January 31, 2006
Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #38 Eric Milton
ERIC ROBERT MILTON | SP | 1998-2003 | CAREER STATS
G GS IP W L ERA ERA+ WARP WS
166 165 987.1 57 51 4.76 101 24.0 55
While he likely would have spent at least another season or two in the minors had he stayed with the Yankees, following the trade Milton was immediately thrust into the majors as a member of the Twins' starting rotation despite a grand total of just 14 starts above Single-A. His big-league debut came on April 5, 1998 against the Royals, and Milton tossed six innings of shutout ball to pick up the win.
Milton continued to pitch fairly well during the first four months of the year, going 6-7 with a 4.64 ERA through July. Then, as you might expect from a 22-year-old rookie, he fell apart down the stretch. Milton went a combined 2-7 with an 8.10 ERA in 11 starts between August and September, and finished the season a disappointing 8-14 with a 5.64 ERA in 32 starts for a Twins team that went 70-92.
Despite a sub par rookie year, Milton had clearly shown flashes of potential and it was no surprise when he put things together in his sophomore season. While his 7-11 record was underwhelming, it was more reflective of the Twins' 63-97 record and league-worst offense than Milton's performance. In fact, Milton's 1999 season was arguably the best of his career, as he tossed 206.1 innings with a 4.49 ERA in a high-scoring environment, struck out 163 batters, and allowed opponents to hit just .243.
The highlight of Milton's second season was undoubtedly his no-hitter against the Angels. Milton was brilliant that afternoon, striking out 13 batters on his way to the fifth no-hitter in team history, but the game isn't exactly etched in memory of many Twins fans. Not only did the no-hitter come against an Angels lineup that was almost entirely made up of September callups, the game wasn't on television in the Twin Cities and the first pitch was pushed up because of a Gophers football game later that day. At most, 11,222 people saw Milton's gem.
After going 13-10 with a 4.86 ERA during his third year, Milton began the 2001 season 8-3 with a 3.73 ERA in the first half and was selected to his first All-Star team. The Twins came out of nowhere to lead the division by five games at the All-Star break, but ended up six games behind the Indians as guys like Milton faded badly in the second half. Even with the fade, Milton finished the year 15-7 with a 4.32 ERA in 220.2 innings and the Twins finished above .500 for the first time since 1992.
Milton was in the middle of what had become a fairly typical season for him in 2002, going 13-7 with a 4.60 ERA in his first 24 starts. Then, after a 131-pitch complete-game shutout against the White Sox on August 1, he reportedly heard his left knee "pop" while warming up for his August 6 start against the Orioles. He was scratched from the start, immediately went to the hospital, and underwent surgery to repair a tear in his lateral meniscus a couple days later.
He ended up missing less than a month of action, returning to the mound on September 2 as the Twins started him off slow and gradually increased his workload with an eye towards having him on track for the postseason. Milton struggled, going 0-2 with a 6.64 ERA in five September starts, but went 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in two playoff starts as the Twins made it all the way to the ALCS. Sadly, Milton was far from done with the injury.
After an offseason filled with stories about his surgically repaired left knee swelling up and Milton "toughing it out," the Twins finally announced in March that he would need a second surgery. It was initially reported that he would miss around two months, but instead Milton missed nearly six months and didn't make it back until the final two weeks of the season. He made just three regular-season starts and then pitched 3.1 scoreless innings as a reliever in Game 4 of the ALDS loss to the Yankees.
That was Milton's final game with the Twins. With one season and $9 million remaining on the four-year contract he signed in March of 2001, the Twins shipped Milton to the Phillies for Carlos Silva, Nick Punto, and Bobby Korecky on December 3, 2003. At the time of the deal I wrote that not having Milton's salary on the books had "a lot of value" considering his uncertain health status, and opined that the players Terry Ryan got in return were "just an added bonus."
Milton ended up posting a 4.75 ERA in 201 innings for the Phillies in 2004, but that certainly wouldn't have been worth $9 million to a small-market team. Meanwhile, Silva stepped right into the rotation for Milton, out-pitched him by going 14-8 with a 4.21 ERA in 203 innings, and made $340,000 while doing so. Silva has become a dependable middle-of-the-rotation starter who is every bit as good as Milton ever was in Minnesota.
In doing the research for this and other installments of my Top 40 Minnesota Twins countdown, I noticed some striking similarities between Milton and Scott Erickson, who I profiled last week as the 39th-best Twins player of all time. The most obvious comparison is between their actual numbers with the Twins, which were nearly identical:
GS IP W L ERA+ WARP WS
Milton 165 987.1 57 51 101 24.0 55
Erickson 153 979.1 61 60 104 26.8 56
Even the differing returns the Twins received for trading each pitcher paved the way for the franchise's fate. Erickson was shipped to Baltimore for prospects who failed to pan out in a period defined by the team's inability to develop young talent. At the other end of the spectrum, Milton went to Philadelphia in a deal that brought back a young pitcher who immediately became a key contributor on a team that has been filled with prospects who blossomed together over the past five years.
The end result is the same for both pitchers -- just short of 1,000 innings of slightly above-average pitching over six seasons in Minnesota -- but the way they got there was very different. One was a right-handed ground-ball pitcher who peaked early and struggled with an arm injury, while the other was a left-handed fly-ball pitcher who developed gradually and struggled with a knee injury. At the same time, their Twins careers were striking in that they were each typical of the franchise at the time. It's probably fitting that they are back-to-back in these rankings.
TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS:
Starts 165 9th
Innings 987.1 10th
Strikeouts 715 11th
Wins 57 11th
... led the NL in homers allowed in both 2004 (43) and 2005 (40).
... has a 1.65 ERA in 16.1 career postseason innings.
... hit .300 in 20 career at-bats with the Twins, but then batted just .154 and .143 in two NL seasons.
... threw a no-hitter in the Cape Cod League while in college.
... was three outs away from a second no-hitter while with the Phillies on July 25, 2004, but Michael Barrett broke it up with a leadoff double in the ninth inning.
... signed a three-year $25.5 million free-agent contract with the Reds last offseason, and then went 8-15 with a 6.47 ERA in 2005.