I’m a little late with this news — the Yakult Swallows announced the signing of former Met, National, Pirate and (very briefly) White Sock Lastings Milledge about ten days ago. However, I’ve been writing a lot this off-season about players coming and going from Japan, so I might as well add my two cents, even at this late date.
The Swallows are a small market team in Japan, drawing only a little over 1.3 million in each of the last two seasons, which was good for 10th and 9th, respectively, out of the twelve NPB teams. The Milledge signing was the kind of move a small market team makes.
The Swallows signed Milledge for only $570,000, which is terrific for a player with 1,500 career MLB at-bats and .723 career MLB OPS, who still will be only 27 years old in 2012. The Swallows even got a team option for 2013, probably in exchange for guaranteeing the $570,000 in 2012.
The Japanese teams like their North American players to have at least some significant MLB experience, and Lastings has that. Also, Lastings’ biggest problem in America is that he doesn’t have enough power for the defensive positions he can play adequately at the major league level (he plays slightly above-average defense in LF, but way below average defense in center and RF). He’s certainly going to hit for more power in Japan’s smaller ballparks than he has in the U.S.
On the other hand, Milledge’s performance in the AAA International League at age 26 was pretty underwhelming. He hit a little below .300 (.295), and his OPS and OBP were only good enough for 26th and 22nd, respectively, among qualifiers. It’s a little hard to imagine a player who didn’t even qualify as a 4-A player in 2011 taking Japan by storm in 2012.
Still, you never know. Success in Japan for North American players often comes down to their ability to quickly make the transition to the Japanese style of play and just living in Japan. Some guys can do it, some guys can’t. One thing is for certain — Lastings certainly as the talent to succeed somewhere, if he can just put it together.
For what it’s worth, Milledge is hitting quite well in the Venezualan Winter League this off-season. He’s batting .304 with an .884 OPS in a little over 150 plate appearances. If nothing else, it bodes well for his performance in Japan in 2012.