Milledge puts it all on the line

At just 25, the career of former phenom Lastings Milledge is at a crossroads. Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty Images

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Lastings Milledge Project began in earnest Tuesday as former top prospect bats leadoff for the White Sox.

Milledge, invited to spring training on a minor-league deal, will have nothing handed to him this spring. The White Sox told him as much, and he appreciated it.

“They were the first team interested, and not only the first team interested, but also they were honest with me,” Milledge said. “They told me it wasn’t going to be a big-league deal, that I had to come here and prove myself, which is fine. But I knew I had to do that anyway. So just the honesty and the ability on this team was really a no-brainer for me.”

(UPDATE: Milledge singled and was hit in the left arm by a pitch in three trips to the plate. His arm was being iced after the game, but he said he was fine. Milledge hit two of his four home runs last season against the Brewers.)

The former 12th overall selection in the 2003 draft by the New York Mets, Milledge was supposed to be a sensation by now. After just three years in the minor leagues, he reached New York in 2006.

But expectations proved hard to deal with for the Florida native. He batted .241 in 56 games in 2006 and .272 in 59 games the following season. His participation in the recording of an edgy rap song didn’t endear him to the Mets and neither did an on-field outburst toward umpire Jim Joyce that earned him a suspension.

He was traded to the Washington Nationals that offseason and then moved to the Pirates in 2009, never really fulfilling the lofty standards he was expected to reach. The White Sox, who have been known for taking chances on reclamation projects, are the latest to take a look at the former phenom.

“A lot of people put expectations that I’m this or that,” Milledge said. “It made it a little difficult when you all look back that this guy should hit 30 homers. But I just haven’t put everything on paper yet, to be honest. At the same time, I’ve been average. Good enough to be on a team but not good enough to start every day.

“People look at what I’ve done. I’ve had success at times. I haven’t had success at times. Like I say, the expectations already were stamped on me before I got to the big leagues, which makes it that much harder to succeed at this level. But all in all, I’ve been an asset to every team I’ve played on. I’ve worked hard and played the game the right way, so I can’t ask for anything else.’’

His chance to impress began Tuesday, with not only a roster spot, but possibly his career hanging in the balance. At just 25, Milledge is already at a major crossroads.

“I’ve definitely been through a lot,” he said. “The things I’ve been through were rough at the time, but I look at it and it was a blessing to learn a lot of different things. Right now, I’m not a veteran guy, but I’ve been through a lot and have my back against the wall and fought myself off it.

“That’s the biggest thing, being a younger guy and being able to bounce back off adversity and being a No. 1 prospect and not being on a roster. How do you handle that? How do you bounce back? I don’t have all the answers, but I have a pretty good plan on how you approach things.”