Mets' top CF prospect keeps focus
Despite Beltran signing, Milledge still has bright future
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The volume on the small, wall-mounted television in the far end of the clubhouse at Tradition Field's minor league complex was turned down low Tuesday morning.
The images, however, spoke volumes, more than any words ever could. Carlos Beltran was being introduced as the newest Met. The lavish press conference, the expensive suit, the questions, the flash of scores of cameras -- all of it presented an exciting image. It was a scene that had the eyes of the young hopefuls in that dark, spartan clubhouse glued to the television as they hunched over the stools near their lockers, dining on the cold cuts and fruit that had been provided for lunch.
One of those young hopefuls was Lastings Milledge, the Mets' first-round pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft. A five-tool star in his own right, Milledge was supposed to be New York's center fielder of the future someday. Some have even gone so far as to bill him as the Mets' own version of Beltran. But he's only 19, and playing at Shea Stadium remains too far off on the horizon to warrant serious thought.
And now, with Beltran locked up for the next seven years, Milledge has a roadblock in front of him that will be difficult, if not downright impossible, to hurdle.
Milledge glanced up at the television from time to time, seeming to pay attention to what was going while remaining engrossed in the conversation he was having with Prentice Redman and some of the other minor leaguers on hand for the club's minicamp. However, he wasn't letting on if Beltran was suddenly a cause for him to be concerned.
The talented, soft-spoken outfielder can run like the wind and hit for power and average. But he can't control anything other than what he does on the field, a fact he was quick to point out. So, when it came to the topic of the day, he was keeping mum.
"I have no comment about any of that," Milledge said.
No bitterness, no anger, just no point in talking about it.
For now, Milledge will remain a center fielder and there has been no discussion of having him move. He's far enough away from the Major Leagues that it makes no sense to make a position switch just yet, so the club will leave him where he is comfortable and let him develop. One team executive said on Tuesday that he wouldn't be surprised if the youngster never gets moved to one of the corner spots.
"It's like [general manager] Omar [Minaya] says, you can't have enough center fielders. He'd like to have three center fielders out there if he could," the executive said.
Right now, the Mets have a pair of center fielders in their outfield. Mike Cameron will make the switch to right field to accommodate Beltran, and take his Gold Gloves with him. Cameron is signed through 2006, so if the club were to move Milledge to right field, his arrival in the big leagues might coincide with Cameron's contract expiring.
And by 2007, there's no telling who'll be in left for the Mets. Cliff Floyd's contract ends after 2006, but he may even be traded before then.
"I can play any outfield position," Milledge said. "Of course, I have my preference. But center field is my bread and butter. I just want to be the best and do what I do. If I have to move to right field, it will take time, but I will be the best at that position, too."
Milledge, who was chosen with the 12th overall pick in '03, will likely begin this season at Class A St. Lucie of the pitching-rich Florida State League. He saw action in 22 games there last season, hitting .235 with a pair of homers, eight RBIs and three steals in 81 at-bats.
He did the bulk of his damage, though, at Class A Capital City, tearing up the South Atlantic League. Milledge got off to a late start in 2004 because of a broken bone he suffered in his hand during Spring Training. But in 65 games for the Bombers, he hit .337 with 13 homers and 58 RBIs. He stole 23 bases and was virtually a one-man wrecking crew.
"He had the setback early in the spring and it was just a matter of him getting acclimated to pro ball," said Mets director of minor league operations Kevin Morgan. "He's progressed very well and he's made adjustments. He's really continuing to refine all aspects of his game. He's projected to start at St. Lucie because our focus is to have our guys challenged at a level without being overmatched. If, at some point, we feel he's progressed and it will be a challenge for him, we'll move him up.
"Last year, his numbers at St. Lucie were a little skewed. He came here and he learned a couple of things, and there were a couple of games where he did really well. It was just a small sample, though, so it's hard to say how he might have done over the long haul."
Milledge says he has no timetable and isn't really concerned if the organization has one for him. He's focused on the task at hand and says he's having fun doing what he's doing, talking up the older players and learning more every day.
He won't be invited to big league camp next month and that's OK. But it's still nice to think about the possibilities.
"Of course, I think I'm ready for it, it's just a matter of when they put me there," he said. "It's just a matter of what they want me to do. Within myself, I know what I'm ready for."
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.