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Looking for the ‘Edge

When Neal Huntington took over the reins of the Pittsburgh Pirates, most aspects of the major league club was a shambles. The only saving grace, however, was the outfield, which provided pretty good production for the Bucs. Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady and Jason Bay were by no means all that they were made out to be, in the post-trade analysis by many people. Nonetheless, they were solid, Bay was a legitimate All-Star, McLouth was a legitimate ML CenterFielder, who suddenly discovered some power and became dangerous, and Nady was a solid bat. The Pirates also had the speedy Nyjer Morgan as the 4th OF, and had Andrew McCutchen waiting in the wings. 3 trades later, the Bucs had a brand-new outfield by the time the All-Star break rolled around in 2009. Production dropped from the heady first half of 2008, but the OF was still solid.

If the Pirates are going to improve, though, the promise in the OF will have to translate into consistent performance. At this point, the starting outfield for 2010 projects to be Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones and Lastings Milledge. Jose Tabata is biding his time in AAA, and Moss and Raynor will likely battle for the 4th OF spot in Spring Training. After phenomenal rookie seasons, Cutch and Jones are likely to regress some, at least, but the biggest question in that outfield concerns Lastings Milledge. In this post, I’ll look at what the experts are predicting for the 2010 version of ‘Edge, and add in some of my own expectations.

The 12th overall selection in 2003 has now been traded twice, and amidst questions over his makeup, his presence in the clubhouse, and his ability to justify his potential, Milledge found support from the Front Office in Pittsburgh, and has been cited as a “model citizen” by Pittsburgh reporters, on more than one occasion. Milledge is 24, and will be entering his 3rd year of major league service time. He definitely has time to turn it around. He suffered a thumb injury which has been cited as a potential source for the loss of his power in 2009, and he certainly hit well in stretches toward the end of the season in Pittsburgh in 2009.

Here are his projections for 2010:

  • CHONE: .284/.345/.423
  • Bill James: .283/.340/.413
  • ZiPS: .272/.329/.398

The best projection, CHONE, has him at about a .770 OPS. That production will not be good enough for the corner OF spot, if the Pirates hope to be legitimate contenders with these pieces. Milledge does have the tools to do better than this. There are 2 things Milledge needs to set right and realistically could:

1. Power: This is going to be one of the most important things, especially early in the season. Milledge needs to find the power that got him 14HR in 2008 as a National. Note, however, that even with that performance, he only had a 0.402 SLG in 2008. He needs to hit more doubles, and use the whole field. It would not be totally surprising to see him hit for more power in 2009 when he will be 25- to expect him to hit .471 like McCutchen did in the half year he was up might be unrealistic, but he certainly needs to hit over the National League slugging average of .439. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Milledge improve on his performance, but even the optimist in me has a hard time seeing him slug over 0.440. I am still going to go out on a limb and predict 0.450 SLG in 2010 though (there’s the fan speaking)!

2. Walk: His batting average doesn’t seem likely to go too far beyond 0.280 in the best case, given his performance in the upper minors, unless boosted by a great BABIP. Milledge needs to add walks to that very quickly. What I saw of him in 2009 doesn’t give me any hope of that, but 13 walks in 265 plate appearances in unacceptable. Going back to the minors, the best performance was in his first year in AAA in 2006 when he walked 43 times in 367 plate appearances. While an 11% walk rate might be too much to expect, Milledge needs to have an OBP at least 70 points higher than his average. That amounts to somewhere in the region of (and probably over) 40 walks over a full season.Give us a 0.355 OBP season, ‘Edge!

So, what’s my final prediction for his stat line in 2010? The optimist in me says .299/.372/.475 – even the optimist is having a hard time giving him much more than 70 points on walks! The realist in me says .285/.352/.459. Ah, a power breakout. If he does have one, though, especially early, don’t rule out the possibility of a trade- especially if both Moss and Raynor are on the bench, although I think the Pirates would need to get a pretty good return for it to happen.

I ran a logistic regression model on Milledge’s stats alone- not accounting for opposition or park factors, and using his major league data with the slugging boosted. Note that this is not the statistically correct way of doing it. (NOTE: I used my own boost for each year’s slugging, raising it assuming that he would slug more at 25 than at 23. This portion was purely for fun, and should not be used for any serious analyses.) At different BABIPs, his stat lines were as follows:

BABIP .310: .277/.333/.438

BABIP .320: .281/.341/.450

BABIP .330: .285/.349/.456

Seriously though, the key to his place in the Pirate teams over the next couple of years would be the power. In a lineup that is starved of legitimate home run threats save Garrett Jones and Doumit (the latter likely to not be a Buc for long beyond 2010, bar injuries), Andy LaRoche, Jeff Clement and Milledge are the guys this team is hoping will deliver some power. If he plays the full year, though, without any serious injuries, look for Lastings to outdo his CHONE projection of 0.7 WAR easily. I expect about 2 WAR, with his work in the field improving too. (I’m hoping to do a series on the Pirate OF in the field later this month). With Tabata coming up, and depending on the performance of Clement/Jones, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear one of Lastings/Clement/Jones’ name come up in trade rumors at some point in the offseason, if not the regular season.

Here’s to a great year, Milledge people!

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