April 15, 2009

The Future Ain't Now. So What?

The news of Lastings Milledge's demotion to AAA Syracuse was greeted in some quarters with jubilation (though Billy Wagner was unavailable for comment). By far the more common reaction though, was exemplified by the initialed Nats blogs of record, OMG and FJB. I'm not picking on Harper and Steven, their sentiments were widely echoed across the Natmosphere. They just did a particularly good job of articulating the argument.

Because you can read the source material, I'll summarize. Milledge, still just 24, is "the future" of the Nationals, has put up decent if thoroughly unspectacular numbers and is "improving." His talent, universally acknowledged, has earned him the right to play every day. By sending him to Syracuse the team is cutting off its nose to spite its face, rewarding inferior players, undermining manager Manny Acta and unilaterally scrapping "The Plan", aka the only thing fans had left to believe in.

That's not an unreasonable interpretation, it's just waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too alarmist for my taste. Lastings Milledge is not the key to the future of the franchise (or if he is, we're in bigger trouble than we supposed.) He's a talented, somewhat knuckled-headed 20-something with defense issues. AAA is made for guys like that. If Milledge can play CF and bat leadoff in Washington, he can surely do so in Syracuse. If he can't, well let's have the Chiefs figure that out for us.

It has been said that Lastings has "nothing to prove" in AAA by virtue of his 277/388/440 performance over 84 games for New Orleans in 2006 at the age of 21. That's a very impressive line, and for a 21 year-old, it's phenomenal. That's why Milledge was considered a phenom. By way of comparison, Roger Bernadina put up a 318/388/464 line in parts of two AAA seasons at age 23-24. Here's the problem. Lastings's line, particularly the batting eye, hasn't translated to the bigs. FJB notes Milledge's 299/355/448 performance over 250 ABs to end last season as proof that he's progressing. Harper has cornered the market on variable endpoint rants, so I'll just say: Maybe. If it's evidence of genuine progress then it should manifest in AAA pretty quickly, right?

The uncomfortable truth is that Lastings Milledge is not one of the Nats four best outfielders right now. Sorry, but it's true. If you're putting together a 4-man outfield rotation based on the Nats current 25-man roster, Milledge ain't on it. You want numbers? How about career OPS+?

Adam Dunn: 131
Josh Willingham: 116
Elijah Dukes: 113
Austin Kearns: 105
Lastings Milledge: 89

Kearns is easily the worst offensive player of the four, and he still beats out Milledge by a healthy margin. He's also the best defensive outfielder on that list. Dunn and Willingham are here for their bats and ought to be restricted to left field to limit spontaneous fan eye bleeding. Dukes has the tools to be a complete player if he stays healthy and sane, so he's your de facto center fielder.

The competion is between Kearns and Milledge for right field. Milledge's value is all about talent and potential. Milledge certainly could be better than Kearns, but as of today, he ain't. If the talent that so many have seen is really there, a month or two in Syracuse isn't going to make it disappear. If Milledge blows up the International League or Kearns falters, the decision will take care of itself. In the meantime, the Washington Nationals will be running out their best outfield and increasing the odds that they can get something in trade for the guys who aren't part of the future of the franchise.

Now if Rizzo decides to bench Dukes in favor of Corey Patterson, we can start passing out the pitchforks and torches. But with all due respect to my bloggy colleagues, sending a 24-year old to AAA to clear up a logjam, and create more playing time for your four best outfielders is hardly cause for administering last rites to the franchise.

Now let's talk about sending Jesus Flores to AAA and starting Josh Bard...


Harper said...

Career OPS? Was it that important for Milledge to be 5th instead of 4th?

There is an argument to be made against Milledge, but if your going to use career OPS your going to invalidate like half young player over vet decisions.

Nate said...

I don't think Dunn, Willingham and Dukes are really part of this argument, so I'll assume you're complaining about using career OPS+ to measure Kearns against Milledge. Find me a yardstick that doesn't unduly penalize Kearns for playing hurt last year and I'll gladly run the numbers again.

Harper said...

Hmm I have found KPS (Kearns Promoting Statistic) which allows me to cut out any at bat that doesn't favor guys with the last name of Kearns... I'll run that for you... Hey he's going to hit .350 with 35 HRs! Forget what I said. Milledge you suck!

Nate said...

Hey, it's not my fault you can't measure "potential".

Allison said...

I may not be able to measure it, but I know Jeter has a bunch of it.