentence press release were terse, and there was no immediately announced rationale behind the move:

The Washington Nationals today optioned outfielder Lastings Milledge to Syracuse of the Triple-A International League. Nationals Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo made the announcement.

Milledge started the season off 4-for-24 with just one run scored, one stolen base, no home runs and one RBI in seven games from the leadoff spot in the order. From the very day manager Manny Acta proclaimed Milledge the leadoff hitter in spring training, Milledge swore to be "an aggressive leadoff hitter."

True to his word, the 24-year-old walked once in seven games.

In addition to the rough start at the plate, Milledge has had several misadventures in the field. On Opening Day, he misplayed a well-hit ball into an inside the park home run for former Nat Emilio Bonifacio. He tracks fly balls like a wide receiver trying to shake a defensive back. One catch on Monday had him perform a figure eight before crashing into the center field wall.

His inexperience and lack of preparation in the field have been evident all along, though.

In a fan question-and-answer session last summer, Milledge admitted that he has trouble picking the ball up off the bat, usually waiting until the ball rises out of the upper deck to tell which way the ball is moving. He is positioned on a batter-by-batter basis by his outfield coaches from the top step of the dugout.

All of this is a backdrop to his two most recent off-field transgressions—Milledge reportedly missed a team meeting the Sunday before opening day because it was his birthday, and it was rumored that he was late arriving to the stadium for the Nationals' home opener this past Monday.

Coupled with his struggles in the field and at bat, regardless if it's the correct move or not, it shouldn't come as a shock that Washington sent Milledge to the minors with the idea of learning how to be a major leaguer.

It's up to Milledge now. He can either go down and prove why the Nats went out and traded for him in the first place, or he can go down and sulk and eventually get discarded.

The Nationals front office, specifically acting-GM Mike Rizzo, was supportive of Milledge in his reassignment, careful to say this was baseball-related and not in any was a disciplinary measure.

But that's the stuff of bargaining agreements, players associations and agents. He was sent out with a message: grow up.

It's interesting that since the announcement yesterday, Acta has been quiet about the transaction. The Nats' skipper has been one of Milledge's staunchest supporters, but one has to wonder if Acta was touting the company line or trying to boost the confidence of his insecure center fielder.

So the Elijah Dukes era in center starts tonight (weather permitting). There should be an immediate, maybe temporary, boost to both the offense and the defense. Whether the move was right in long-term, we'll all just have to wait and see.

This means more playing time for Austin Kearns and Josh Willingham, splitting time in right field. But with Kearns just 3-for-19 to start the season, you have to wonder how long his leash is going to be.

There hasn't been a corresponding move as of yet, but you can figure whomever is called up will be a defensive replacement type, not someone who will compete for at bats. And while they are at it, they better find someone to play middle infield, too, since infielders are dropping like flies (fly balls) around here these days.

And who, pray tell, leads off now for the Washington Nationals?

Cristian Guzman is red hot (.515 in seven games), but tweaked a hamstring on his fifth hit of the game Monday afternoon. If he has to miss some time, who knows who hits first? Regardless, Guzman's .309 career OBP is hardly the stuff of leadoff hitters. But we've been through all that before ad nauseum.

Whoever the new leadoff guys is though, he'd have to try to be worse than 4-for-24.