By MIKE FITZPATRICK, AP Baseball Writer
November 30, 2007
NEW YORK (AP) -- Looking to shuffle their roster after an embarrassing collapse this season, the New York Mets found a new catcher and right fielder Friday.
The price: prized outfield prospect Lastings Milledge.
After holding onto Milledge through years of trade speculation, the Mets finally dealt him to the Washington Nationals for catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church.
"I thought we needed to change it up a little," New York general manager Omar Minaya said. "Names like Schneider and Church are not known names, but they give us balance."
In Schneider, the Mets add yet another catcher following their trade for Johnny Estrada last week. Coming off two operations and deficient on defense, Estrada is probably on his way out without ever suiting up for New York.
In Milledge, the Nationals pick up a talented young player they hope can avoid the sort of missteps that marked his Mets career and be a key component of their rebuilding project.
"We're getting a guy who has a chance to be an impact bat in our lineup for years to come," Washington manager Manny Acta said.
Considered one of baseball's best defensive catchers, the 31-year-old Schneider was given a lot of credit this season for holding together a ragtag Nationals rotation. But he struggled at the plate, batting .235 with six homers and 54 RBIs.
"One of my favorite parts of my game is working with a pitching staff," Schneider said.
The 29-year-old Church hit .272 with 15 homers and 70 RBIs, while tying for the team lead with 43 doubles.
"I just love the fact to have a chance to year in and year out go to the playoffs and try to win a championship," he said. "I've never been in that situation before."
New York advanced to Game 7 of the 2006 NL championship series before squandered a big NL East lead this September and missing the playoffs entirely.
For now, the Mets expect Church to be their everyday right fielder next season.
"We have been working on this trade for a while," Minaya said. "I think there's still upside with Church."
Milledge has long been linked to trade speculation as the Mets pursued a top starting pitcher. They're still looking for arms this offseason, but Minaya said teams told him giving up Milledge wouldn't prevent New York from completing other possible deals because the club has enough additional players who are attractive.
"There might have been a higher value up ahead," Minaya said. "I do believe when it's all said and we're getting two good players for him, two players at key positions for us."
Minaya is familiar with both players he gets in the deal from his time as GM of the Montreal Expos, the franchise that moved to Washington before the 2005 season.
Milledge and Acta know each other from Acta's stint as the Mets' third-base coach.
"I can assure you Lastings is a good kid," Acta said. "He came up very young in a tough spot, in New York, and he wasn't prepared to handle that. You can't believe everything you read and you hear. I believe the kid is going to be just fine with us."
Milledge hit .272 with seven homers and 29 RBIs in 184 at-bats with the Mets in 2007. Now, he gets a chance to play every day.
"That's the most important thing to me at this point in my career," Milledge said. "It's a real big relief for me and my family and everybody, because I really didn't get enough time to show what I can do."
Still just 22, Milledge was the Mets' top prospect when he made his major league debut in May 2006. Right away, he showed why he was so highly rated on the field -- but also drew the ire of his team and teammates.
One of the most publicized episodes came in the town that will be his new home. In September 2006, a sign was posted in Milledge's locker in the visiting clubhouse at RFK Stadium that read: "Know your place, Rook. Your teammates."
Milledge earlier had been reprimanded for not running hard on the bases and had arrived late to the clubhouse for a game. He also rankled Mets management by making a rap CD that used offensive language.
"As far as the controversy goes, sometimes you feel like you get a raw end of the deal," Milledge said. "But whether it was or wasn't, it made me a better person, it made me a better ballplayer. It helped me at a young age to play at a big market and have everybody against you at one time."
The Mets acquired Estrada from Milwaukee for reliever Guillermo Mota. They also re-signed Ramon Castro to be their backup catcher again, though he could see more playing time next year.
New York could try to unload Estrada at the winter meetings next week. If it doesn't, the club might decline to offer him a 2008 contract by the Dec. 12 deadline. That would make Estrada a free agent and the Mets wouldn't owe him anything.
Paul Lo Duca was New York's starting catcher the past two seasons but the Mets showed little interest in re-signing him. Yorvit Torrealba appeared set to become the team's No. 1 catcher when he and the Mets reached a preliminary agreement this month on a $14.4 million, three-year contract that was subject to a physical. But that deal fell through and Torrealba re-signed with Colorado.
AP Sports Writers Joseph White and Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.