Remember Lastings Milledge? He was the Mets’ 1st round draft pick 12 years ago, but his major league career quickly flamed out. It now looks like his career in Japan’s NPB has gone the same route.
Milledge first became known to the baseball world at the age of 12, when he was a star in the Little League World Series. He was widely expected to be one of the first three players drafted in 2003, the year he graduated from high school. However, it was reported in the summer of 2002 that he had been expelled from the Christian high school where he spent his junior year for having sex with a 15 year old girl (Milledge would have been 16 or 17 at the time).
Milledge ended up falling to the Mets with the 12th pick of the 2003 Draft and eventually signed him to a $2.2M bonus. After he signed, reports came out that he’d also had sex with a 12 year old and a 13 year old, and that these liaisons were the real reason for his expulsion.
Milledge rapidly worked his way through the Mets’ system, reaching the Show in 2006, his age 21 season. He was a little over-matched at first and was sent back to the minors. However, he had a very strong last two months of the 2007 season, after being called back up.
However, off-the-field issues had already made the Mets decide that they’d be better off without him. The Mets traded him that November to the Nationals for two players, Ryan Church and Brian Schneider, who are probably best described as role players.
In 2008, Milledge had what turned out to be his only MLB season as an every-day player, and at age 23 it was extremely promising, as Milledge batted .268 with a .731 OPS as the Nats center fielder.
The Nats and Milledge got off to a poor start in 2009, and at the time I thought the Nats gave up on Milledge way too quickly, first sending him down to the minors on April 13th, only seven games into the season, and then trading him on June 30th to the Pirates along with Joel Hanrahan for Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan.
At the time, I thought the deal made no sense for the Nats. In hindsight, it seems pretty obvious that the Nats thought they had to rid themselves of some talent in order to improve team chemistry — trading for Njyer Morgan to improve team chemistry really says something about what the Nats must have thought about Milledge.
Milledge spent the next year and a half in Pittsburgh, and while he hit for average, he didn’t hit for power or draw any walks. He also didn’t really have a major league centerfielder’s range. Milledge became a free agent after the 2010 season when the Pirates elected not to tender him a contract rather than going to salary arbitration with him.
Milledge signed a minor league contract with the White Sox and made the club out of Spring Training, but was designated for assignment after appearing in only two games. No one claimed Milledge on waivers, and he accepted an assignment to AAA, possibly because his contract had vested by making the team out of Spring Training.
Milledge elected to become a free agent after the 2011 season, and quickly signed a reported one-year $570,000 deal with the Yakult Swallows of Japan’s NPB with a team option for a second year.
Milledge’s first year in Japan was excellent. He hit .300 with an .865 OPS in his age 27 season, and he looked like a guy would go on to be a huge star in Japan and finally live up to some of his potential. The Swallows certainly thought so, exercising their 2013 option and immediately agreeing to extend the contract for the 2014 and 2015 seasons at a total price of $4.4 million for the three seasons. The Swallows are one of NPB’s low-revenue teams, and they thought it was a good risk to lock Milledge into a multi-year, guaranteed deal while they could still afford him.
However, as in America, Milledge’s Japanese career quickly went down hill at an accelerating rate. In 2013, he hit .251 with a .765 OPS and missed about 40 games to injury. He then suffered a major shoulder injury that limited him to all of 19 games played in 2014. In 2015, Milledge managed to play in 66 games, but most of them were in NPB’s minor league, and he hit very poorly.
While the Swallows have not officially cut ties with Milledge, it’s hard to imagine the team bringing him back after the way his contract has blown up in their face.
Milledge will be 31 next April, and there are at least 26 MLB teams where he hasn’t had the opportunity to wear out his welcome, so it’s still possible that he’ll find someone to give him a minor league deal. There is also the Independent-A Atlantic League and its $3,000-a-month salaries where Milledge can try to work his way back to MLB. At this point, however, it looks almost certain that Milledge’s once great potential will be almost entirely wasted.
By my calculations Milledge has made more than $9 million during his professional baseball career, so his time hasn’t been totally wasted. However, what little I know about the man suggests he probably hasn’t invested his money wisely, and there may well be some very lean years between now and when he can start collecting his major league pension at age 50.