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On Milledge, And That Which We Don't Understand

I didn't post an initial analysis of the Lastings Milledge trade because it took me very much by surprise and I didn't want to cobble together something that was more reactionary than level-headed. I hesitate to do so even now, though that's mostly because yesterday's commenting got a little out of hand. Perhaps eschewing my better judgement, some of you still come here because you care what I think, so I would be doing you all a disservice if I didn't at least take a crack at explaining this one.

Trades are ultimately judged twice: First at the time the trade is consummated and again sometime down the road once we have the benefit of hindsight. It will be some time before we can answer the latter, and the former can be further divided into two categories: From the perspective of the fans (i.e. outsiders) and from the perspective of the Mets' front office (i.e. insiders).

From the fans' vantage this trade looks like a poor one for the Mets. We have followed Milledge's exploits -- both on the field and off -- since he was drafted by this team in 2003, 12th overall. He was a very accomplished minor league hitter, and he finally got a bit of playing time for the Mets in 2007 and hit impressively, to the tune of .272/.341/.446. He is solid defensively and is still just 22 years old (he turns 23 in April). He appears to be a talented player who is likely to only get better as he matures as a hitter and gains more experience at the big league level.

Ryan Church was originally a 14th round pick of the Indians in 2000 and was dealt to the Expos in 2004 in a trade that send reliever Scott Stewart to Cleveland. He has hit .271/.348/.462 over 1,132 Major League plate appearances spanning four seasons, and is a .292/.371/.507 career hitter in the minors. He turned 29 in October, making him almost six-and-a-half years Milledge's elder. His defense in left field, at least according to David Pinto's Probabilistic Model of Range, was very good last year. His defense in center was similarly good. Assuming he doesn't get spun off to another team in a different trade, Church is likely pegged to play right field at Shea in 2008.

At the plate, Church struggles against left handers:

vs RHP 891 .275 .352 .481 .833
vs LHP 241 .254 .331 .392 .723

On the other hand, in more limited playing time Milledge has had his own struggles against righties:

vs RHP 258 .246 .300 .403 .703
vs LHP 133 .281 .379 .439 .818

Church was actually considered by some to be the throw-in while catcher Brian Schneider was the centerpiece. I can't really imagine why, as Schneider is an aging, once-superior defensive catcher who doesn't hit much and will make around $10 million through 2009. Here are his OPS+, EQA and CS% over the past five seasons:

2003 78 .235 53%
2004 83 .245 50%
2005 97 .261 40%
2006 72 .230 30%
2007 77 .240 31%

Schneider turned 31 at the end of November and has seen his offense and defense decline substantially over the past five seasons. That's a scary trend line that is only likely to continue receding as Schneider gets older. It isn't clear that Schneider is appreciably (or any) better than the Ramon Castro/Johnny Estrada catching duo that the Mets already had.

Even if we somehow -- and against our better judgement -- considered the talent exchanged to be even, this is still a bad trade from a franchise standpoint because there really is something special about having one of your own kids develop into a ballplayer, more so than acquiring a player who performs equally well. Church may turn out to be a solid player for the Mets, and his production could very well improve as he moves from RFK Stadium to Shea. For 2008, this trade might actually improve the Mets on the field. Beyond that, probably not, and that's really why it doesn't make a lot of sense.

As with any trade, there is information we aren't privy to. In this case, there are indications that Milledge was on the chopping block for reasons that weren't at all related to baseball. Milledge has been dogged by controversy since even before he was drafted. He was expelled from one high school for allegedly having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl (the girl turned out to be his girlfriend and Milledge was reportedly 16 or 17 at the time). He caught the ire of opposing players when he shared high-fives with Shea Stadium fans after hitting a clutch homerun. Most recently, he appeared on a rap record containing questionable lyrical content.

All of these things are known. What we don't know is whether these were the reasons the Mets decided that Milledge was too much for them to stomach. My best guess: The Mets made an executive decision that they would unload Milledge this offseason, regardless the cost. After failing to land a bigger fish by packaging him in a larger deal, the Mets took the best deal they could when they shipped Milledge off to Washington.

In a sense, I don't think the Mets "settled" for the Nationals' offer. If we assume that they were adamant about moving him, I don't doubt that Omar Minaya had phone calls out to any rival GM who might be interested. The bottom line is that the Mets determined they couldn't do any better right now and decided to pull the trigger on this much-maligned trade. Arguments that the Mets should have simply held onto Milledge after finding only tepid interest is moot; they wanted him gone, so keeping him was never really an option. From a fan's standpoint it's difficult to accept, but circumstances outside of our control (and possibly our understanding) necessitated Milledge being moved at any cost.

Some have posited that the Mets' axe to grind with respect to Milledge had more to do with his race than the Mets would ever let on. I don't doubt that there is at least a grain of truth there.

From a baseball standpoint I think this was a stupid, short-sighted trade. I think the Mets had their reasons to make the deal and I think those reasons were largely motivated by issues that have surprisingly little to do with baseball. This trade has already been judged once, and the verdict isn't a good one. As these players' careers unfold, the trade will be judged again, and if Milledge blossoms into the player many expect he will become, the Mets will be left to wonder if maybe they cared too much about what some local reporters think and too little about the big picture.