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Hey, Nats: Get Milledge out of CF

4/8/2009

Milledge I'm watching the Marlins and Nationals, and apparently Lastings Milledge's misadventures in center field have been a hot topic in NatsLand this week. Sure enough, I dug this up in The Washington Post:

    Milledge's performance has perplexed Nationals outfield instructor Marquis Grissom, a four-time Gold Glove outfielder who also was among the game's best leadoff men during his 17-year career.
    "I don't know if it's the lighting or he's nervous," Grissom said, "or what it is."

    In Monday's opener, Milledge couldn't catch up to a ball hit by Emilio Bonifacio that turned into an inside-the-park home run. A day later, Bonifacio smacked a similar ball that Milledge dived for but missed. He ended up with a triple.

    "He just needs to practice more," Grissom said. "Practice, practice, practice."

    Center field isn't new for Milledge, who moved there last season after playing mostly left and right field for the New York Mets in 2006 and 2007. But Milledge does not look comfortable.

    Grissom said Milledge made plenty of progress during spring training going to his left and right, but Bonifacio exploited a lingering weakness: balls hit directly over Milledge's head. On Monday, Grissom said, Milledge hurt himself by failing to account for a strong wind blowing out of the park. Tuesday, he said, Milledge simply got a bad jump.

    "All of a sudden you don't just become a center fielder; it's going to take a lot of work," Grissom said. "Sometimes it takes two years, sometimes it takes 10 years, sometimes you never get it. He has the ability to be a good center fielder, but you can't teach instinct."

Milledge started 134 games in center field last season, and was one of baseball's worst everyday center fielders. According to The Fielding Bible, "Milledge still isn't the total package as a center fielder. He sometimes has trouble reading hard-hit line drives and consistently mishandles base hits, giving up extra bases. He needs to get better reads, which will help him get in better position to make the play."
Well, yeah. Better reads would help. Will Milledge ever get them, though? He turned 24 this week, which is roughly the age at which fielders generally peak. Considering that he got all those games in center last year, I have to think he's about as likely to decline as improve from this point forward.

My guess is that if Milledge had problems reading line drives last year and he's having problems reading line drives this year, he's always going to have problems reading line drives. And even if he compensates with other skills, all those misread line drives are so glaring that it becomes a big distraction and you just can't play the guy out there anymore. Elijah Dukes may not look like a center fielder, but right now he's probably a better center fielder than Milledge. So they might as well switch them now, before this thing gets out of hand.