October 28, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #38 Eric Milton

Eric Robert Milton | SP | 1998-2003 | Career Stats

Selected out of the University of Maryland by the Yankees with the 20th pick in the 1996 draft, Eric Milton won New York's minor league pitcher of the year in 1997 by going 14-6 with a 3.10 ERA in 171 innings between Single-A and Double-A. That turned out to be his only year 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 year or two in the minors had he remained Yankees property, but following the deal Milton was immediately thrust into the Twins' rotation despite a grand total of 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. 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 little experience, he fell apart down the stretch. Milton was 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 in 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' awful 63-97 record and league-worst offense than Milton's performance. In fact, that was arguably the best season 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 the game isn't exactly etched in the memory of many Twins fans. Not only did the no-hitter come versus an awful Angels lineup that consisted almost entirely of September call-ups and bench players, the game wasn't even on television in the Twin Cities and the first pitch was moved 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 as the Twins came out of nowhere to lead the division by five games at the break. They ended up six games behind the Indians as guys like Milton faded badly in the second half, but even with the fade he was 15-7 with a 4.32 ERA in 221 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 headed 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 a winter filled with stories of his surgically repaired knee swelling and Milton "toughing it out" the Twins finally announced in March that he'd need a second surgery. Initial reports had him missing 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 year and $9 million left on the four-year deal signed in 2001, the Twins sent 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 simply 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 wouldn't have been worth $9 million to a small-payroll team. 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 was 16-27 with a 5.83 ERA before blowing out his elbow.

Back surgery wrecked Milton's comeback with the Dodgers in 2009, likely ending his career at age 33. In researching this and other installments of my Top 40 Minnesota Twins series, there were some striking similarities between Milton and the starting 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+     WAR
Milton         165     987.1     57     51     101     13.2
Erickson       153     979.1     61     60     104     11.9

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

Even the differing returns the Twins received in 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 bringing 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 their paths were very different. One was a right-handed ground-baller who peaked early and struggled with an arm injury while the other was a left-handed fly-baller who developed gradually and struggled with a knee injury. Two players whose Twins careers were typical of the entire franchise. It's probably fitting that they're back-to-back on this list.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
Starts                165    10th
Quality Starts         83    10th
Innings               987    11th
Strikeouts            715    11th
Wins                   57    12th
Batters Faced        4196    12th
K/BB Ratio           2.66    14th
Opponents' OBP       .309    16th
Walk Rate            2.45    17th
Shutouts                4    18th
WHIP                 1.29    22nd
Strikeout Rate       6.52    23rd
Winning Percentage   .528    23rd