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Milledgeville Sputters To The South Side

In naming Lastings Milledge the ninth-best prospect in the game prior the 2006 season, Baseball America said that the precocious outfielder figured to be part of a Queens offensive core including Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and David Wright. BA also threw out this quirky nugget of information about the would-be stud: Milledge’s family “has followed [his] career throughout the minors in a recreational vehicle affectionately dubbed ‘Milledgeville.’ ”

That rec vehicle was supposed to roll into Queens for good. But half a decade and three teams later, Milledgeville has bald tires, scratched paint and the horse power of a single burro. Rather than becoming a star in baseball’s biggest media market, Milledge is just hoping to avoid a summer spent taking the International League tour through places like Toledo, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Durham. Having washed out of New York, Washington and Pittsburgh, Milledge will try to carve out a bench role with the White Sox after agreeing to a minor league deal with a Spring Training invite. Can Milledgeville get back on track, or is it destined for the scrap yard?

In more than 1,600 major league career plate appearances, Milledge has hit at a clip that would be acceptable for a rangy shortstop, but certainly not for a below-average outfielder relegated to a corner spot. He doesn’t have a discerning eye at the plate, as evidenced by a 6.3 percent career walk rate, and he rarely lashes pitches into the gaps or over the fence, with a .125 Isolated Power. Milledge’s career wOBA is .317, and it’s not as though you can say he has been unlucky in any way — despite popping the ball up nearly twice as much (14.5 percent) as the average MLB batter, he’s got a .311 BABIP.

As for 2011, Milledge’s ZiPS projection with the Pirates came out to .276/.330/.398. Using Matt Klaassen’s custom linear weights, that line translates to around a .319 wOBA in last year’s run environment.

Considering that Ultimate Zone Rating, Total Zone and The Fans Scouting Report indicate that he’s somewhere between bad and brutal in the field, it’s easy to see why Milledge is on his fourth team before be celebrates his 26th birthday in April.

An optimist might point out that even with the league shift, Milledge’s ZiPS projection would likely be a little sunnier in the South Side. According to Stat Corner, The Cell boosts righty offense by four percent compared to a neutral field, while PNC Park hurts right-handed hitters by two percent. It’s important to keep in mind that there’s a difference between true platoon skill and a batter’s observed platoon split, but Milledge has a .350 wOBA in a little more than 500 PA versus lefties, compared to .303 in more than 1,100 against right-handers. And, given the sample sizes involved, it’s probably too early to label him a lead-footed defender.

Maybe Milledge can capably spot-start in the corner outfield spots (particularly against lefties), giving Juan Pierre or the increasingly achy Carlos Quentin a rest. And if he does show a pulse in 2011, the White Sox can hold on to Milledge for two more years via arbitration. He’s not guaranteed of making the team, though: Alejandro De Aza (.318 wOBA from ZiPS) has a similar offensive projection, and the club is expected to give five-foot-11, 240+ pound Dayan Viciedo (.309 ZiPS) some outfield reps this spring as well.

Forget stardom. At this point, Milledge simply needs to prove that he’s a viable major leaguer. Milledge’s baseball journey isn’t over, but he’s been spinning his wheels for years now.