Milledge Making Things Difficult

Lastings Milledge was supposed to come in to camp and work on honing some of his raw skills, both athletic and social. He was expected to begin showing better strike zone judgment, fielding ability, and baserunning instincts as the spring wore on. It was hoped that a positive spring, aided by the tutelage of people like Rickey Henderson, would go a long way in furthering his development when he started the season in AAA New Orleans. Maybe, with a strong start in ‘Nawlins, Milledge could polish his skills to the point where he’d be a contributor to the 2007 Mets — perhaps as early as the second half of the season.

At the same time, Shawn Green came into camp armed with an epiphany in regard to his power outage of the past few years. He had found a mechanical flaw in his swing, and would have it corrected in the six weeks of spring training. By the end of March, Green would be swinging circa 2002, when he blasted 42 home runs in a Dodger uniform. Things would be looking very good at the bottom of the Mets order with the return of Shawn Green as a power threat.

However, things have not quite turned out as has been hoped. Though Green has made adjustments to his swing, the immediate rewards have not been realized in spring training games. He insists that he’s feeling better, and more confident, and Willie Randolph points to his BP sessions as evidence of Green’s improvement and legitimate reason for optimism. Unfortunately, for outsiders, the proof is in the pudding of spring training stats, and Shawn’s are dismal — a .163 batting average with 2 homeruns in 49 at-bats. Those numbers are more glaring when one looks at what Lastings Milledge has put up over the same time frame — his .370 average is second only to the red-hot Jose Reyes. The stark contrast in statistics between the two players has many, many people calling for a change in the guard.

But does that really make sense? In some ways, maybe, in others, maybe not.

First of all, spring training numbers don’t mean much — as much as we’d like them to. Sure, Shawn Green is batting .163, but Carlos Delgado is hitting only .200, Paul LoDuca is at .185, and Moises Alou is struggling at .171. Since Mike DeFelice is batting almost 30 points higher, and is light years better defensively, does that mean he should be starting in front of LoDuca? Should Julio Franco’s .333 average unseat Delgado at first base? Of course not. And if we’re going purely by the numbers, why is it Green, and not Alou, who is on the hot seat? Alou is over 40 years old, possibly worse in the field (yes, it’s possible), and injury prone.

Further to the point of dismissing spring training stats, consider the following. Last spring, Josh Phelps led the Detroit Tigers with a .531 average, blasting 32 total bases in only 15 games. Phelps did not make the team, and spent all of 2006 in AAA. Perhaps a better comparison is Brian Anderson, who won the centerfield job with the White Sox on the strength of a .309 average last spring. He ended up the regular season batting .225. Similarly, up-and-coming prospect Brandon Watson seemed to have a bead on a job on the Washington Nationals roster after a .300 spring, but spent most of the year shuffled back and forth from the minors to the majors, and was eventually traded to the Reds.

More to the point, former Mets Joe McEwing and Doug Mientkiewicz both hit over .430 for the Royals last spring, while their teammate Angel Berroa blistered the ball at a .450 clip. McEwing spent the year in AAA (for Houston), Mientkiewicz was let go at the end of the year, and Berroa finished at .234. The Royals, in fact, had the best numbers and the best record last spring — a stark contrast to their regular season performance.

If those examples aren’t near enough to Milledge’s situation, let’s take a look at Milledge last spring. He hit .327, initially sparking some to wonder if he might be ready for prime time. He wasn’t — at least, not indicated by his .241 MLB average. That same spring, Jose Valentin batted .143, looking much worse than Shawn Green does this year. Valentin, in fact, looked godawful right through the end of April — this blog was one of many calling for his release. Boy, were we wrong!

As much as people love to point to the stats, in the spring they may as well be meaningless — rarely showing any indication of how a player will do over the course of a 162-game season. That said, the best way to evaluate this competition between Green and Milledge is to look at their histories and their current skill sets, and try to make a logical decision on which player would add the most to the 2007 Mets.

Looking purely at their 2006 numbers, Green has a slight advantage. He hit 35 points higher, slugged 50 points higher, and got on base more (.344 OBP to Milledge’s .310). Green struck out at a lower rate, and scored more often (once every two games compared to Milledge’s one every four). The only place where Milledge beat Green was in RBI, as he drove in a run once every 7.5 at-bats compared to Green’s once every 8. Of course, there are a lot of problems with comparing the numbers, since Milledge only played in 56 games while Green played a full season. But one thing the stats do tell us, is that Milledge did not set the world on fire — and in fact did not even play near to the level of Green — even though Green is at the downside of his career.

Well, you say, Milledge was only 21, and he had rough times, and he wasn’t ready last year, so it isn’t a fair assessment nor comparison. That’s fine, but then why is he suddenly ready this year? He’s performing at about the same level this March as he did last March, so we can’t go by the spring numbers as an indication. His AAA numbers aren’t exactly awe-inspiring, either — in 300 at-bats, he had 7 homeruns, 36 RBI, .277 average, with a .388 OBP / .440 SLG / .828 OPS. A nice year, especially for a 21-year-old, but not necessarily something to get overly excited about. In fact, his .277 avg. and .828 OPS compared similarly to Green’s .283 / .777 — but Green did it at the MLB level. In an honest, by-the-numbers evaluation, there’s no reason to believe that Milledge will perform appreciably better than Green in 2007.

That is, unless you believe that Green is in a seriously rapid decline — the kind that effectively, and quickly, ended the careers of Dale Murphy and Robin Ventura, for example. However, the numbers don’t really predict a colossal collapse. While it’s true that Shawn Green’s power output has fallen dramatically in the last three years, his batting average has stayed around his career .280, and his strikeout rate has gone down. Some whisper that his issue is a slower bat, but Green contends it was a mechanical flaw related to a shoulder injury suffered in 2003. It makes sense .. though, it could be a combination of both mechanics and physical demise. In any case, if Green’s mechanical flaw is indeed corrected at some point between now and May, the Mets may have the best #7 hitter in the National League. While he may never hit 40 homeruns again, there’s no reason to doubt his ability to hit 25-30 — assuming he gets himself on track. Green is a notorious — and admitted — streak hitter. He’ll have 0-21 periods during the season, but he may also have the kind of hot streaks that make him the most feared hitter in the NL — Albert Pujols included. Mets fans may find this hard to believe, because they haven’t seen him at the top of his game. It’s a big “if”, but IF Shawn Green can find his stroke, and IF he gets hot, he’s a one-man wrecking machine.

Chances are, Green won’t return to that level of play. But, he has been there, has done that. It’s in him. It’s not unlike when the Mets suffered through the torturous beginning of Jose Valentin’s 2006 season. Why did they keep giving him chances, when he looked absolutely abysmal throughout spring training, and totally clueless in all of his pinch-hitting appearances? Because for a five-year period, he was one of the most productive shortstops in the AL not named A-Rod. The ability to succeed at this level of play requires more than pure skill — you also have to know how to make adjustments, how to read pitchers, and how to know yourself on a particular day. This all comes with experience — something Lastings Milledge doesn’t have (yet).

No one questions that Milledge’s raw skills are better than Shawn Green’s right now. But is that enough to justify pushing him into the starting lineup this year? For example, Milledge might run faster, but the raw speed doesn’t necessarily make him a better baserunner — nor a better fielder — than Green. As much as everyone likes to criticize Green’s fielding, Milledge’s — right now — are not appreciably better. (It reminds me of the 1980 Phillies, who used to bring in Lonnie Smith in the late innings as a defensive replacement for Greg Luzinski — did that REALLY make a whole lot of sense?) Milledge might have a quicker bat, but that doesn’t mean he’ll make more contact — or more productive outs. On the other hand, Green has already established that even if he doesn’t hit homeruns, he is capable of working deep counts, advancing runners, and executing the hit-and-run. Milledge is still learning these less exciting skills, but they are essential to winning. (Real baseball, played on a field, is much different from numbers-oriented fantasy baseball.) If Green is not hitting for power, or facing a tough pitcher, he can adjust his approach and his swing to make contact. Milledge, again, is still developing the ability to adjust. Milledge claims he has nothing to prove in the minors, but the fact is, he hit .277 in AAA last year. What has that proven?

Major League teams generally don’t expect a 22-year-old to emerge as a star — it’s a rarity. A few recent youngsters to burst on the scene at that tender age include David Wright, Albert Pujols, Hank Blalock, Joe Mauer, Rocco Baldelli, and Miguel Cabrera. However, all of those players showed previous indications of immediate success. Wright batted a hair under .300 at both the AAA and MLB level when he was 21; Mauer mashed at over .300 at every minor league stop, then hit .305 in his MLB cup of coffee at the age of 21; Blalock batted .307 in AAA as a 21-year-old, one year after hitting .380; Cabera hit .365 as a 20-year-old in AA, performed admirably later that year in the bigs and postseason, and hit .294 in MLB the next year. Rocco Baldelli forced himself onto a very bad Tampa Bay team as a 21-year-old after hitting .333, .371, and .292 at three minor league stops the year before. Pujols was a man-child and freak of nature that cannot be used as comparison in this situation. Even the player Milledge is most compared to — Gary Sheffield — had proven his point by demolishing AAA pitching at a .344 clip when he was only 19.

Comparatively, Milledge has shown promise at the A level, and through 48 games in AA when he hit .337, with 4 home runs, 24 RBI, and 11 stolen bases. Nice numbers, for sure, but hardly dominating. Certainly his .277 at Norfolk last year cannot be considered excellent. Why people see him as ready to start on a championship team now is hard to fathom. Will he be a star? Maybe. For certain it won’t be this year. In fact, he’ll likely continue to struggle. Until he proves he can handle pitching at a level higher than AA, it doesn’t make sense to rush him — not when there is a perfectly capable Shawn Green in his position, and especially not when all the other aspects of Milledge’s game still need to be honed. If Milledge proved to be an excellent fielder, and or an astute baserunner — something along the lines of Endy Chavez — then maybe you consider displacing Green with Milledge. But until he gets more at-bats in AAA, and improves his game overall, the best place for Lastings Milledge — and the Mets — on April 1 is New Orleans.

If, by June 1, Shawn Green still hasn’t found his stroke, and Lastings Milledge is tearing up AAA, then there’s a strong case for promotion. But not now.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.