SweetSpot: Lastings Milledge
These are the veterans not on teams’ 40-man rosters who have used up all six of their contract renewals with their original organization or whose one-year contracts have run out. As Baseball America’s Matt Eddy reported on Friday, there are more than 530 minor-league free agents, but now there's over 600 available.
Admittedly, most of these guys are going to wind up still beating the bushes after getting no more than a spring-training invite. Their value is usually in the depth they can provide a team -- a well-run organization makes sure it has big league-ready depth available at Triple-A, because everyone will have to deal with injuries at one point or another.
But a handful of these guys will get big-league deals, and more will be pursued every bit as aggressively as major league free agents. Even if they’re signed to non-roster deals, more than a few can anticipate winning jobs in spring training and getting added to the 40-man roster before Opening Day.
Starting with the outfielders available, more than a few guys with serious big-league experience are available: Scott Podsednik, Fred Lewis, Jay Gibbons, Ryan Langerhans and Reggie Willits, for example. Lewis could still prove a useful fourth outfielder in a platoon role; he clearly struggled getting fewer at-bats as a player on Dusty Baker’s bench with the Reds.
There are also some former highly-touted prospects in the mix, notably Felix Pie and Lastings Milledge. Like Lewis, Pie flopped in a part-time role, but come the opening of camps next spring, he makes for a nifty stealth alternative for teams looking for a regular center fielder, especially considering he’ll be just 27 years old. Milledge failed to go nuts at the plate in a full season with Triple-A Charlotte (.295/.364/.441), but he’s also heading into his age-27 season -- as a bargain pickup, he might surprise, but if he doesn’t the very small expense is easy enough for most teams to absorb.
Beyond the outfielders, other names worth noting at a few positions:
Catcher: From among the more catch-and-throw types, Rob Johnson, Dusty Brown and Dusty Ryan, and Cole Armstrong (guys who bat lefty are always a little interesting); for bat-first/only types, Max Ramirez and Jake Fox are out there. The guy who might be especially interesting to check out is Mark Wagner, back from a hamate bone injury and perhaps finally ready to live up to the hype he once got in the Red Sox system.
Infield corners: Jorge Cantu and Kevin Kouzmanoff are the veterans with some success on their track records, while Andy LaRoche, Brandon Wood and Jeff Clement might represent the best of the former blue chippers who’ve faded like an old pair of Levi’s. I’m interested in seeing where the always-fragile Nick Johnson lands.
Middle infield: If you’re wondering if this pool of talent holds lots of alternatives for teams unwilling to chase the big-names shortstops on the market, the answer’s no. Chin-lung Hu might be worth a look if you think all of the weirdness of the last two years is behind him -- between injuries, an attempt to convert to switch-hitting, and a case of the yips on throwing, clearly there’s a lot that has gone wrong. At the keystone, veterans such as Felipe Lopez, Bill Hall and Kevin Frandsen are available.
Starting pitchers: Armando Galarraga might be a nice guy for a team with a big outfield and distant fences to take a chance on; going to Phoenix from Detroit wasn’t going to be a good fit. Laugh if you like, but somebody’s going to take a look at Oliver Perez now that his contract’s a thing of the past. Extreme strike-throwers like Matt Torra and Will Inman are available; while they’re not great bets for extended success, but at the back end of big-league rotations all sorts of people can get a look.
Relievers: Jason Bulger and Shane Lindsay both cook with gas, while for ex-famous veteran types you’ve got names like Robinson Tejeda, Vinnie Chulk and Lance Cormier to choose from. I’m curious to see where Sam Deduno winds up, given a career minor-league strikeout rate of 9.6 K/9. For lefties, you’re no doubt already familiar with Hideki Okajima and Dennys Reyes, but I’d be more interested in seeing where the Giants’ Alex Hinshaw and his swing-and-miss stuff winds up; also a healed-up Donald Veal.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
- When the Nationals signed Adam Dunn over the winter to a 2 year, $20 million contract, the reaction from the sabermetric community was almost unanimously positive towards the move for Washington. For a fraction of his original asking price, they got the guy who had become something of a poster boy for the kind of player that statistical analysts have been claiming is undervalued for years. The walks and power skillset produces a lot of runs, and Dunn has a master's degree in the walks and power skillset.
When the Nationals acquired Nyjer Morgan yesterday, the reaction from the sabermetric community was almost unanimously negative towards the move for Washington. He was routinely called a no-power fourth outfielder, easily replaceable, and a 29-year-old with no upside. The Nationals were destroyed for giving up on a "talent” like Lastings Milledge to acquire Morgan. Analysts I have quite a bit of respect for, like Keith Law, Dan Szymborski, and our own R.J. Anderson, hailed this as an easy win for the Pirates, as none of them see much value in Morgan.
Here's the problem. Nyjer Morgan and Adam Dunn are nearly equals in value, and the polar reactions from the sabermetric crowd puts the blindspots that have been developed over the last 10-15 years on full display.
Cameron's big finish:
- There's just no way around the real conclusion -- the sabermetric community, for the most part, has a blindspot when it comes to players with defensive skills at the extremes of the spectrum. Given the cost differences, Morgan is clearly a more valuable asset than Dunn, yet his acquisition is mocked while Dunn's is celebrated.
Baseball is not just about who can hit the ball further. It's time we stopped evaluating players on their offensive worth alone.
OK, so we may have given short shrift to Morgan yesterday, but that's not because we don't understand that a run saved is just as valuable as a run scored. It's because Morgan's never been a regular before this season, so it's not easy to get a handle on just how great he is, defensively. Certainly, Morgan doesn't have any sort of reputation yet. Also, it's because Morgan's just about as good as he's ever going to be, while Lastings Milledge -- who, after all, was actually a part of the trade; Dunn was not -- is still considered by some to have a legitimate shot at becoming a super player.
I'm not particularly optimistic about Milledge. It's true that members of the "sabermetric community" -- which I suppose might include me -- can become a tad overenthusiastic about young players. But that's a whole different blindspot. Maybe we don't completely get the value of defense yet. But trust me, Dave Cameron: we're getting there, and we're getting there quickly.
Outfielder Garrett Jones will be recalled from Class AAA Indianapolis.
I wonder, though. When you're trying build an organization, shouldn't character be a significant consideration? I know I've basically dismissed such things for some years now, because I believe in writing about things I can quantify, and I don't have the first idea about how to quantify character and chemistry and all those wonderful things. Still, a lot of baseball executives with a lot of wins under their belts do talk about those things with great passion, and I would be foolish to summarily dismiss that passion.
There's another little issue, which is that Milledge has been terrible this season. You probably recall his struggles with the Nationals, which got him sent back to the minors. In 22 Triple-A games, he's done practically nothing. A meaningful sample size? No. But at some point you actually have to produce. Milledge is now 24, and he's got an OPS almost exactly the same as Nyjer Morgan's. Milledge might yet become a star. He'd better hurry, though.
- The descent of Lastings Milledge continues ...
On Monday, Milledge broke his right ring finger squaring to bunt in a game for Triple-A Syracuse. He's due to be examined by a hand specialist, but the best case scenario has him missing several weeks.
The injury comes weeks after opening the year as Washington's starting center fielder. However, when the Nats stumbled out of the gate, losing their first seven games, management looked to make an early change. Milledge was an easy target as was swinging his way into oblivion ... Collecting just four hits in his first 26 plate appearances and striking out 10 times. It took just seven games for Milledge to play his way out of a starting role in Washington.
Optioned to Syracuse to work on his plate discipline and defense, Milledge wasn't getting the message. In 83 plate appearances for the Sky Chiefs, Milledge had 16 strikeouts against just three walks and was hitting .253/.277/.316 at the time of his injury. The power, the average, the promise ... It's all unfulfilled.
The Nationals don't want to give up on Milledge and they shouldn't. At 24, there's still plenty of time for him to regain his footing and become a productive major leaguer. But for him to do that, he'll need to recognize his weaknesses (bad plate discipline, the slider, etc.) and work to correct them. While he will almost certainly never fulfill the promise he flashed as a young minor leaguer, but if he can get back on track, there's no reason he can't have a productive career. Or he could go the other way where he doesn't work to make the necessary improvements and he becomes a journeyman who bounces from organization to organization, looking for playing time. The injury comes at a time that finds Milledge at a crossroads.
The broken finger isn't the end of the line, but it's certainly a big step back. Time is running short.
Patterson put together a pretty good season in the majors when he was 23; Milledge did the same at 22. But both regressed after their good seasons, and neither has played well in the majors since.
I don't mean to suggest that they failed for the same reason. I don't know why they failed (or in Milledge's case, have failed to this point). I simply mean to suggest that while any group of young players is going to improve over time, and that you'll never go broke betting on young players with exceptional track records, they do not all develop as they're "supposed" to, any more than every brilliant high-school student is a crashing success in his chosen field 10 years later.
- Throughout the season's first week, Acta preached patience as always. No reason to panic, not this early. The team would be fine. So would its struggling players.
What, then, to make of the Nationals' decision Tuesday to option Lastings Milledge to Class AAA Syracuse? Sending down a young but struggling player who is supposed to be a key building block for the organization after only seven games -- how is that a display of patience?
If anything, it was a reactionary move, one the Nationals felt they had to make both because of Milledge's struggles and because of the overall team's struggles. It was a move supported by many within the organization, according to club sources, but it wasn't necessarily supported by Acta.
Acta is a Milledge guy, has been since their days together in New York. When others rip the outfielder for his play or his personality, Acta defends him. And he did it again Wednesday in discussing the demotion.
"I'm a big fan of Lastings," Acta said. "I think Lastings is going to be a good player. "I'm pulling for him, and I'm anticipating him being back up here and making a contribution."
Others in the organization may not feel the same way. Some, in fact, believe there's a chance Milledge won't return.
Managers and their bosses disagree on roster moves often. But there are growing signs that the Nationals-Acta marriage may not be as strong as it once was.
Several team officials weren't happy when Acta didn't bench Milledge for arriving late to a pre-Opening Day meeting. Some weren't happy with the way he handled his bullpen in Monday's 9-8 loss to Philadelphia. Acta's coaching staff, aside from pitching coach Randy St. Claire, was overhauled during the offseason. The Nationals have shown no inkling of picking up Acta's contract option for next season, leaving him a lame duck in the interim.
But the Nats aren't there yet. As Pinto points out,
- Milledge isn't the problem. The problem is a pitching staff with a 7.71 ERA. Now, maybe Manny doesn't handle the staff well, but I'd have to say there's not a lot of talent to manage well. The Nats already fired the person responsible for shaping this staff, so maybe Mike Rizzo can get Acta some better arms before they fire him.
Then again, Lannan and Olsen were actually pretty good last year and Cabrera's not the worst pitcher in the world. On paper, the 2009 Nationals were supposed to win something like 70-75 games. Today, 75 looks like a remote possibility. If nobody panics, though, we shouldn't be shocked by 70.
- 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."
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.