The rules state that a player must accrue six full years of service time before they are eligible for free agency, and as a result we see very few players hit the open market in their mid-20's. Alex Rodriguez become a free agent as a 25-year-old in the 2000-2001 offseason, and if wasn't for his recent contract extension, Felix Hernandez would have been a free agent next winter at age 25. Clearly, those two are the exception and not the rule because of their rare talent.
Players can still become a free agents without having six years of service time though, but their team would have to non-tendered at some point. That's what happened to Lastings Milledge this offseason, and he is currently the youngest free agent (with recent and substantial MLB time) on the market at 25 years old. Born on April 5, 1985, he'll turn 26 about a week into the 2011 season.
It wasn't too long ago that Milledge was one of the game's very best prospects. Baseball America ranked him as the ninth best prospect in baseball prior to the 2006 season, a year after they dubbed him the 11th best. The Mets were never shy about aggressively promoting prospects under Omar Minaya, and Milledge made his big league debut at age 21. He was traded to the Nationals during the 2007-2008 offseason, then traded to the Pirates before the 2009 deadline. In 1,655 career plate appearances, he's a .269/.328/.394 career hitter, hardly justifying his reputation as a top prospect.
Because he is still just 25 and theoretically on the upswing of his career, Milledge could have more to offer a team than some of his fellow free agent outfielders. The best of that lot includes guys like Johnny Damon, Andruw Jones, and Scott Podsednik, all of whom are on the wrong side of 30 with their best years clearly behind them. Milledge's strikeout rate has continued to improve throughout his career, and he's maintained a batting average right around .270 since 2008. The power isn't there yet, but it's usually the last tool to come and he still has some time left to grow into it.
Milledge could be useful to a big league team right now because he has some defensive versatility, capable of playing both outfield corners as well as center in an emergency. UZR doesn't love his defense, but it takes thousands of innings at a position before the stat stabilizes and becomes reliable. He has also hit left-handed pitchers pretty well in his career, a .289/.363/.435 batting line. We know the Yankees are looking for a right-handed hitting outfielder, but the Braves, Dodgers, and Phillies could be other clubs in that mix as well.
Any team that signs Milledge will not only have him for the 2011 season, but also for the next two as an arbitration-eligible player as well. He's out of options, meaning he'd have to clear waivers to go to the minors, but that could be taken care of with a minor league contract. Milledge has just 580 total plate appearances at the Triple-A level (scattered across four seasons, no less), so perhaps a trip back to the bush leagues could do him some good. If he wants to ensure a return to the big leagues at some point, he could insist that an opt-out be included in his contract. Established big leaguers often have these clauses put in minor league contracts, and it allows them to elect free agency if they're not back in the majors by a certain date.
Milledge's age compared the rest of his free agent cohorts makes him an intriguing option. He's not far removed from top prospect status and won't require an arm and a leg to sign. If he flops, it would be an easy move to back out of given the minimal commitment. But if he starts to live up to his potential, whatever team signs him would have Milledge at a below market for the next three seasons. For some teams, it might be worth the risk as opposed to hoping an aging veteran fights off Father Time for another year.