Sunday, March 07, 2010

Catching Up With: Lastings Milledge

It feels like it's been ages since we last saw Lastings Milledge in a Mets uniform, but believe it or not, he suited up for our team as recently as 2007. He is now entering his age-25 season, and many believe that it is going to be a make-or-break year for the young outfielder.

Lastings had a productive year for the Nationals in 2008, posting a 731 OPS with 14 homers and 24 steals. Although his hitting and fielding didn't meet expectations, it could be considered a successful year for any 23 year old to have done what he did. But with Lastings, for some reason, people expect more.

It goes without saying that last year was a struggle. After going 4-for-24 to start the year and getting demoted to the minor leagues, Lastings broke his hand and was traded from Washington to Pittsburgh. After stinging AAA to the tune of a .333/.425/.433 batting line, he was called up to the Pirates for good on July 31st.

He posted a similar .291/.333/.395 line in Pittsburgh - underwhelming for a corner outfielder, and far short of what was expected of him as he rocketed through the Mets minor league system.

Is he as colossal of a disappointment as we make him out to be? Is it not too late for him to realize his potential?

I think that it's a little of both. Obviously, Lastings Milledge was never the super-stud prospect that he was made out to be. Although he put up an 879 OPS in AA at the age of 20, and then an 828 OPS in AAA at the age of 21, neither of those lines were particularly impressive when you dig deeper. Both were aided by high batting averages, (for instance, he had a .332 BABIP in AAA) and did not include particularly high walk rates or power.

More importantly, once it became evidence that Lastings was not going to stick as a centerfielder (-20 UZR/150 in centerfield for Washington in 2008) he needed to hit a little better to justify his position in the lineup.

Last year was a tough year for Lastings, but there is no reason to believe that, if healthy, and with a role in the everyday lineup, that he can't put forth a much better 2010 campaign. Remember - he is only 25 years old. When you consider he was rushed to the major leagues, and that he lost last year to injury, there is more reason to be optimistic that Lastings can improve.

So will he ever be a superstar? Unlikely. But it is quite possible that he can still be an asset - perhaps a great one. If he can continue to hit line drives more than 20% of the time (something he has done each year in the majors) and utilize his speed, there is no reason to think he can't be a .300 hitter.

If he can hit .300, and he can steal 20+ bases, and he can hit 15 to 20 home runs, he will be an extremely valuable player. Even moreso if he can continue to establish himself as an excellent left fielder (+16.4 UZR/150 in left field last season). A line of .300/.350/.450 is within reach... and Pittsburgh may have themselves a heck of a ballplayer.

More importantly, there is something that I really need to get off my chest here. It still irritates me to no end the idea that Lastings Milledge's failure to live up to his potential is somehow cultural, or somehow to be blamed on his personality.

The fact that he was on a rap album does not mean he is a delinquent. The fact that Paul LoDuca or Billy Wagner (both of whom absolutely disgraced the Mets uniform themselves) did not like his "attitude" does not mean he is hood. The fact that he's black does not mean that he's automatically "toolsy" or a project.

The entire genesis for this post was the CBS Sports fantasy profile of Lastings Millege delivered by some obnoxious idiot. Here is the transcript:

"Lastings Milledge is looking like another of those toolsy prospects whose tools just never come together the way they should. The Nationals even gave up on him last year, unloading him on the Pirates, which means he is starting with his third organization. At this point, 20/20 potential is compeltely out the window, you are just hoping he can hold onto his job for a full season.

He still has raw power, he still has raw speed, but it's all still raw and he's not a spring chicken anymore."

I cannot believe this passes for analysis. Anyone who has ever watched Lastings Milledge play, even once or twice, knows that he is not the toolsiest player in the world. He's not very tall, and his power will always be limited by his size. He's got lightning quick wrists and decent speed, but he is NOT just oozing with talent the same way that the Upton's are.

And also, just a minute or two of fact checking would prove that he was not a "toolsy prospect" that we were all hoping would develop -- his stats in the minors were already good. He had already posted good looking numbers. He was not all projection based on skills.

It's infuriating, and I can't see any possible angle that doesn't make the above "analysis" fraught entirely with a) ignorance or b) outright racism.

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