When the New York Mets travel to PNC Park in Pittsburgh on Friday, they will get re-acquainted with old friend Lastings Milledge.
These days Milledge is platooning in right field with Ryan Doumit for the Pirates and hoping to secure a spot for the future. He is arbitration eligible in 2011 so the remainder of this season is crucial for the 25-year-old.
Milledge started 2010 as the everyday left fielder for Pittsburgh, but he was moved to the bench when Jose Tabata was recalled from Class AAA Indianapolis in June. Milledge was reinserted to the starting lineup later in June when the Bucs sent down first baseman Jeff Clement and moved Garrett Jones from right field to first base. But soon thereafter, manager John Russell began platooning Milledge with former Met Ryan Church, as Pittsburgh tried to showcase the veteran for a trade deadline deal.
After Church was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, it appeared Milledge would have the rest of the season in right field to prove he could play everyday. However, Chris Snyder took over the everyday catching duties after being acquired from Arizona and Doumit was moved to right to take advantage of his power bat.
Milledge hasn’t lit the world on fire, but he’s been serviceable for the Pirates. For starters, he has been a perfect citizen and drawn rave reviews for his hustle and professionalism, even while not playing everyday. Now that’s a change from his time in the Big Apple. He’s batting .272/.330/.372 with three homers, 33 RBI and five steals in 102 games, but he has excelled with runners in scoring position, batting .360 – third best in the NL among players with 75 at-bats.
Pittsburgh knows what they have in Milledge – a capable fourth outfielder they can take or leave, but Russell and GM Neal Huntington want to find out if Doumit’s power bat will resurface if he doesn’t have to catch every day. So Milledge sits more. If Doumit’s power doesn’t resurface, Pittsburgh is using this time to showcase the defensively-challenged Doumit since the Bucs don’t want to have $10 million of inventory tied up in two catchers in 2011.
Milledge has never lived up to expectations since New York selected the five-tool talent with the 12th overall pick in the 2003 draft; he’s been racked with injuries; his power and plate discipline have never developed; his speed has diminished; and he’s a capable-at-best corner outfielder.
Despite some character issues Milledge had in high school, the Mets made the right decision in 2003 when they debated between him and righthander Jeff Allison, whose career never got untracked due to drug problems. Milledge hit well all the way up the minor league ladder, was called up to New York on May 30, 2006 but almost immediately drew the ire of manager Willie Randolph and the veteran players on the club.
Milledge was late to a game, exchanged high-fives with fans down the right field line after he hit his first major league homer in the 10th inning to tie the San Francisco Giants on June 4 and had other issues both on the diamond and in the dugout. In short, he became a big pain in the butt in very quick order. He was sent back to the minors in July, recalled in August and hit .250 that month with one home run. Cliff Floyd and Endy Chavez took playing time away from him in September and he did not play in the postseason.
Despite .272/.341/.446 numbers as a 22-year-old in ’07, the Mets finally had enough of the talented headcase and shipped him to Washington on November 30 for Church and catcher Brian Schneider. Washington played Milledge every day and despite 14 homers and 24 steals, injuries and continued attitude issues caused the Nats to trade the mercurial outfielder to Pittsburgh with RHP Joel Hanrahan for LHP Sean Burnett and OF Nyjer Morgan.
Milledge and the Church and Schneider acquisitions, even though they started out well, both in the long run have helped lead New York to where it is today.
Church was perhaps New York’s best hitter in 2008, posting a .311 average, .909 OPS (a high of .940) with nine homers and 32 RBI in 45 games when felled by a concussion on May 25. The lefthanded hitter had two bouts on the disabled list, but never really recovered from the beaning, batting .239 with a .654 OPS with three homers and 17 RBI in his final 45 games. Schneider was supposed to be a defensive stalwart and a decent hitter, but he had an OPS+ of 80 in his two years and didn’t stand out defensively.
Because Church never was the same player post concussion, GM Omar Minaya dealt him to the Atlanta Braves for Jeff Francouer, which ever since has fired up the anti- and pro-Francouer sentiments all over Mets Nation.
Would the Mets have collapsed in 2008 with a healthy Church playing every day instead of a plethora of has-beens or never-wases? What if Schneider was the player the Mets thought they were getting? Yet still, what if Milledge turned out to be what the Mets projected and was with the club now batting .300 with 30 homers and 20 steals?
Even though he’s been gone for three years, the sight of Lastings Milledge this weekend will make Mets fans ponder if the franchise would be the punch line to jokes and about what could … or should have been.