Washington Nationals: Tom Milone Blossoming, May Be Next John Lannan

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Washington Nationals: Tom Milone Blossoming, May Be Next John Lannan
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I know, I know. You’ve never heard of Tom Milone.

He’s just another no-name pitcher toiling somewhere within the deep recesses of the Washington Nationals’ minor league system.

You’ve seen the various top-20 prospect lists for 2010 and he’s nowhere to be found.

Yawn.

“Wake me when the season is over," you might be thinking.

OK, you’ve never heard of Tom Milone. I get that. But I’m very sure that, prior to his call up in mid 2007, you had never heard of John Lannan either.

Trust me, here. You really need to know more about this 23-year-old from USC.

I have enjoyed watching Lannan pitch the last couple of years, partly because he’s good, but also because I love it when underdogs succeed at the major league level.

An 11th-round pick in 2005 out of Siena College (17-5, 3.86), Lannan was considered to be no more than another organizational arm who might one day become a lefty specialist out of the pen.

In his first two seasons (Vermont and Low-A Savannah), that is how he pitched.

In 35 starts, Lannan was just 9-13, with a 4.89 ERA. In 2007, however, he blossomed. He cut his hits per nine innings in half. He began hitting his spots.

In the span of just a couple of months, he was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg, then Triple-A Columbus, and finally to the major leagues, where he started six games for Washington.

He finished the season with a line of 12-3, 2.31 ERA, and a slash line of 6.6/3.0/5.3 (hits/walks/strikeouts per nine innings).

Lannan’s career 20-30 record and 3.89 ERA with the Nationals is deceiving.

Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum had 26 quality starts last season and former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee had 23.

Lannan had 21.

In other words, he’s still young, still learning, and when he doesn’t spot his pitches well, he still gets clobbered.

With a bit more luck and a little more offensive support, Lannan should win a dozen or so games each year for the next decade. He’s an ideal No. 4 starter.

And yes, I understand that Lannan pitched poorly earlier this season and was demoted to Double-A Harrisburg. But since his return to Washington, he has gone 1-0 with a 3.27 ERA, allowing opponents a .279 batting average, .340 on-base percent and .395 slugging mark (compared to a .327/.393/.462 and 5.76 ERA before his demotion).

I think it’s safe to say that Lannan has found whatever he had lost earlier in the season.

Milone, like Lannan, is a lanky lefty who must pitch to spots to be successful.

He is eighth all-time in games started for Southern Cal.

In 2007, he was named Pitcher of the Year in the prestigious Cape Cod League with a record of 6-1 and a 2.92 ERA. He struck out 46 and walked just seven in 52 innings.

His next summer was spent in Wenatchee, Wash., pitching in a West Coast summer league. In 51 innings, Milone went 6-1 with a 2.61 ERA.

Against some of the best college hitters, Milone combined to go 12-2 (2.81 ERA) while striking out 101 in 103 innings. He walked just 13.

But a lack of a dominating fastball, and a so-so 16-17 career record with a 4.78 ERA at Southern Cal, relegated Milone to a 10th-round afterthought in the 2008 amateur draft.

Though major league scouts didn’t think much of his ability, Milone was confident that he would succeed.

Pitching for Vermont and Hagerstown, Milone crafted a record of 1-6 but with a solid 3.51 ERA. He allowed 10.3 hits per nine-innings but just 1.3 walks.

Nationals’ scouts saw enough to promote him to High-A Potomac for the 2009 season. And just like Lannan two seasons earlier, Milone blossomed.

After watching him pitch in a bullpen session early in the year, Potomac pitching coach Paul Menhart approached Milone about adding a cut fastball to his repertoire.

Pitching to contact is fine, he said, but disguising his 87 mph fastball would help him greatly.

Milone’s cutter looks like his fastball but dives at the last second. Against right-handers, it first dives in, then away as it crosses the plate.

His ERA was 3.89 when he began to throw his new pitch in early July.

By the end of the year it had dropped to 2.91, best on the team. His batting-average against, .275 the season before, was just .252 with Potomac.

Milone’s fastball tops out at 87 mph but usually sits in the 84-86 mph range. His curve is sharp and about 10 mph slower than his fastball, providing good separation.

His change, though, is by far his best pitch, one he can throw wherever he wants and at any point in the count.

His control is remarkable. Over his minor league career, Milone has walked just 66 while striking out 271, more than a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio.

Milone has trouble when he’s not hitting his spots. When facing a walk, he tends to throw his fastball down the middle of the plate, a bad place for a slow fastball.

But that is a peril that all contact pitchers face. If you don’t have an “out” pitch, there just aren’t many safe pitches to throw.

Overall, Milone’s minor league numbers are very similar to those of Lannan:

Record
Lannan: 21-16 (.567)
Milone: 21-16 (.567) (no, not a misprint; exactly the same)

ERA

Lannan: 3.92
Milone: 3.04

Opponent’s Batting Average

Lannan: .258
Milone: .261

Hits/Walks/Strikeouts Per Nine-Innings

Lannan: 8.7/3.5/6.3
Milone: 8.9/1.8/7.3

Lannan and Milone are very similar pitchers.

One would think that Milone might have a major league career similar to Lannan, that of a mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter who can be counted on to win 10 to 14 games a year.

Sure, Milone is not on any watch list and isn’t considered much of a prospect. But Lannan didn’t show up as a true prospect until the 2008 season, after he had already pitched in the major leagues.

Milone has a prospect grade of “C” and is lumped together with a bevy of other non-prospect types like Taylor Jordan, Nathan Karns, and Pat Lehman.

I am in no way suggesting that Milone is going to repeat the success of Lannan.

But he has similar tools, has even better control, and at 23 is mowing down older and more experienced opponents in the Eastern League.

Lannan was also 23 when he pitched for Harrisburg.

Yes, it seems unlikely that a 10th-rounder will eventually make the Nationals’ starting rotation, especially when you consider that the Nationals will have a solid rotation when all of the team’s walking-wounded return to the major league roster.

But isn’t that the same thing we all said about Lannan, the 11th-round selection from Siena College?

This year, Milone is 8-5 with a 2.95 ERA with the Double-A Senators. On Thursday, he pitched seven strong innings, allowing just six hits and no walks while striking out seven.

He’ll likely pitch for Triple-A Syracuse next year and will be just a phone call away from the major leagues.

Suddenly, the Nationals have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young pitchers and it’s about time. The 2011 season is looking better and better with each passing day.

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