Bill Ladson's report that the Nationals are interested in Milton Bradley has sparked quite the reaction in the Natmosphere. Setting aside the obvious point that Ladson's reporting is almost never accurate, my reaction is twofold.
First, Milton Bradley is a really good player, when healthy. 'Nuff said there.
The other and frankly far more important implication in my view is that this could mean the team has given up on Lastings Milledge. After all, the team didn't trade for Josh Willingham to sit him, and there's nothing Elijah Dukes has done to deny him a starting job. And then you have Austin Kearns on contract for $8 million and Willie Harris was just resigned for two years. So... there's an odd man out here somewhere, and all indications point to Lastings.
If in fact this is the case (and again we could all be reading far too much into a Ladson-based rumor), I think it's a mistake.
Milledge's final line of .268 / .330 / .402 was a disappointment, no question. PECOTA's 50th percentile projection had him at .282 / .352 / .472, and his actual production fell a hair below his 25th percentile projection (meaning they saw a 75% chance he'd do better than he did).
But consider a few important pieces of context. First, Milledge was still just 22 years old on opening day in 2008. He was younger than any position player who put on a Nationals uni last year except Emilio Bonifacio. He's younger than Jesus Flores, younger than Ryan Zimmerman, younger than Elijah Dukes.
Second, last year was the first time that he'd ever played centerfield, really at all. He played 120 innings there with the Mets last year and played exactly 3 games in center total in the minors since he broke in with the Mets at age 19. That's not just relevant to his defensive performance (I'll get to that shortly) but also to his offense. It's hard enough as a young player to learn how to hit every day in the major leagues, but to do so while literally learning a completely new position? It's kind of amazing he didn't just completely flop out there and get sent down.
(Edit: this paragraph is wrong, my apologies. Before 2007, defensive positioning wasn't recorded for minor league games; all we know is that players were in the outfield, not which of the three outfield positions they played. However, reading some of the contemporaneous coverage on BaseballAmerica.com, it's clear that Milledge did play centerfield from '04-'06 and was moved to the corner outfield in '07 because of Carlos Beltran and then back to CF by the Nationals in '08. So although it's fair to say he's young and still learning, it's not accurate to describe him as completely new to CF in '08.)
But the really encouraging thing about Milledge's 2008 was how he got better as the year went along. He struggled pretty badly early on, skidding all the way to .245 / .312 / .368 when he went down with a groin injury on June 28. Pitchers have always thrown him an extraordinarily high percentage of breaking balls, and last year was no exception. He saw just 54.7% fastballs, and that wasn't going to change until he showed he could hit the off-speed stuff.
After he came back from a month lost to the groin, he got just 17 at bats in rehab, which anyone could see when he came back wasn't enough. He struggled very badly for a week after getting rushed back, and then from August 1 till the end of the season he was fantastic, putting up a .318 / .378 / .485 over that final 223 plate appearances.
You could write off that fast finish as a fluky hot streak, and to some extent it was, as he was floating on a .389 BABIP over that period. But he also had a 17.5% strikeout rate and 7.2% walk rate and .167 ISO Power. Those three numbers are highly indicative of a player's true skill, and although none of those are great numbers, they all represent improvement. His contact rate also was on a steady rise, reaching 78.7% last season, up from 76.1% in '07 and 72.9% in '06.
With a player this young you have to look for more for steady improvement than bottom-line success. The progress is there, and if he can get the bat on those breaking balls and get more fastballs, his numbers could jump by an order of magnitude fast. And you gotta love that eye-popping bat speed that has turned heads for years.
Which brings us to the question of his defense. As noted above, last season wasn't just the first time he'd played centerfield every day. It was almost the first time he'd played centerfield ever. And by any measure he was bad. UZR/150 had him at -9.8 runs allowed versus average. Baseball Prospectus's Rate2 stat had him at 12 runs below average over 150 games. And PMR thought he was even worse, pegging him at -14.9 runs over the 138 games he played. His routes to the ball were bad, and he just didn't look at all natural out there.
The question is can he get better and how much? I think there's basically no doubt he'll get better. For the umpteenth time, you cannot underestimate how hard it is to play every day for the first time while learning a new position at age 23 at the major league level. You can see the natural athleticism is there. I think he has a very good chance to become an average defensive centerfielder by 2010, by which time if his bat continues to develop at its current pace he'll be a near-all star-level performer.
If Milledge went out there next year and regressed either in the field or at the plate, I would consider moving him out of center or even demoting him to a fourth outfielder. But based on what we've seen, the trendline is there, and the progress is coming. I say pat the kid on the back and send him right back out to centerfield. He is, after all, one of only 4-5 guys on the whole major league roster who has a serious opportunity to contribute to a contender in DC.