Nationals acquire Milledge from Mets
Washington parts with outfielder Church, catcher Schneider
WASHINGTON -- In need of an athletic outfielder, the Nationals on Friday traded catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church to the Mets in exchange for outfielder Lastings Milledge.
Milledge, 22, is a player whom general manager Jim Bowden has coveted since Milledge was playing for Lakewood Ranch High School in Bradenton, Fla. Milledge has been mentioned in trade talks for the last two years, with the Athletics another team that inquired about the outfielder during that period.
Washington had actually been in talks with the Mets about Milledge since July, but it couldn't get a deal done until Friday. According to one source, the Mets declined to give the Nationals a second player in the deal.
Now that he is a member of the Nationals, Milledge will get a chance to battle for the center-field job, a position Washington has had serious problems with over the last three years. Milledge can play the corners as well, but feels better suited in center. He never got the chance to play the position with the Mets, because the position belongs to Carlos Beltran.
"I was drafted as a center fielder," Milledge said. "I played left and I played right. They are difficult positions to play, but I definitely feel that I'm not a liability. I can play both positions -- left and right -- above average. Center field is my premier position. That's the position [where] I can do more for the team."
The Nationals believe that Milledge can develop into a middle-of-the-order hitter and become a good defensive outfielder. Milledge has been in and out of the big leagues since 2006. In 115 games the last two years, he produced a .257 batting average with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs.
"We think he is a building block as we continue to build this organization through young players," Bowden said. "At 22 years old, we control the player through 2012. Certainly, it bodes well for our future. ... To get a young player of the potential that Lastings Milledge has, you have to pay a price, and we paid a steep price. We felt it was a move we needed to make -- continue with our plan of building through young players, mostly through the draft or via trade."
Milledge periodically found himself in the middle of controversy during his two years with the Mets. In 2006, he was criticized for high-fiving fans after hitting his first Major League home run. That same year he was unpopular with teammates for not giving his all and showboating too much. In addition, he has dabbled in rap music, and was criticized for using foul language on a song called "Bend Ya Knees."
But Washington manager Manny Acta, a close friend of Milledge's from when they were both with New York, didn't seem concerned about the outfielder's past. In fact, Acta went so far as to say it was silly to criticize Milledge for mingling with the fans.
"I know Lastings very well. I can assure you that Lastings is a good kid," Acta said. "He came up to the big leagues very young. He was put in a very tough spot -- New York, a big-market team. He was not prepared to handle it. With that being said, he is a great kid. A lot of that stuff, you can't believe what you hear. I know him first-hand, and I love the kid. I believe the kid is going to be fine with us."
Milledge said that Acta was the one guy who stood behind him when he was involved in all that controversy.
"It's great to be back with Manny," he said. "When I was struggling a little bit in New York, everybody seemed to be against me, but Manny was actually there for me and gave me words of encouragement. He showed me the way I should go about my business. I know I'm going to play hard for him. I'm going to give him the extra effort, knowing that he has my back."
From a New York point of view, the deal seems a surprise, considering that the Mets acquired catcher Johnny Estrada from Milwaukee last week. But a baseball source said that the Mets were looking for a defensive player with leadership skills, and Schneider fits the bill.
The trade ends Schneider's 13-year relationship with the Nationals/Expos. A player rep, he played a huge role in helping his teammates get accustomed to playing more than 40 games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, before the team moved from Montreal to Washington.
Last year, Schneider had one of his worst seasons at the plate, hitting .235 with six home runs and 54 RBIs. Even so, by being traded, he will get a $500,000 bonus.
"I'm excited. It gives me a chance to go right to a championship-caliber team," Schneider said. "I'm up to the challenge. It's going to be a good pitching staff over there."
Church was often criticized by the Nationals for not hitting for power, but the Mets loved the fact that he hit 15 home runs and 43 doubles while playing at spacious RFK Stadium. He most likely will be the everyday right fielder for the Mets.
Schneider's departure does not necessarily mean that Jesus Flores will become the Nats' everyday catcher. The Nationals have different scenarios in this area. They may acquire a catcher to either platoon with Flores or to be the everyday catcher, with Flores as backup. Members of the Nats' front office have not ruled out sending Flores to Triple-A to start the season and better learn his craft.
A Rule 5 Draft pick, Flores impressed the Nationals during his rookie season. He hit .244 with four home runs and 25 RBIs, and found himself in a platoon with Schneider during the month of September.
"We think Flores can develop into a No. 1 catcher," said Bowden. "I can't tell you how the rest of the offseason is going play out, so I prefer to answer the question the beginning of April."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.