Okay, Ed asked us to scrounge for stats and make our case for who the opening day CF spot should be: Dukes or Milledge? Time to troll our old, invaluable pals at baseball-reference and hardballtimes for insight! Numbers (but not necessarily wisdom) after the jump, with a shocking conclusion that will surprise everyone who doesn't know what fan clubs I belong to.
Let's take a look at batting and fielding, compared to the 2008 league-average NL CF (weighted average by games/innings played among CF eligible for batting titles).
In 2008, the league-average NL CF hit 269/335/429, with an OPS+ of 99. He had 16 HR, 68 RBI, 24 SB and 6 CS in 146 games.
Milledge hit 268/330/403 in 2008, with an OPS+ of 91, 14 HR, 61 RBI, 24 SB and 9CS in 138 games. That's below league average, but not too far off. If Milledge continues to improve, I think we can look for at least league-average (for a CF) offense.
If we adjust Dukes' 81-game 08 stats to suppose he'd had the same averages over 146 games, his batting line of 264/386/478 (125 OPS+) projects out to 23 HR, 79 RBI, 23 SB, 7 CS. That's just a hair shy of Carlos Beltran or Nate McLouth (except for RBI, but Beltran and McLouth likely had more baserunners in front of them...)! If he keeps improving, we can reasonably expect Dukes to be among the top-hitting CF in the NL.
What about defensively? The league-average 2008 NL CF made 3 errors (for a FP of 0.991) with 6 assists and 1 DP in 1168 innings. He had an RZR ("revised zone rating"--the percentage of outs he made on balls hit "to" him) of 0.917 and made an OOZ play every 14 innings ("out of zone" plays are outs on balls not hit "to" him).
Milledge had 5 errors (FP 0.986), 1 assist and no DPs in 1185 innings. His RZR was 0.870, and he made an OOZ every 15 innings. Defensively, Milledge is below average (the low RZR pointing to bad reads, and the low numbers of assists to weak throws). We can hope that he'll learn to take better routes to fly balls and read balls better off the bat to help that low RZR, but the arm will probably always be weak. I think the best we can hope for is league-average defense.
It's harder to say for Dukes, since he played most of 08 in RF. Between last year and 07 in Tampa, he has only 341 innings in CF, in which he made no errors (FP 1.000!) with 3 assists and 2 DPs (which would project to 10 assists and 7 DPs in 1168 innings--nice arm!). His RZR is 0.835 with an OOZ every 57 innings--Dukes isn't reading the fly balls well, either. I think it's reasonable to look for average-to-above-average defense in the long term--remember that his low RZR is all from his rookie year in TB, and it should get better with experience. The strong arm is already there.
Let's look at his RF stats, which are more recent and more numerous. In 2008, the league-average NL RF played 1165 innings and had 4 errors (0.984 FP), 8.5 assists and 1.5 DPs, with a 0.901 RZR and an OOZ every 21 innings. Dukes played 602 innings in RF, and projected out to 1165 innings, he'd have 10 errors (0.967 FP), 17.5 assists, and 2 DPs, with a 0.897 RZR and an OOZ every 18 innings. In spite of the high error rate, Dukes is already around league-average with the glove, and he guns down runners like nobody's business (look for fewer people testing him this season)! Longer term, I think Dukes will easily be an above-average defensive RF. (Compare to Austin Kearns' 2007 campaign: 9 assists, 8 DPs, 0.906 RZR, 20 innings/OOZ. Dukes drops his error rate, and he's AK 2.0 in RF--maybe better). Does that translate to being an above-average defensive CF? Not necessarily, but I think it gives us cause for hope.
The Winner/The Problem
Clearly, Elijah Dukes is the better choice: much better bat, probably better defense (his stronger arm being the major difference right now). The problem, however, is what do you do with Milledge? Put him in RF? Well, his defensive skills might be better matched to RF, but what about his bat? The 2008 league-average NL RF hit 278/348/454 in 149 games, with 19 HR, 77 RBI, 9 SB and 3 CS. Again, Lasto (268/330/403, 14 HR, 61 RBI, 24 SB and 9CS) is below average, this time by a little more (and Dukes crushes the competition again--but he's already in CF). Frankly, I was worried he'd be farther back. (However, compare AK in 07: 266/355/411, 16 HR, 74 RBI, 2 SB, 2 CS).
Dukes is obviously an above-average player with the bat in RF and CF. He's roughly league average with the glove in RF already, and long term he looks to have at least average and probably above average defense in CF. As for Lasto, he looks to be below average in CF with bat and glove, perhaps turning into a league average CF with continued improvement. He looks to be a league average RF, too--with continued improvement. Now, explain to me why he's a better RF choice than a healthy AK (other than $, and that $8M is already spent)?
The way I see it, barring surprises in Spring, the battle isn't between Lasto and Dukes for CF/LF: Dukes is the CF. The battle is between Lasto and Kearns for RF/4th OF!
Hammer/SooperDooks/Bluegrass in 2009!
(Willingham in LF? His 2008 batting line of 254/364/470, 118 OPS+ projected over 140 games gives 21 HR, 70 RBI. He had no errors in 2008, with a 0.903 RZR, 24 innings/OOZ, and 10 assists (projected to 140 games). I think he's safe from a late challenge by WMP.)
You think differently? Discuss below!