The tale of Lastings Milledge is one that is probably familiar to all of us, having taken place so recently. Considered one of the best teenage baseball players during his high school career, he was drafted high in the 2003 draft with the 12th overall pick. He was regularly ranked among the best prospects in baseball—86 in 2004, 11 in 2005, 9 in 2006—and was rushed to the big leagues at age 21. There, he became known as a source of contention among teammates and friends because of his personality, and he was traded away for two underwhelming players without getting much of a chance with the Mets. His career stalled. This brief overview is simple, of course, and like the real Lastings Milledge, the extended version is a bit more complex and complicated.
A few weeks before the draft, media outlets picked up on stories that Milledge had been expelled from Northside Christian High School for "lewd and lascivious" activities. His father, Tony Milledge, semi-accurately predicted that "[Lastings] might go 30th instead of first."
After the Mets took him in the draft, Milledge had not signed by August because the team was investigating new reports that the 16- and 17-year-old Milledge had also been engaging in sexual activities with 12- and 13-year-old students. The team eventually finished its own internal investigation of the rumors, and satisfied with the results, the Mets signed Milledge.
That the Mets got Milledge with the 12th overall pick in the 2003 MLB Amateur Draft was seen as something of a coup. He was seen at the time as being one of the top draftees available, if not the best.
The toolsy outfielder blew through the Mets' farm system through a combination of his own natural talent and the organizational philosophy of aggressive promotions at the time. In his first season in professional ball, the 19-year-old Lastings was assigned to the Single-A Capital City Bombers of the South Atlantic League, where he hit .340/.401/.580 in 65 games. He was promoted to the High-A St. Lucie Mets of the Florida State League for the remainder of the season, and he hit .235/.319/.432 in 22 games.
He began the 2005 season with St. Lucie, and hit .302/.385/.418 with them in 62 games, earning a midseason promotion to the Double-A Binghamton Mets of the Eastern League. In 48 games with the B-Mets, Lastings hit .337/.392/.487. The 21-year-old outfielder was promoted to the Triple-A Norfolk Tides of the International League in 2006. Nearly two months into the season, he got the call from Omar Minaya that he was being promoted to the big league club, and on May 30th, he made his MLB debut, hitting a double in four trips to the plate against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
He was sent back down to Triple-A on two separate occasions, in July and August. In 84 games with the Tides, he hit .277/.388/.440, and in 56 games the Mets, he hit .241/.310/.380. In 2007, Milledge made the team after an impressive spring training, but he saw very limited playing time and was optioned back to Triple-A. In addition, he sprained a ligament in his right foot and took a few months to recover. When all was said and done, the 22-year-old outfielder hit .272/.341/.446 in 206 plate appearances with the Mets, and his future looked bright. That is, of course, until Minaya traded him to the Washington Nationals in exchange for catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church.
A few factors certainly played into trading the highly touted youngster for two decent-yet-unremarkable players. With Schneider's acquisition, the Mets would have a starting catcher to replace the departing Paul Lo Duca. Church was coming off his best season and could be penciled in to start in right field. Milledge's own conduct and how he carried himself certainly had an impact the organization's decision to trade one of the best prospects in baseball that hadn't had enough time to start filling in his major league resumé for so little.
In addition to the issues of sexual misconduct during his high school years, Lastings came into conflict with his team and teammates on at least two occasions. On June 4, 2006, the rookie hit his first career home run, a game-tying two-run shot off of San Fransisco Giants closer Armando Benitez in the tenth inning of a wild back-and-forth game. As he was running back out to his position between innings, he high-fived a bunch of fans in the front row of Shea Stadium, an apparent breach of protocol, etiquette, and possibly the "unwritten rules of baseball."
The sports media, manager Willie Randolph, and numerous teammates disapproved of the display of jubilation, with one player—Billy Wagner—going as far as to put a sign in Milledge's locker late in the season that warned the rookie, "know your place."
Nearly one calendar year later, Lastings was the center of another LOLMets scandal, when a rap song he had produced with a childhood friend was leaked onto the Internet. The song, "Bend Ya Knees," contained lyrics and content that, as Omar Minaya frankly stated, the Mets did not approve of.
"Being a baseball player is not only about what you do between the white lines", said Minaya. "The issues that go on outside of the baseball field have to always be taken into account. I always have to take into account those things."
While it certainly was an example of bad process, Milledge's career didn't exactly taken off after the trade. He played 138 games with the Nationals in 2008, hitting .268/.330/.402, his best season in MLB. In 2009, the 24-year-old got to an extremely slow start and was optioned down to the Syracuse Chiefs, the Nationals' Triple-A affiliate in mid-April. A few months later, he was traded along with Joel Hanrahan to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan.
Milledge only got 239 plate appearances with the Pirates that season, as he had sustained an injury while playing in Triple-A, but he hit a solid-yet-underwhelming .291/.333/.395. In 2010, he played 113 games with his new ball club and got 412 plate appearances, during which he hit .277/.332/.380. The Pirates declined to tender the 25-year-old outfielder a contract, making him a free agent.
The Chicago White Sox signed him, and Milledge made the team out of spring training, but after only four plate appearances, they designated him for assignment and sent him to the Charlotte Knights, their Triple-A affiliate. The outfielder accepted the assignment and spent the rest of the 2011 season in the International League, where he hit in .295/.364/.441 in 123 games. He hasn't played for a Major League Baseball team or affiliated minor league team since.
That's not the end of the Lastings Milledge story, though. He didn't retire after the 2011 season and isn't selling used cars or insurance. A few days after Christmas 2011, Santa brought Lastings a gift in the form a swallow: the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
Having room on their roster for another foreign player and looking to increase the power output their team could produce after only three players on their roster—Wladimir Balentien (31), Kazuhiro Hatakeyama (23), and Josh Whitesell (12)—registered double-digit home run totals and only two—Shinya Miyamoto (.302) and Norichika Aoki (.292)—registered batting averages over .275, the Swallows signed Milledge to a ¥45 million contract. That was roughly $570,000 at the exchange rate at the time, and the contract came with performance bonuses and a club option for 2013 worth roughly $1.1 million.
Things didn't get off to a good start. Before Lastings even stepped foot on Japanese soil, the Japanese sports media—imagine Boston and New York's tabloids combined, and then pumped full of performance enhancing substances—began laying into him. The day before he was set to head to Japan, the outfielder missed a flight out of Tampa, heading to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. According to some stories, it was because of traffic. Other stories claimed that he misread his trip itinerary or overslept. Regardless, he made it to Japan safely a day late.
Improbably, he quickly connected with his teammates in a positive manner, in a way that reports never particularly made mention of while he was in the U.S. Instead of being looked down upon by veterans as "rook," he jokingly became known as "Spam," because the processed ham product was one of a handful of things Milledge felt was safe to eat, not particularly liking rice, noodles, or other Japanese dishes.
All in all, Lastings' first season in Japan was a success. A one-game suspension in July issued after his second ejection and a late season shoulder injury in September, sustained after slipping and falling after running out of the box on a grounder, limited the outfielder to 125 games, but in that time, he shined. On a team that averaged .260/.325/.361 and in a league that averaged .244/.310/.338, Milledge hit .300/.379/.485, with 21 home runs, second on the team, behind Wladimir Balentien's 31.
In December, the team exercised its option and signed him to a two-year extension worth roughly $1.2 million for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. With his near future already taken care of, Milledge resolved to repeat his 2012 success in 2013. He was, unfortunately, unable to do so. The 28-year-old hit an underwhelming .251/.329/.436 and missed roughly the last two months of the season after fouling a ball off of his left leg on August 4 and crashing into the wall attempting to make a catch in the outfield, rupturing two ligaments in his left ankle. He was removed from the active roster and returned to the U.S. for treatment, but he is expected to make a full recovery in time for the 2014 NPB season. Here, then, are his NPB stats since he got to Japan.
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