I’m not any more willing to predict how well Tokyo’s brand-spanking-new left fielder, Lastings Milledge, will do in NPB than I was about Norichika Aoki and his possible transition to MLB. There are several doubters out there, perhaps due to a collective pessimism related to Aoki’s departure, so I would like to make sure that everyone understands just what type of player the Swallows were able to add to the roster this off-season.
There is little doubt that Lastings Milledge is going to help the team win.
Alrighty then. Let’s start with something that we all agree on. Aoki is one hell of a talent and the team won’t find a commensurate replacement to fill his shoes in center (apologies, Ueda-senshu).
Alright, now let’s move on to something that several of you have already openly disagreed with me on. Lastings Milledge.
I’ve gotta’ say, I’m borderline-ecstatic about the Milledge acquisition, and now please give me a couple of minutes to explain why you should be, too.
First, let’s look at the mediocrity we dealt with (mostly) in left last season. After it was finally determined that Hatakeyama’s range is far too farcical to play him in the outfield, Tokyo started a veritable “who’s who” of second string outfielders. Ueda, Fukuchi, Iihara, Yuichi, Miyade and Hamanaka all got a shot.
Ueda eventually took over and started throughout the playoffs, and he seems to be in the lead for the center field job this year.
Fukuchi featured as a pinch runner for most of the season and led the league in steals for a while before ever collecting his first base hit. Weird.
Iihara, Yuichi and Miyade continued to be Iihara, Yuichi and Miyade, unfortunately. And Hamanaka was a mistake to begin with.
The funny thing is that Hamanaka was actually the opening day left fielder. That didn’t last long.
And the Swallows struggled early in the season with waiting for either Josh Whitesell to stake a claim to first base, or for a second string outfielder to lock down left field. Neither potentiality transpired. Ogawa’s plan of attack ended up being to keep Hatakeyama at first, thus turning Josh into a bench-bound-bat, and allowing left field to turn into a revolving door of OK gloves that can’t hit.
Fukuchi played in 40 games and hit .155/.210/.224 with only nine hits but 10 stolen bags. Iihara had a slash line of .126/.229/.169, and Yuichi clocked in with .193/.270/.291 (in 64 and 51 games, (dis)respectively).
Miyade only remains in management’s good graces because he’s an abnormally tall human being (6’4″/192 cm). His offensive numbers from a limited number of at-bats looked promising, and he also sports a decent arm, but let’s not forget that we traded him to Tohoku (because he plateaued years ago), got cut, and then we re-signed him on the cheap before the 2011 season.
So I think that we can all agree that we have a gaping hole in left. Especially if Ueda, who only played in 12 games toward the end of the regular season, ends up staring in center.
Wonderful. That’s now two things that we agree on.
Last fall, the team was faced with a few options for dealing with the hole in left:
a) Trade for a decent outfielder, but that rarely happens in NPB when you’re talking about players who could have an immediate impact.
b) Promote an in-house minor league player to the starting job in left, but we tried that with Iihara, and he still doesn’t know which way is up.
c) Import a quick fix.
As you’re probably well aware, option c is what NPB teams normally do with corner outfielders and first basemen. We’ve seen it a million times before, and I’m sure that’s exactly what many pundits are thinking when they process the Milledge signing. “Great. We have another AAA guy coming in,” or “He has a chip on his shoulder and hasn’t lived up to the hype.”
Yes, there was a bundle of hype surrounding this guy as he was the youngest player in the National League in 2006. But hear me now. Adjustment issues notwithstanding, Lastings Milledge represents the most talented MLB player to land in NPB since Matt Murton.
Murton, Hanshin’s god-loving, Ichiro’s-single-season-hits-record-breaking right fielder was a bonafide big league player before agreeing to play for the Tigers. What’s my definition of a “bonafide big league player”? It’s someone who was a regular player in the big leagues for the majority of a single season. Murton fits that bill.
Matt Murton was the everyday left fielder for the Chicago Cubs during the 2006 season. In 144 games (508 plate appearances) he hit a mouth-watering .297/.365/.444 and ended the season near the top of several offensive categories for the team. Over five seasons, Murton played in 346 games and notched 1,048 plate appearances. Both of those numbers are way above average for NPB imports. He arrived in Japan at the age of 28, transitioned smoothly, focused on baseball, and has two accolade-drenched seasons to show for it.
The Tokyo Swallows have had several high-quality non-Japanese players on the roster over the past decade. Roberto Petagine (2001 Central League MVP; last played for Fukuoka) and Alex Ramirez (2008-09 CL MVP; now with Yokohama) were there for the team’s most recent Central League Pennant and Japan Series Championship. Tony Barnette, Chang-yong Lim, Aaron Guiel (retired), Josh Whitesell (Chiba), and Seth Greisinger (Chiba) have made solid contributions since then.
Lastings Milledge is definitely within the order of magnitude just listed, and then some. Milledge has featured heavily for two major league teams over the past several years, and he’s still just heading towards his prime. In 2008, at the age of 23, Milledge was the everyday center fielder for the Washington Nationals and hit .268/.330/.402 in 138 games (134 starts; 587 plate appearances) with a .986 fielding percentage.
The 2009 season was split between the Nationals and Pittsburgh, but Lastings was a full-time starter again in 2010 when he played in 113 games (both corners of the outfield) and hit .277/.332/.380 and contributed a fielding percentage of .995 (perfect % in left).
It’s clear that Lastings Milledge compares favorably with Matt Murton who is bar-none the best all-around position player to hit NPB since I’ve been paying attention.
The similarities are striking. Both sought an alternate career advancement route after cutthroat competition shunted them to AAA despite strong top team numbers. Both have a solid work ethic and desire to play day-in and day-out. And both plan to use NPB as a way to play in the big leagues once again (see Colby Lewis).
In other words, they posted big league numbers that project far more confidently in NPB than what we’re used to seeing.
There is one big difference, however. Unlike Murton, who was 28 when he began his NPB career, Milledge will be 26 when he hits the scene in less than a month’s time. Also, compared to Murton’s 346 major league games and 1,048 plate appearances in the majors, Milledge will arrive with 433 games and 1,659 plate appearances under his belt.
And to Milledge’s credit, he’s reportedly on a steady dose of Rosetta Stone and is well ahead of the curve in terms of preparing himself for this fast-approaching shock to the system.
If he can take things in stride half as well as Murton, Barnette, Whitesell and Balentien have, then expect big things from him.
Barring injury or any unforeseen growing pains, Milledge could be NPB’s best position player import since Murton.
So hopefully you now understand why there’s plenty of room for optimism about the situation in left this season. Hopefully you’re now Thrilledged as well.