Prospect Retro: Lastings Milledge
Lastings Milledge has been one of the more disappointing prospects of the last ten years. His physical tools are undeniable, but he hasn't developed into anything more than a mediocre player. Let's take a look at his development as a prospect.
Lastings Milledge was well-known as an amateur player, playing for Team USA in 2001 and 2002. The high school outfielder from Palmetto, Florida, was considered one of the tooliest athletes available in the 2003 class. He was ranked as a top five talent on tools alone, but fell to 12th overall that year due to questions about his ability to hit with wood, as well as doubts generated by a sexual assault accusation in high school, although he was never charged with a crime. He signed late and got into just seven pro games for Kingsport on the Appalachian League, hitting .231/.323/.308 although with five steals. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2004 book, noting his excellent physical potential as well as scouting worries that he couldn't hit breaking stuff.
Milledge began '04 on the shelf with a broken finger, but once he took the field in May he was excellent, hitting .337/.399/.579 with 23 steals in 65 games for Class A Capital City. His plate discipline was questionable, with a 17/53 BB/K in 261 at-bats, but his tools were so strong that he dominated the Sally League. A late promotion to the Florida State League resulted in a .235/.319/.432 line in 22 games for St. Lucie. In the 2005 book, I gave Milledge a Grade B, writing that I was "very impressed with his overall ability, but I'm also concerned that the strike zone judgment issue will hinder his career" once he had to face higher level pitching.
2005 was even better: .302/.385/.418 with 18 steals in 62 games for St. Lucie, followed by .337/.392/.487 in 48 games after moving up to Double-A Binghamton. His plate discipline was still an issue with just 33 walks, but his strikeout rate wasn't bad, and his bat speed was so good that he was able to overcome problems with the zone to that point. He also drew positive comment from scouts for his work ethic and willingness to improve, and high school makeup concerns seemed a thing of the past. He played well for Team USA in the World Cup tourney in August, then had a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League. I gave him a Grade A- in the 2006 book, ranking him as the Number 17 hitting prospect in the game.
Milledge split '06 between Triple-A Norfolk (.277/.388/.440) and the Mets (.241/.310/.380 in 56 games). His walk rate was much higher in Triple-A than it had been previously, and it looked like he was gaining some command of the zone. His major league numbers weren't great, of course, but at age 21 that was forgivable. On the other hand, his attitude rubbed a lot of people the wrong way: he was accused of showing up opponents, was late for a game, and irritated manager Willie Randolph with baserunning gaffes. By late July, he was being mentioned in trade rumors. At one point, anonymous veteran teammates posted a sign on his locker that said "Know Your Place, Rook!"
Milledge hit well in spring training in 2007, but was dogged by nagging injuries most of the year including a sprained ligament in his right foot that cost him most of April and May. When healthy, he hit .272/.341/.446 in 59 games for the Mets, very credible for a 22-year-old, but continued to draw fire for his personality and behavior on and off the field, including performing a rap song with scurrilous lyrics. A September ejection and suspension for arguing balls and strikes with umpire Jim Joyce seemed the last straw, and he was traded to the Washington Nationals in September.
Milledge saw regular action with the Nationals in 2008, hitting .268/.330/.402 in 138 games, with 14 homers and 24 steals at age 23. Nagging injuries, defensive gaffes, and more rumors about a poor work ethic got more attention than his actual play on the field. More injuries in 2009 limited him to just seven games in Washington, and he ended up being shipped to Pittsburgh on June 30th. The Pirates were certainly aware of Milledge's mercurial history, but GM Neal Huntington said "with maturity and proper guidance, he was a chance we're willing to take." He hit .291/.333/.395 with the Pirates last year, and is at .268/.340/.364 this year.
So, what went wrong here? Milledge's biggest problem in the minors was shaky plate discipline, but he's actually made some improvements in that department. Scouts also point to a level swing that produces lots of top spin but prevents his natural strength from transitioning into home run power. That might be correctable, and he's young enough to develop further at age 25. Injuries have been a definite factor: he's been hampered by a strained foot ligament, a broken finger, a swollen/bruised hand, a strained groin muscle, a sore toe, and a cracked metacarpal at various points in his career.
The factor that draws the most notice, of course, is behavior: he essentially got himself kicked out of New York and Washington. Since coming to Pittsburgh, Milledge seems to have gotten the message and has reportedly matured a great deal, creating a new reputation for himself as a hard worker and team player. Unfortunately, the hard work and more mature attitude hasn't resulted in better performance on the field.
I used to think Milledge was going to be a star, but that seems quite unlikely now. It's not impossible that he could develop into a good regular, if his power improves. But there's no sign of it in the numbers; his production has been flat steady at 92-95 OPS+ for three years now, with the only positive trend being improvement in his walk rate.
I haven't quite given up on him yet; he was really good in the minors most of the time, and the skills could still be in there somewhere. Sometimes players like this take an unexpected step forward in their late 20s after everyone gives up.