Sunday, February 3, 2013

Where Have You Gone, Lastings Milledge?

A few days ago, my fav'rit Gal For All Seasons continued her new weekly series on a topic near and dear to her - what she likes to call post-traumatic Mets disorder - by discussing her survival of Lastings Milledge.   For those of you who have tried to block out the Omar Minaya era or were never a card-carrying member of the Milledge People, allow me to refresh your memory on who Lastings Milledge was (technically, he still is Lastings Milledge, as far as I know).

Lastings Milledge was a flashy prospect for the Mets who had five-tool talent - a latter-day Darryl Strawberry, if you will.  Although he didn't possess Strawberry's prodigious power (the type of power that would make you wait until after his at-bat to get your Shea Stadium souvenir cup soda), he was supposed to be the future in the Mets outfield.  However, when Milledge first got called up to the Mets in 2006, he was more Throneberry than Strawberry.

Milledge batted .241 in 56 games for the division champs, with four homers, 22 RBIs and one stolen base.  As a 21-year-old enjoying his first call-up to the big leagues, Milledge looked overmatched at times, taking awkward hacks at the plate.  A .300 hitter in the minor leagues, Milledge barely cracked a .300 on-base percentage for the Mets in 2006, finishing the season at .310.

In 2007, Milledge made the team out of spring training, but was sent back down to the minors after playing in only three games in April.  He didn't make it back to the big show until July, but when he did, he finally showed some of the potential the Mets expected to see when they drafted him as the 12th overall pick in the 2003 amateur draft.  From July 21 to August 15, Milledge played in 20 games, batting .389 (28-for-72) with nine extra-base hits, 12 RBIs, 14 runs scored and two stolen bases.

Milledge only played in 59 games for the Mets in 2007 (three more than he played in 2006), but improved in most offensive categories.  He finished the season with a .272 batting average, .341 on-base percentage and .446 slugging percentage.  Milledge belted seven homers, drove in 29 runs and stole three bases in 184 at-bats.  Those numbers made it seem like Milledge was settling in for a long career in New York.  But unfortunately, he did have one thing in common with Darryl Strawberry.  He made the front office uncomfortable with his off-the-field habits.

Instead of settling in as the team's starting rightfielder in 2008, Milledge was dealt to the Washington Nationals for rightfielder Ryan Church and catcher Brian Schneider.  When Church wasn't getting concussed, he was a decent offensive player.  Schneider wasn't a bad catcher, but his offensive production was a far cry from what Paul LoDuca gave the Mets in 2006 and 2007.  Heck, Schneider wasn't even Ramon Castro when it came to his hitting prowess.

As Church and Schneider settled in with their new team, Milledge had a career year in Washington.  Milledge played in 138 games for the Nationals in 2008 and batted .268 with 24 doubles, 14 homers, 61 RBIs and 24 stolen bases. A slow start in 2009 earned Milledge a return trip to the minors and eventually got him traded to Pittsburgh.  Milledge performed decently in the Steel City, but nagging injuries never allowed him to settle into the everyday lineup.  In 1½ seasons as a Pirate, Milledge only collected 599 at-bats, but managed to hit .282 with 32 doubles, eight homers, 54 RBIs and 11 stolen bases.  When the Pirates failed to offer Milledge a contract following the 2010 season, he signed a free agent deal with the Chicago White Sox.  Milledge only played in two games with Chicago in 2011 and then couldn't get another job with a major league team.

After realizing that his talents were not wanted stateside, Milledge packed his bags, dusted off his passport, and took his game to Japan on a one-year deal with the Yakult Swallows.  Finally healthy, Milledge played in 125 games for the Swallows and batted .300 with 23 doubles, 21 homers, 65 RBIs, 73 runs scored and nine stolen bases.  He also showed much-improved discipline at the plate, striking out 79 times in 546 plate appearances and drawing a career-high 57 walks.  Milledge's .865 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) would have been second on the 2012 Mets, after David Wright's .883 OPS.  And that's where the point of this piece finally makes itself known.

Sandy Alderson has been in search of an outfielder since the season ended.  So far Alderson has signed Andrew Brown and Marlon Byrd to minor league contracts, and he's traded for outfielder Collin Cowgill. He's also doing his best to romance Michael Bourn into a discounted deal with the Mets.  But when Lastings Milledge's contract with the Swallows expired following the 2012 campaign, Alderson didn't even notice.  As a result, Milledge chose to stay in Japan, signing a three-year, $4.4 million contract with a fourth year mutual option.

So now the Mets are still trying to figure out which combination of outfielders they're going to use in 2013, while Milledge will be playing the prime years of his career (he won't be 28 until April) overseas.  The Mets didn't want to give Scott Hairston $4 million per year because he wanted a two-year deal.  But Yakult was able to keep Milledge away from the major leagues with $4.4 million over three years.

Lastings Milledge might have been a pain for the Mets front office five years ago, but now he's only a pain for opposing pitchers in Japan.  It's too bad Sandy Alderson didn't take notice when he had the chance.

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