August 26, 2009

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #38 Eric Milton


166 165 987 57 51 4.76 101 16.5 55

Selected by the Yankees with the 20th overall pick in the 1996 draft via the University of Maryland, Eric Milton was named New York's minor league pitcher of the year after going 14-6 with a 3.10 ERA in 171 innings between Single-A and Double-A in 1997. That turned out to be his only season in the Yankees organization, as Milton was shipped to the Twins along with fellow prospects Cristian Guzman, Brian Buchanan, and Danny Mota for Chuck Knoblauch in February of 1998.

He likely would've spent at least another season or two in the minors had he stayed with the Yankees, but following the deal Milton was immediately thrust into the Twins' rotation despite a grand total of just 14 starts above Single-A. His major-league debut came on April 5, 1998 against the Royals, and Milton tossed six innings of shutout ball to pick up the win. He 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 with such little experience, 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 disappointingly finished the season at 8-14 with a 5.64 ERA over 32 starts for a Twins team that went 70-92. Despite a sub par rookie campaign, 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 in 1999 was underwhelming, it was more a reflection of the Twins' terrible 63-97 record and league-worst offense than Milton's performance. In fact, that season was arguably the best of Milton's career, as he tossed 206 innings with a 4.49 ERA in a high-scoring environment, struck out 163 batters, allowed opponents to bat just .243, and threw the fifth no-hitter in team history against the Angels in September.

Milton was brilliant that afternoon, striking out 13 batters, but game isn't exactly etched in the memory of many Twins fans. Not only did the no-hitter come against an awful Angels lineup that consisted almost entirely of September call-ups and bench players, the game wasn't on television in the Twin Cities and the first pitch was pushed up thanks to 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 next 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 just under a month of action and returned to the mound on September 2 as the Twins started him off slowly and gradually increased his workload with an eye towards getting 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 knee swelling 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 threw 3.1 scoreless innings as a reliever in Game 4 of the ALDS loss to the Yankees.

That was his final game with the Twins. With one season and $9 million left on the four-year contract that 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 my take was that just getting Milton's salary off the books had "a lot of value" considering his uncertain health status and suggested that the players general manager Terry Ryan got in return were "just an added bonus."

Milton led the NL in homers allowed and had a 4.75 ERA in 201 innings for the Phillies in 2004, which certainly wouldn't have been worth $9 million to a small-payroll team. Meanwhile, Silva stepped right into the rotation and out-pitched Milton by going 14-8 with a 4.21 ERA in 203 innings while making just $340,000. He left Philadelphia as a free agent after the season and signed a three-year, $25.5 million deal with Cincinnati, where he went 16-27 with a 5.83 ERA in 66 starts before blowing out his elbow.

He was off to a fairly successful comeback with the Dodgers this season before back surgery brought that to a screeching halt after just five starts, and Milton might be done at the age of 33. In researching this and other installments of my Top 40 Minnesota Twins series, there were some striking similarities between Milton and the pitcher one spot below him, Scott Erickson. 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 16.5 55
Erickson 153 979.1 61 60 103 14.8 56

Eerily close and the similarities run deeper. Both were in the rotation at 22 and the ways in which their careers with the Twins played out tells the story of the team during each time period. Erickson peaked early, winning 20 games for a championship team in his second season, and went downhill from there as the Twins fell into a funk for the rest of the decade. Milton struggled early as the team continued its post-1992 tailspin and began to thrive as the Twins finally became contenders again in 2001.

Even the differing returns that the Twins received for trading them paved the way for the franchise's fate. Erickson was sent 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 was filled with prospects who blossomed together over the next five years.

The end result was basically the same 1,000 innings of slightly above-average pitching over six years in Minnesota, but the paths to get there were 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. Two players whose Twins careers were very much typical of the entire franchise. It's probably fitting that they're back-to-back on this list.


Starts 165 10th
Quality Starts 84 10th
Innings 987.1 11th
Strikeouts 715 11th
Wins 57 12th
Shutouts 4 18th

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