Really, this is all my fault
I have bad luck with Mets t-shirts. I'd say its a fluke, but we are dealing with a sample size now that even pizzacutter would have to admit probably has some predictive value. I bought a John Maine t-shirt right before he blew out his arm. I bought a Santana t-shirt right before he blew out his arm. I bought a Tom Glavine t-shirt right after he won his 300th game, which was right before Game 162, where he just blew. This past offseason I bought an "I Like Ike" t-shirt, and now he is staring down microfracture surgery. (come on, you can't even cut me a break on this one, the proceeds went to cancer research for god's sake). But still, I think my most impressive t-shirt jinx is Lastings Milledge.
First off, it was completely random that I even found the t-shirt in the first place. It was at a Bob's in Newington, CT (for those of you who aren't CT residents, I am referring to the clothing outlet, not the insane furniture outlet), there was only one, and it was in my size. Milledge wasn't much of a star, certainly compared to the rest of the clothing rack, packed with the usual Wright, Beltran and Reyes shirts. This would have been late Fall 2007, and he hadn't really accomplished much of anything. I had a soft spot for Milledge ever since he high-fived fans after his game-tying home run against San Francisco and consequently blew up the WFAN switchboard with indignant callers. So I bought the shirt and wore it proudly. For about three weeks. Sigh.
In the end, I guess you could call the trade a slight win for the Mets (if you ignore the opportunity cost of trading a well-regarded young prospect like Milledge). Milledge was barely above replacement level for the Nationals, while the Mets managed to squeeze out 4 wins from their D.C. tandem. Still, for a guy who was mentioned in basically every Mets trade rumor from 2005 to 2007 and was a former top 10 prospect in all of baseball, you would have hoped to get more than an averageish catcher and a platoon outfielder in return. Even if it made a bunch of old white newspaper men very happy. But for all the extracurricular stuff that dogged L-MILLZ in his Mets tenure, the story of his fall from prospectdom has little to do with rap albums or locker room issues.
Tools, Tools, and more Tools
The Mets made Lastings Milledge the 12th overall pick in the 2003 draft. Due to the Phillips/Duquette fondness for Type A free agents, Milledge was their only pick in the first three rounds of what ended up a disasterous draft for the Metropolitans. (Warning: Link NSFW, as it may cause sudden, uncontrollable use of profanity) Milledge was a heck of a pick, though. He was the quintessential five-tool prospect, a projected major league centerfielder with plus power/speed potential, not that different from, say, Brandon Nimmo. Unlike Nimmo, though, Milledge had a much more thorough scouting profile and might have gone even higher if it wasn't for some questions about his makeup.
Specifically, there were some accusations of inappropriate sexual contact with underaged girls when he was in high school. He was never charged, though he was expelled from school, and early on in his professional career there seemed to be little concern about his makeup on the field or comportment off of it. Milledge signed early enough to have a cup of coffee in Kingsport in 2003, and then was assigned to full season ball at Capital City in the South Atlantic League for the 2004 season. This was an agressive assignment for the 19 year old, but he handled it well, batting .315/.382/.545 and swiping 23 bags in 29 attempts. The strikeout rate was perhaps a tad high, but the overall results were very encouraging. Milledge was promoted to St. Lucie for 22 games and struggled some at the higher level, but still showed impressive power. John Sickels' post season evaluation showed some trepidation about Milledge's plate discipline, but was otherwise quite positive. Baseball America was even more bullish on Milledge, ranking him as the 11th best prospect in baseball before the 2005 season.
Milledge started 2005 back at St. Lucie and while showing a dip in power, did improve his plate discipline and command of the strike zone on his way to a .302/.385/.418 line. That earned a promotion to AA where he continued to hit to the tune of .337/.392/.487. Keep in mind, Milledge was doing this while spending the entire season as a 20 year old. Baseball America bumped him up to the ninth best prospect in baseball, right between Justin Verlander and Matt Cain. John Sickels gave him an A- and rated him as the 17th best hitting prospect in baseball. For the completists, Baseball Prospectus had him at 13, though PECOTA had concerns about him even in 2006, rating him 46th in its expected future value metric. Of course, PECOTA also liked Yusmeiro Petit more than Phil Hughes, and we all know how that worked out.
While hardly a huge divide, it did seem like the mavens that drooled over tools (BA) liked Milledge a tad more than the statheads (Sickels). That is perhaps a bit of an oversimplification, but there are a few things in Milledge's 2005 statline that might be a cause for a bit of concern. For one, the drop in power is notable.There is no huge park effect at work here, Bingo is a hitter's park, though not hugely so, and it's in a pitcher's league, while St. Lucie has generally been around neutral. Milledge also started to see an erosion of his basestealing ability, swiping only 29 of 47 bases (62%). The other issue was his defense. Now, the error bars on Minor League Total Zone numbers are quite large, but Milledge was rated at 20 runs below average at CF in 2005. What you see is the classic tweener skillset beginning to creep into Milledge's profile, not quite enough power for a corner, not quite enough defense and speed for center.
Of course, all this is with the benefit of hindsight, at the time you might think that Milledge had more than held his own against much older competition, would probably get another shot at AA to further refine his skills, and, hey, power usually develops later on anyway. That is all completely valid reasoning, and, whatever your stats or scouts preference, Milledge would have to rate as one of the top prospects in the game, and certainly the best in the Mets organization.
Rather, than send him back to Binghamton, Milledge started 2006 in Norfolk. By any measure, he more than held his own as a 21 year old. His patience continued to improve, a bit of his power returned, and his .277/.388/.449 line is even more impressive when you consider that Norfolk was such a horrible place to hit that year that his MLE line would actually be even higher than what he posted in AAA. The Mets were cruising to a division title, (*sighs, takes a moment to reflect*) but still managed to yo-yo Milledge up and down from the minors every time Cliff Floyd got hurt.(which, obviously, was quite often). The Mets finally settled on Shawn Green in RF, Endy Chavez in LF and Lastings Milledge in AAA. In his brief MLB appearances, Milledge hit .241/.310/.380 which, while suggesting he was overmatched, isn't horrendous for a 21 year old (the youngest in the National League) getting erratic playing time.
The Blastings Thrilledge Era Arrives
2007 was more of the same for Milledge, basically replace Cliff Floyd with Moises Alou in the above paragraph, and you get the idea. Milledge actually improved some, as much as you can say that from a pair of 200 PA samples, batting .272/.341/.446. Now most of those gains can be considered BABIP noise, but Milledge was showing a strong LD%, and you had to have every expectation that the power would come for the 22 year old. It did appear he was now llimited to a corner outfield spot, though. He had basically stopped stealing bases, and his MiLBTotal Zone and MLB UZR numbers were both negative, even in the corners. He also dealt with some nagging injuries throughout 2007, but these, of course, weren't the "real problems."
It all started in the previous season, when the aforementioned "five-gate" occurred. Then there was Billy Wagner, noted
jerk locker room leader and the infamous "Know your place, rook" sign. Then, Milledge made a guest appearance on a rap record with some naughty lyrics, and there was the usual hand-wringing from the fourth estate. Basically, a picture was being painted. Milledge was too immature, especially for the Mets veteran locker room. Marty Noble, noted curmudgeon, still harps on this FOUR YEARS LATER. Being a rookie with high expectations in NYC can be difficult, just ask Greg Jeffries, and I don't pretend to know all of went on behind the scenes. There was talk of Milledge not hustling, or showing up late to the ballpark, and his bat didn't exactly silence his would-be detractors. I really hesitate to bring race into the discussion, cause I think a lot of the 'makeup' stuff is secondary here, but I can't say I am surprised to see the rather crotchety NYC sports media side with 'fiery quote guys' Billy Wagner and Paul lo Duca over the 'more urban' Milledge. The fact that it gave them a chance to write the 'kids these days don't have any respect and should stay off my lawn' story that they all love to write didn't hurt either. That's not to say there weren't real issues in the locker room (don't forget, this was during the no-nonsense, no-facial hair Willieball era), or that Milledge didn't perhaps handle things like an immature 22 year old would.
Outside of the off-field issues, on the field, Milledge was looking less like an elite prospect as well. Still, for a player once mentioned in trade rumors around Roy Oswalt and Barry Zito, it was disheatening to see him traded for such an unimpressive haul. This was reminiscent of the recent Yuniel Escobar and Colby Rasums deals, a young, talented player who fell out of favor with the locker room or manager getting traded for pennies on the dollar. Granted, the trade didn't work out as poorly for the Mets as it could have, but that doesn't mean the process was even remotely trustworthy. Was there really an expectation that Ryan Church would be better than Milledge in 2008, let alone in the medium or long term?
Milledge was handed the everyday CF job for the Nationals in 2008. The results were not good. He made around average contact, but didn't walk enough, and his power had basically disappeared. He did steal 24 bases at an okay clip, but his defense in center was abysmal. UZR rated him 16.8 runs below average. Total Zone and +/- didn't think he was quite that bad, but both had him as a below average centerfielder. Combine that with below average offense (93 wRC+) and you get a replacement level player. (0.6 WAR). In 2009 the Nationals shipped him to Pittsburgh along with Joel Hanrahan and Milledge saw further degeneration of his skills. He was moved to the corners and was at least average defensively there, but his power was now completely gone, and he walked in less than 5% of his plate appearances. From the Pirates onwards to the White Sox, where he made the opening day roster this year, but was barely up a week before being designated for assignment and shipped off to the Charlotte Knights. Milledge is currently posting a respectable, but hardly impressive, .297/.363/.459 line in AAA. He sports a career line of .269/.328/.395 line in the majors, good for a wRC+ of 91, and 1.1 fWAR.
So what went wrong?
Let's ignore the 'maturity issues' and the hip-hop singles and the high fives for a moment. I'm not saying that stuff is or is not important, though it is certainly good grist for the 24 hour news mills, but Milledge's problems on the field were far less sensational and far more mundane. When drafted, he was projected to be a five-tool centerfielder, perhaps in the mold of a Grady Sizemore or Curtis Granderson, but as he matured and his frame filled out, (he was listed at 180 lbs when drafted, 210 today) he simply didn't have the range to play centerfield. Finding a MLB quality centerfielder is quite difficult, and projecting an 18 year old CF as a 24 year old CF is a risky game. (something to keep in mind with Brandon Nimmo, by the way) Having to move off of centerfield is not dire for a prospect, though it does bring with it higher expectations for the bat. Milledge hit well throughout his minor league career, but those batting lines were inflated by a high batting average and looked much better in center than in right. I am not here to poo-poo his prospectdom after the fact, but a lot of the helium in his prospect ranking was from more traditional scouting sources that were in love with his tools.
And tools, well sometimes they don't fully develop into baseball skills. Rather than adding power as he added mass, Milledge's ISO was never higher than it was in A ball, and his major league ISO is comparable to noted sluggers Felix Pie and Franklin Gutierrez. His base stealing ability never really manifested in the pros, and overall he's been a below average baserunner for his career. And while he showed decent plate discipline in the minors, he's taken a hacktastic approach in the bigs, walking in only 6.3% of his plate appearances.
That's the nuts and bolts of the matter. Now, not every corner outfield prospect needs to profile as Mike Stanton, but every single one of Milledge's five tools has ended up as below average (I guess +/- still likes his arm, to be fair). There is an argument that he was rushed to the majors a bit, and then jerked around on the AAA shuttle, and more development time might certainly have helped. I guess you could say the makeup issues played a part, too, but in the end if he had the bat, he would have played. Milton Bradley, by every account a far more destructive locker room presence, got every opportunity to napalm bridges, but he is also the owner of a career .271/.364/.440 line and a couple all-star type seasons.
Anyway, that is how it goes with toolsy high school kids. Sometimes you get Jay Bruce and sometimes you get Lastings Milledge.
I'm actually not going to compare Milledge to Brandon Nimmo, though their scouting profiles aren't hugely different. That's not a bad thing, by the way, as Milledge had an all-star ceiling when he was drafted. I'm actually going to draw some parallels with Buffalo SS/2B Jordany Valdespin. Obviously, Valdespin doesn't have Milledge's pedigree as a prospect, and by the time Milledge was Valdespin's age, he was already accruing major league service time. But like Milledge, Valdespin is a tools prospect who is likely to have to move off his premium defensive position and will have to to show some pop at the MLB level to be reach an all-star ceiling. And yes, he has some well-documented makeup issues. I point this out more just to mention that he will likely end up getting harangued by the press every time he makes a 'bonehead play' or 'fails to hustle,' and he will have to deal with that kind of conflict better than he has in the past.
Nimmo actually isn't a bad comp either, though I imagine he will be moved through the system more conservatively than Milledge was. Also, Nimmo just doesn't have enough of a track record that would make me comfortable making any kind of comp.
I guess there is an unanswered question lingering here. Milledge is hitting a bit at AAA and obstenibly entering his peak years. Tools players can sometimes have unorthodox development curves, too. So is it worth it for some team to take a flyer on Lastings Milledge?
One thing to keep in mind is that the offensive environment of 2011 is not the offensive environment of 2008, a line similiar to Milledge's AAA line will certainly play in LF. Of course, one reason the offensive environment is depressed is because teams are starting to shy away from bat only players, and Milledge is not particularly good defensively, even in a corner. He has tended to hit lefties pretty well and can fake centerfield if you cover you eyes and have a groundball pitcher on the mound, so he's not the worst fourth outfielder candidate. But outside of his prospect pedigree, there is not really anything seperating him from all the other fringy outfielders of the world.
Oh, and in case you were wondering
The shirt went to Goodwill two moves ago. I kind of regret it.