This week, before either player even stepped on to the field, many members of the media and blogosphere were debating the “competition” between Shawn Green and Lastings Milledge. (For the record, Willie Randolph has already stated that as of now, Green is his rightfielder.)
It’s clear to anyone with two eyes that Green is in the twilight of his career, while Milledge is on the way up. At the moment, Milledge has fresher raw skills, as Green’s previously all-around talents are diminishing quickly. However, Green has a mountain of experience that Milledge has yet to climb, and in baseball it is often the player with more guile who wins the battle. If pure, raw talent meant the most in our great American pastime, then Oliver Perez might be the #1 starter and not Tom Glavine.
While Randolph has already endorsed Green as his current rightfielder, he also stated, “Obviously he gets some respect for what he’s done and who he is. And to me right now he’s my right fielder. But you have to work and impress and show. … We come to spring training to compete.” In other words, it’s Green’s job to lose, which means that Milledge, Ben Johnson, and Endy Chavez all have at least some chance of winning the starting RF position.
In addition, Omar Minaya has recently stated, on several occasions, that Milledge will not be a bench player. If he’s not starting for the Mets, he’ll be starting in New Orleans. His logical reasoning is that Milledge needs reps, at-bats, and games to hone and polish those raw skills. A player can get much better playing every day at AAA than he can sitting the bench in MLB.
Or is there something else to it?
Over at MetsBlog, comment poster Danny brought up an intriguing issue concerning Lastings Milledge and the possibility of his taking the rightfield job from Shawn Green:
“… if they’re still close (i.e. Green can still be productive), I see them holding LM back to stall his arbitration clock. If they wait until mid-season or so, they will still get Lastings at the major league minimum for 2 more years, whereas if he starts from the beginning, the Mets might only get 1 more year of the major league minimum. While the Mets have deep pockets, the flexibility of Milledge at the lower salary is still appealing.”
Well now there is a whole new perspective on Shawn Green’s stability, and the trade for Ben Johnson. As fans we’d like to think that economics don’t factor into the fielding of a Major League team, but in reality they do. Of course they do. Shawn Green is being paid $4M this year, and it’s not to sit on the bench. Further, if Lastings Milledge indeed turns out to be the superstar everyone predicts, he’ll be very expensive. That’s at least part of the reason Ben Johnson is now a Met. And perhaps part of the David Newhan signing, as well as the reason Ruben Sierra and Chip Ambres were invited to camp.
While it’s true that the Mets are aiming to win a Championship, and it’s doubtful that they will allow business to get in the way of choosing one player over the other, you have to believe — by their offseason moves — that the economics are entering the picture. From a business perspective, the Mets’ brass would very much like to see Shawn Green have at least an average spring. He doesn’t have to hit .300, he merely has to hit the ball hard, field well well enough not to be a detriment, and appear to be in good shape. In other words, they want anything other than a meltdown. With Green’s history, experience, and approach to the game, it’s a safe bet that he’ll meet those expectations.
However, if by chance Green does become injured or falters terribly, the Mets will look first to Endy Chavez, second to Ben Johnson, third to David Newhan, fourth to Ruben Sierra, and fifth to Chip Ambres as his replacement. You might think it’s insane that Newhan, Sierra, and Ambres are even in the conversation, but in reality any of them — with a good spring — could conceivably be carried as part of a platoon with Chavez, Johnson, or Green (if Green loses his starting job, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s off the roster). To push the gap even further between Milledge and rightfield, remember also that Damion Easley is a natural second baseman, and Jose Valentin can play the outfield.
Let’s also not overlook the Moises Alou signing, which is getting lost in the Lastings Milledge story. Less than a year ago, many people thought the reason Cliff Floyd would not be re-signed was to make room for Milledge to start in leftfield. The Mets put a very quick end to that discussion by signing Alou early in the offseason, all but installing him as the everyday leftfielder.
Looking at the whole picture, and the number of possibilities, it looks as though the Mets have made a very strong effort to insure that Lastings Milledge begins the year in AAA. A big part of that decision no doubt is based on the feeling that Milledge needs more experience in the minors. But going to the lengths of acquiring Alou, Johnson, Newhan, and Easley, and bothering to bring in Sierra and Ambres, seems to me to be overkill. With all these much more experienced ballplayers in front of him, Milledge needs the combination of a mammoth spring and at least five competitors faltering, to make the big club.
With that kind of uphill battle against him, my “money” is on Mets’ management starting Milledge in the minors, and keeping him there until all other options have been completely exhausted.