As we get to the end of January, most of the more intriguing options noted here a couple weeks back to fill out what's likely to be a six-man bench for the Phillies are off the board: Marcus Thames to the Dodgers, Jerry Hairston Jr. to the Nationals. Meanwhile, the team's situation in right field remains fluid, with Ben Francisco, Domonic Brown and potentially Ross Gload and John Mayberry Jr. in the mix. While the best-case scenario remains Brown blowing the doors off spring training and winning the job outright, there's a strong case to be made that if he isn't to be the everyday guy, the next best option would be for him to go back to triple-A, consolidate his gains and take the job either sometime during the season or at the start of 2012, when the Phils are likely to have two corner outfield spots open after Raul Ibanez departs.
So there's opportunity to be had. And there's a player of unquestioned talent but in desperate need of both structure and opportunity still looking for work as the days dwindle before training camp opens: Lastings Milledge.
Five years ago, most baseball people would have laughed at the notion that Milledge would be looking for a job in baseball as his 26th birthday approached. He was the Mets' top prospect, a 20 year old phenom with tools off the charts who'd rocketed through the high minors before he could legally buy a beer. Milledge debuted with the Mets in 2006 and put up strong numbers as a 22 year old in 2007, hitting .272/.341/.446. But he proved a bad fit in a dysfunctional clubhouse and was traded to the Nationals before the 2008 season. In Washington that year, he slugged 14 home runs and stole 24 bases, but put up a mildly disappointing .268/.330/.402 line. Traded to the Pirates in 2009, he continued to underwhelm, and Pittsburgh non-tendered him after the 2010 season.
Milledge is far from a sure thing; he's had trouble with injuries as well as off-field incidents that have called his maturity into question. Right now, he seems poised to join a lengthening list of one-time Mets outfield prospects who never translated promise into performance at the big-league level--Alex Escobar and Carlos Gomez, with Fernando Martinez possibly on that track as well. He's moving out of baseball youth with a lot to prove.
For the Phillies, Milledge would represent a low-risk, high-reward flyer. If he's hurt, or acts out, they can turn him loose again with virtually nothing lost. But even if he maintains his recent performance, he adds something: a right-handed hitter, Milledge pasted lefties at a .320/.414/.512 clip in 145 plate appearances in 2010, the second straight year he showed a pronounced platoon split. He's also a solid runner and adequate defender, representing an upgrade on Ibanez in both respects. And within the high-functioning Phillies clubhouse, under the tutelage of hitting guru Charlie Manuel, there could be more to come; as SBN prospect guru John Sickels put it in a piece on Milledge last summer, "Sometimes players like this take an unexpected step forward in their late 20s after everyone gives up." Jayson Werth, anyone?
Finally, you know little would bother Mets fans more than seeing Milledge blossom into big-league stardom, or even adequacy, with their hated rivals down the Jersey Turnpike. Whether such things motivate GM Ruben Amaro Jr., I have no idea, but just in terms of satisfying his audience, it should be a consideration.