The year was 2007. We learned what made Maroon 5 wonder, we couldn't get enough of Norbit, and, thanks to the worst team the White Sox assembled in decades, we talked an awful lot about Lastings Milledge.
His name came up during the winter meetings of December 2006, when he was a well-regarded prospect for the New York Mets. Mark Buehrle was entering his contract year, the Sox needed outfielders, and the Mets needed pitching, and thus a rumor was born.
Two days later, said rumor died when Kenny Williams traded Freddy Garcia to Philadelphia for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez. Milledge's name kept resurfacing as the Sox limped to the trade deadline, but the Mets waited until after the 2007 season to move him to Washington. Omar Minaya was ripped for the return (Ryan Church and Brian Schneider), thinking the Mets made too much of Milledge's character flaws while downplaying his 104 OPS+ at age 22.
Four years later, the White Sox signed Milledge to a minor-league deal with an invitation to Spring Training. It's Milledge's fourth franchise in four years - the Nationals traded him to Pittsburgh, and the Pirates non-tendered him. As you can guess, it's not like a surplus of talent forced Milledge out of both pictures. In Washington, he rubbed management the wrong way by missing team meetings, in between several injuries and the inability to play center field.
He played it straight in Pittsburgh, but his bat didn't do nearly enough talking. His game stagnated - he never hit enough to hold down a corner, and couldn't cover nearly enough ground as a center fielder. He might have been better off when people knew him more for his rap album and high-fiving the fans.
Two months ago, Milledge provided fuel for a fight in a Venezuelan Winter League game by miming a grenade lob after a double. He was hit by a pitch in retribution, and he took revenge by stealing second. Words were exchanged, and a shoving match followed.
All of that is to say that I wouldn't count on Milledge capitalizing on some unrealized potential. But this signing is a good depth move that will force others to maintain or raise their games.
The addition of Milledge puts the following players on alert...
Alejandro De Aza: If talent were the only issue, De Aza would be a lock. He can play all three outfield positions, he can hit enough, and he can steal a base. His left-handedness provides a complement at two outfield positions. In short, he meets all requirements for a fourth outfielder. He's also out of options, whereas Milledge can be sent to Charlotte, so all things being equal, De Aza shouldn't go anywhere.
The problem is that he can't stay healthy, and Milledge has shown the ability to hit at Triple-A. The combination could lead to Milledge leap-frogging De Aza, much like Dewayne Wise seized the day when Jerry Owens injured his foot back in 2008.
Brent Lillibridge: Lillibridge is also out of options, and while we haven't seen much of it, he can play a better center field. At the same time, he's running out of chances to prove that he can make contact on a reliable basis. He finished the year by striking out in nine of his final 10 at-bats, and he has a history of flat spring showings. If Milledge handily wins a head-to-head battle at Camelback Ranch, Williams may have to make like Switzerland and blow up his Bridge.
Stefan Gartrell: Without Milledge, Gartrell was the first right-handed outfield option waiting in the wings at Triple-A. He didn't deserve that inside track, because he didn't punish International League lefties nearly enough to make up for all the strikeouts, while Milledge hit major-league lefties to the tune of .320/.414/.512. No competition there.
Gartrell has the advantage of a 40-man roster spot, but Millledge should force him to justify his existence. Magic 8 Ball says: "OUTLOOK NOT SO GOOD," much to Phil Rogers' chagrin. Worse yet for Gartrell, he might lose a starting outfield job based on what the Sox decide to do with ...
Dayan Viciedo: With Milledge, Gartrell and Jordan Danks, the Charlotte Knights have bodies in all three outfield spots. That could encourage the Sox to give Viciedo reps at third as Brent Morel insurance, or they could play him more in a corner and shove Gartrell or Milledge to DH.
Milledge won't interfere with Viciedo getting whatever he deserves, but now that there's another passable, short-term, right-handed option in Charlotte, Viciedo has something to measure up against besides his own splits.
Jermaine Dye: For the second straight February, Ken Rosenthal gave Dye a shoulder to cry on. It was easy to pick apart his case last season, and this year is no different. Dye wants a major-league contract 1 1/2 years after he was last a major-league hitter. The last anybody knew, Dye could only hit lefties and offer poor defense. That's Milledge's game, and he's only worth a minor league contract and an NRI. Dye may be a World Series MVP, but he's 12 years older than Milledge, and about a year behind on his self-assessments.
Dye has some right to be frustrated when a guy like Mark Kotsay receives a major-league contract with the Brewers for $800,000 guaranteed. But aside from the inherent advantage of his left-handedness, Kotsay has never said he's too good for the best possible offer. He took cuts in playing time, cuts in salary, bounced from team to team and learned a new position to keep his career afloat. Say what you will about Kotsay, but he's listened to what the game and market have told him. Dye keeps gambling that he deserves better, and baseball keeps telling him that deserve's got nothing to do with it.