07/10/2007 11:56 AM ET
Milledge may be the answer for Mets
Underappreciated outfielder close to returning to Flushing
By Michael Salfino / SNY.tv
Lastings Milledge has moved on to the Brooklyn Cyclones for the next stop in his rehab from a sore foot. (AP)

So much for that American League-style offense, Mets fans. While it's not exactly small ball at Shea, the Mets are a perfectly mediocre 15th in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and 14th in homers -- interestingly, they're tied with the Yankees and one up on the Red Sox in long balls.

While many are looking at the trade market to import offensive help for the injury-depleted outfield that's alarmingly docile at both corner spots, the best solution is moving through Binghamton on rehab before landing back at Shea, one hopes, for the remainder of the season.

Lastings Milledge has made more hay for his rapping than his raking this year, but quickly found his stroke after recovering from a serious foot injury that threatened to derail his season.

Having just turned 22 in April -- and thus just eight months older than Carlos Gomez -- Milledge mashed two homers upstate yesterday and is sporting a 1.415 OPS in his first five rehab games. Prior to the injury, he was hitting .333 in the Crescent City after suffering through a bout of big league-itis.

Skeptics claim the Mets must bring in a big veteran bat to hold off the Braves and Phillies in the East.

I understand we're all conditioned to have a healthy respect bordering on fear for the Braves. But I'm going to just say it: Atlanta can't win 90 games. John Smoltz and Chipper Jones won't stay healthy. There are no big prospects to either inject some life or serve as treasure for a trade. Maybe Brian McCann hits like he did in 2006 again (though catchers don't typically improve their hitting as the season wears on). Maybe Edgar Renteria continues to stroke well above projections. Perhaps Andrew Jones even comfortably elevates beyond the Mendoza line. Yes, some team may sell the farm for backup catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who hit .230 in Double-A last year, albeit with a sore wrist). But the Braves need most (all?) of this to happen and good health from a bunch of guys who've battled injuries going forward.

The Phillies seem like they should be better. But they have the worst pitching staff in the league. While we generally overrate the importance of pitching, the Phillies simply can't score enough runs to overcome this weakness and sustain success.

But what if the Mets continue to play the .500 brand of baseball they've sported for this long stretch? I'm not going to tell you that it can't happen. But Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Carlos Delgado will need to continue performing below expectation (well below for Delgado). The team-wide malaise with runners in scoring position and two outs will need to continue (Jose Reyes, Delgado, Paul Lo Duca, Beltran and Wright all under .216 in these situations).

Remember, the Mets are on pace to win 90 games WITH all this having happened. And we're not even factoring in Pedro Martinez's return. I'll bet he'll be effective given his ability to change speeds and challenge hitters even when his fastball is that in name only. Remember, in 2006, Martinez had one of the toughest fastballs to hit as measured by Baseball Info Solutions despite the injured wing and mid-80s heat.

What about the notion of playing well so that you can go into the playoffs on a high note? Didn't the Cardinals debunk that notion last year? The sad truth is that it doesn't matter how well or how poorly you've played down the stretch once that first postseason pitch is thrown. It doesn't even really matter what perceived advantages you hold over the opposition at various positions. A seven-game series can be a cruel role of the dice.

So whoever the Mets may get for a combination of prospects which will surely include Milledge or Gomez likely will not make a difference in whether the Mets qualify for the postseason (they're likely going to matter what). The upgrades become important only in how much improvement they provide over their replacements in the playoffs. Yes, the stakes are higher. But is it worth sabotaging the future for such a faint, hypothetical prospect? No high-priced middle reliever is guaranteed to pitch better in October than, say, Guillermo Mota, who sure was dealing this weekend in Houston.

The Mets are uniquely positioned to both qualify for the postseason this year and develop two intriguing outfield prospects (Milledge and Gomez) who fill glaring holes and free up the team's considerable financial resources to focus on second base and catcher, where the Mets have no prospects on the horizon.

Some maintain that the Mets are better off this year with Shawn Green and Moises Alou, who is attempting to bounce back from serious injury at 40. I fear that Willie Randolph, whose deference to veterans seems to be his only weakness as a manager, is among them.

Should Alou return, he needs to be leveraged against lefties and used as a designated hitter in the World Series.

Green has been the disaster his harshest critics feared since April: a .746 OPS in May followed by a .547 in June and a .618 in July. He's at best an average defensive right fielder and he eyeballs well below that. I think there's almost a zero percent chance that Milledge would hit worse than Green right now. And, his Fenway disaster aside (which occurred in left field), Milledge would be a big defensive upgrade, too.

I do worry that the Mets are as casual about Milledge as a prospect as most of their fans seem to be. When you examine Milledge's Minor League career relative to his age and levels, it's not much short of spectacular. But the Mets have been very smart about holding on to prospects since Omar Minaya was named general manager and they have kept Milledge all this time through a multitude of rumors. The time for them to be rewarded for their patience is rapidly approaching.

Michael Salfino is a nationally syndicated football and baseball newspaper columnist and regular contributor to SNY.tv.
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