Church among latest cuts

Church included in latest round of cuts

VIERA, Fla. -- Nationals outfielder Ryan Church was stunned when he found out that he was optioned to Triple-A New Orleans on Tuesday afternoon.

The Nationals also sent right-hander Jason Bergmann and infielder Brendan Harris to New Orleans, and left-hander Bill Bray was sent to Minor League camp.

Two weeks ago, it appeared that Church was going to be the starting center fielder, but Brandon Watson outperformed him. Church was 11-for-55 (.200) with 10 walks, while Watson hit .311 (19-for-61) with seven stolen bases, nine runs scored and an on-base percentage of .368.

Privately, the Nationals didn't like Church's body language on the field. As one person put it, "It's as if he's not even there on the field."

The move means that Watson will be the starting center fielder and will face Mets left-hander Tom Glavine on April 3, while Marlon Byrd will be the backup. The right-handed-hitting Byrd will get some starts against left-handed pitching.

"Pure and simple, Brandon beat Ryan out on the baseball field. You have to perform here. This is a good wakeup call for [Church]," general manager Jim Bowden said. "The reality is, on the field, Brandon Watson outplayed him, outhit him, got on base, stole bases, got a good percentage of stolen bases. He did the things that we asked him to do and he deserves that shot. You can't ask him to do anymore than he's done in this Spring Training."

Church was given the news in a meeting with Bowden and manager Frank Robinson. Church told them that he would be back in the big leagues in two weeks.

"Jim said Watson beat me out. I didn't think I was in a competition or anything like that. But they're going to use a platoon," Church said. "I feel stunned. But I'll keep my mouth shut, show up and do what I've got to do. Hopefully, I'll be up in a couple of weeks.

"Everyone was positive, they're saying I've got a long career ahead of me. They want me to start hitting again, which I understand. I didn't get a lot of hits this spring. But it's just one of those things."

About 30 minutes after Church was given the bad news, Robinson had a 20-minute closed-door meeting with Watson, who was informed that he made the team.

After his meeting with Robinson, Watson's biggest supporter, Jose Cardenal, the special advisor to the general manager, approached the rookie and asked, "You already made it to the big leagues. The toughest part is what?"

Watson replied, "Staying here."

"That's right. So you have to work hard," Cardenal said.

"I just came in and did what I could to help myself and the team," Watson said. "I did what they asked me to do, and you have the results."

Robinson believes that Watson's promotion will send a message to the Minor Leaguers in the Nationals organization that they have a chance to make the ballclub.

"I think it will show the people in this organization if they come to Spring Training and do a [good] job or make adjustments, they have a chance to make the club," Robinson said.

As for Bergmann, he had a great spring, giving up two earned runs in eight innings, but the bullpen was set with right-handed relievers.

"I'm going to go back there and do what I've been doing; it's not an ability thing, it's a business thing and it's understandable," Bergmann said. "I'm not worried about my play. I will go down there with no worries. I'm not upset. I'm glad they think very highly of me."

Bray, on the other hand, is a player some in the organization would love on the 25-man roster right now. According to a baseball source, the Nationals are trying to trade reliever Joey Eischen to make room for Bray, who has struck out eight batters in eight innings this spring. Eischen was almost traded to the Tigers last Saturday, but it was nixed during the game between Washington and Detroit.

"Of course I'm disappointed, but I need to go down there with the experience from the Major Leagues. I'm going to get to work on getting to the big leagues," Bray said.

Harris played three infield positions and hit .244 with a home run and six RBIs. There was no room for him to make the team, because Marlon Anderson and Damian Jackson will be the backup infielders.

The roster is down to 29 players and Washington hopes to trim that number to 25 before it plays its two-game exhibition series against the Orioles starting on March 31. The Nationals still have to decide on who the backup catcher will be -- between Alberto Castillo and Wiki Gonzalez -- and the last bench player between Daryle Ward and Michael Tucker. Washington also has to make decisions on relievers Travis Hughes and Kevin Gryboski.

Early Tuesday afternoon, Bowden had a meeting with his think tank -- Robinson, the coaching staff and the special assistants -- in his office.

According to a source familiar with the meeting, the group is split on who should be the backup catcher. Some would like Gonzalez because of his bat. They don't want to see another Gary Bennett, who was weak both with the bat and behind the plate for Washington last year. Others want Castillo because of the way he calls a game. The team may not decide on the backup catching situation until it heads north to play the Orioles in a home-and-home exhibition series on Friday and Saturday.

Ward, who started the spring on a Minor League contract, was a long shot to make the team. But he impressed management with his bat and was put on the 40-man roster on Tuesday. The drawback, though, is Ward is a liability at first base. Robinson has already said that Ward will not play the outfield, a position he played with the Astros.

Tucker, who has a non-guaranteed Major League contract, is a better defensive player than Ward, but Tucker has looked overmatched at the plate for most of this spring. He has also looked slow in the outfield.

The Nationals have a tough decision to make regarding Hughes, who is out of options. It seems unlikely he will make the Major League roster, so that means he has to be designated for assignment and hope that no opposing team claims him off waivers. Hughes hasn't given up a run in his last four innings.

Gryboski is on a Minor League contract. He has given up two earned runs in 13 2/3 innings, but he most likely will not make the team and could go down to Triple-A New Orleans.

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