Nats' outfield situation: Outlook hazy

Nats' outfield situation: Outlook hazy

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals enter the 2009 exhibition season not knowing what their starting outfield will look like once the regular season begins. It doesn't help that five out of their eight outfielders -- Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns, Justin Maxwell, Wily Mo Pena and Josh Willingham -- on the 40-man roster are coming off injuries.

While general manager Jim Bowden and manager Manny Acta declined to talk about the outfield situation, it has been learned from baseball sources that Dukes, Kearns, Lastings Milledge and Willingham will compete for the three outfield spots. Maxwell, Roger Bernadina and Leonard Davis most likely will start the season at Triple-A Syracuse, while Pena and Willie Harris will be the backups in Washington.

One could see an outfield of Willingham in left, Milledge in center and Dukes in right, according to one source. On the other hand, the Nationals could have Milledge in left, Dukes in center and Kearns in right.

"You have created competition for Spring Training," one source said. "More importantly, what the Nationals have done is, for example, if Kearns doesn't bounce back from his foot injury, you have protected yourself because you could go Dukes, Milledge and Willingham. If things go well with three of the four, you are in pretty good shape."

One thing is certain: Milledge will be in the lineup because of his bat. After coming off the disabled list on July 23, Milledge hit .300 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs in his last 57 games. The big question is, what position does he play? He was the everyday center fielder last year, but some in the front office believe he would be better as a corner outfielder. While playing center, Milledge, who has a weak arm, had problems going back on balls.

Last September, Acta hinted that if the Nationals didn't acquire anyone better, Milledge would remain in center.

"We know maybe one or two guys can play a better center field right now for this team, but the future of those guys in this organization is uncertain because some of them have to prove that they are going to be fine on and off the field," Acta said. "We didn't feel like moving Milledge around, and he understands that. It was explained to everybody here. When the moment arrives and we do find a better option, it will be dealt with."

Hot Stove
That one person who is better than Milledge is Dukes, but he comes with baggage, continuing to have problems off the field. Last week, Dukes was ordered by Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe to pay $40,643 in back child support to his estranged wife, NiShea Gilbert, by 5 p.m. ET this Friday, or face a 90-day prison sentence.

Dukes also wasn't able to stay healthy last year. He went on the disabled list three times because of right leg problems. When he was healthy, Dukes was arguably the best position player on the team, hitting .264 with 13 home runs, 44 RBIs and 13 stolen bases in 81 games.

"Talent-wise, if he puts it together, you have to agree that he can put up some pretty big numbers," the source said. "What those numbers are, I don't know for sure. But you certainly saw enough that you wouldn't be surprised if he hits 25 home runs or drives in 85 or 90 runs."

The injury bug also hit Kearns hard. Kearns missed a huge chunk of the 2008 season because of bone spurs in his right elbow and a stress fracture in his left foot. The latter injury forced him to miss the final 31 games of the season. Kearns ended up hitting a career-low .217 with nine home runs and 32 RBIs.

"It was kind of a tough year -- it's just something you have to learn from and get better from it," Kearns said.

Kearns said he isn't having any problems with the foot now and he is able to work out. He is running and lifting weights without any limitations. If he can stay healthy, Washington expects him to hit at least hit 20 home runs and drive in 80 runs.

Willingham is the final piece of the puzzle. The Nationals hope that he can have a repeat of the 2007 season, when he drove in 89 runs for the Marlins. Last year was one to forget, as back problems forced Willingham to miss 60 games.

"My back gave me some problems last year," Willingham said. "A lot of it was because of my stubbornness not to let it heal. I missed 25 games and tried to come back a little early, and I cost myself 25 more games. I have to stay on top of my strengthening program."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.