Stars of the AFL: Lastings Milledge

Lastings Milledge is a player. That fact is not in doubt, and hasn't been in quite some time. He has speed, his power is developing, he's a great defensive outfielder, and he's in demand. The Grand Canyon Rafters of the Arizona Fall League is Milledge's fourth squad this season alone, after stints on the New York Mets Hi-A team, their Double-A squad, and with Team USA.

There were rumors that Milledge was on his way to Tampa Bay, but those proved to be fruitless. Still, if you want to know something about Lastings Milledge, listen to his take on the trade rumors.

"I don't know what the big deal is when people talk about how you might get traded. It's not like you're getting released, and when all is said and done, it's just a rumor. I like working with the Mets, I feel like I have a future here, and I want to play for them, but if that's not the way they feel then I'll go play somewhere else. I mean, some guys think it's the end of the world when they hear they might get traded, but when a team is talking about moving a guy like Aubrey Huff to get you, and you're part of a deal that involved Manny Ramirez, I take it as a compliment."

That pretty much sums up Milledge's style of play as well. A gifted athlete who sometimes gets mistaken for lackadaisical simply because he makes incredible plays look so easy, this game will always be fun, because Milledge just rolls with whatever happens to be going on at the time. That includes not just who he's playing for, but where he's playing.

"In this game you are not promised anything," Milledge says from the dugout, "anything can happen."

In this case Milledge is talking about center field at Shea Stadium, a position currently locked up by Carlos Beltran. Milledge played 110 games in the minors this season, and with the exception of three games near the end of the year where he was the DH at Double-A, they were all as a center fielder. Some players, especially top prospects, would be defiant. Milledge on the other hand has spent his AFL season splitting time between center and left.

"He's a great player," Milledge says of Beltran, "and if I break into the big leagues playing along side him, that's what I'm going to do, because if nothing else I can learn from him. I'm being smart down here, I'm getting comfortable in left, and if they ask me to play right, I'll do that too. I'm ready to play anywhere, because I just want to play."

It seems unlikely the Mets are going to keep him from playing. The happily gave him permission to play on Team USA, in part because it's something Milledge has done since he was 16 years old.

"It wasn't really a new experience for me because I've been playing with those teams for so long, but it is a different style of baseball," but despite his history with the squad, even Milledge had to think twice before accepting the invitation, "This year was the toughest for me, because I knew there was a chance that if I stayed I could go up to Triple-A for the playoffs, and I wanted to do that, but it's such a good time, and such a good experience, I stayed with it."

There seems to be nothing that can stand in Milledge's way, but there are things he can work on. Despite his great speed, Milledge was caught stealing 18 times in 47 attempts this season. While the numbers certainly weren't where he'd like them, he wasn't worried about it.

"I've had good percentages in previous years, and I actually got better once I moved up to Double-A [where he went 11 for 16] so I'm not sure I'd call that a focus down here. I'm not really sure there is any one thing I'm focused on. I'm just trying to get better, get some more at bats and get comfortable on the corners."

Every once in awhile though the numbers give Milledge away. There was much speculation heading into this season that the next grand jump forward for the top Mets prospect would be his power, but after hitting just eight homers in 425 at bats Milledge tried to downplay the predictions about his power early in the AFL season.

"You never know if power is really going to come out," Milledge said during the first week of the AFL season, "you have to work with what you have, because if you try to do something you're not built to do the rest of your game will suffer."

So he's not going to be a power hitter...or is he. Milledge may claim to not be a power hitter, but the AFL season is hinting that maybe that power surge is on the way. After just those eight homers during the regular season he's crushed four in just under 70 AFL at bats. While this is the cream of the crop for hitters, it's also some of the top pitchers in the minors, and suddenly Lastings Milledge is turning on the ball.

Which just about fits him. Not even injury seems to be able to slow down the development of the Mets prospect. In a league where teams have literally been known to shut players down for a hangnail Milledge slid hard into third base a week into the season and bruised his heel. While the Mets must have been collectively holding their breath, Milledge knew he'd be fine, and stayed on the roster, resting just four games before coming back. How would his body respond? With an 11 game hitting streak that included three round trippers, seven RBI and 10 runs scored. So how is that heel?

"Oh, that was nothing, just a little nick, I'm fine, feeling good." he says with a smile, "I just want to play."

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