Let’s Remember Some Dodgers: Eric Milton, Norihiro Nakamura & Joe Thurston

I’ve searched through hundreds of names while writing this series, with plenty of forgotten names triggering random memories. This time I am throwing in another that I had no recollection of despite his quick tenure coming only a little more than a decade ago. Then I’ll throw in another entry to the ever-growing list of random members of the 2005 Terrible Dodgers. And lastly, another unfortunate tenure by a former top prospect in the organization.

Eric Milton

The Dodgers used 12 starters in 2009 as they won 95 games, finished atop the NL West and reached the NLCS as the team’s outfield all produced impressive seasons while Clayton Kershaw continued his ascent to the top of the league.

Milton was one of those starters, taking the mound five times between May and June. I didn’t recognize his name when he popped up (so I included him to see if anyone else did), but the Dodgers had signed him to a minor-league deal for $650,000 in February of that year.

Having ended his 2007 with Tommy John surgery, Milton went unsigned for half of 2008 and never appeared in a game for the New York Yankees organization after signing in July. A 3.6 and 2.9 WAR pitcher very early in his career, including a no-hitter for the Minnesota Twins as a 23-year-old in 1999, Milton hung around the majors with a few teams before popping up in Los Angeles.

With Hiroki Kuroda out since his Opening Day start, Jason Schmidt still trying to work his way back to the majors and James McDonald optioned back to Triple-A Albuquerque, the Dodgers placed Milton in the rotation behind Kershaw, Randy Wolf and Chad Billingsley.

In his first four starts, Milton allowed six earned runs across 18 2/3 innings while winning a pair of games. Back tightness after the fourth start sent the 33-year-old lefty to the DL. He returned on June 27 to strike out seven Mariners in five innings while allowing four runs, but that would be Milton’s final game. Surgery on a herniated disc spoiled Milton’s bounce back season. While it was an incredibly small sample size, Milton’s FIP of 3.52 was his best in half a decade.

The mess of injuries in the rotation led to Vicente Padilla and Jon Garland’s arrivals in August, the former starting three playoff games less than two months after joining the organization.

Norihiro Nakamura

The Dodgers added Nakamura in February 2005 as they tried to piece together a replacement for Adrian Beltre. As I previously mentioned, that group included seven players with Mike Edwards receiving a significant run at the position.

Nakamura’s major league debut came at 31 years old after a dominant run in Japan, where he hit nearly 300 home runs with an OPS above .840 for seven of 10 years for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. Having spent part of the 2004 spring with the Dodgers in an exchange program, Nakamura signed for $500,000 and debuted about a week into the 2005 season. After singling in his first career plate appearance, a pinch hit against the Diamondbacks, Nakamura started three games over the next two weeks.

The Dodgers gave Nakamura 41 PAs across 17 games before giving up on the experiment and sending a rather accomplished hitter to Triple-A Las Vegas for the rest of the season. Nakamura slashed .249/.331/.487/.818 with 22 homers and an 11% walk rate there, but the Dodgers rolled with their assortment of third basemen slashing .260/.344/.378/.722 led by three guys who combined for 39 PAs for the Dodgers after 2005.

He did not homer in his quick stint with the Dodgers, meaning we were never blessed with this:

Nakamura returned to Japan for another nine years after the Dodgers released him in November, with another pair of 20 home run seasons and years with at least an .800 OPS twice in his mid-30s.

Joe Thurston

From 2001 to 2003, Thurston landed on the Dodgers’ top-10 prospect list by Baseball America. A fourth-round pick in 1999, Thurston progressed through the Dodgers’ system rather quickly while producing solid if unspectacular numbers.

Thurston’s first full professional season in 2000 for High-A San Bernardino ended with a line of .303/.380/.410/.790. That placed him ninth in the organization’s prospect rankings ahead of 2001, when he hit .267/.338/.377/.715 for Double-A Jacksonville. Ranked fifth going into 2002, Thurston’s numbers jumped as he arrived in hitter-friendly Triple-A Las Vegas to .334/.372/.506/.878. The Dodgers called up Thurston near the end of 2002, and the 22-year-old went 6-for-13 in eight games. However, much of that actually came in the season finale against the Padres in which Thurston went 4-for-5 with four singles.

With Thurston named the Dodgers’ Minor League Player of the Year and Baseball America’s AAA Player of the Year for 2002, expectations began to rise. The Dodgers traded away starting second baseman Mark Grudzielanek in December 2002, opening the door for Thurston to take over.

But a rough Spring Training put Thurston’s supposed hold on the position in danger. Having assumed the 23-year-old would be the starter on Opening Day, I vividly remember a Los Angeles Times column by Bill Plashcke at the end of the spring in 2003 calling attention to the position the Dodgers had put themselves in.

Alex Cora ended up as the Dodgers’ everyday second baseman in 2003, with Thurston not returning to Los Angeles until September while also coming up in trade talks for Florida Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell as the Dodgers sought to replace Beltre. Thurston’s numbers in Vegas fell off a bit compared to 2002, slashing .290/.345/.401/.746 in Triple-A. His quick stint in the majors ended with just two singles and a walk in 11 PAs.

A regime change ahead of 2004, with Paul DePodesta taking over as general manager in February, did no favors to Thurston’s resurgence in the organization. Spending most of May with the Dodgers, Thurston played sparingly (three hits in 10 PAs) as Cora remained the primary second baseman.

Another average season by Thurston in Vegas, hitting .284/.356/.394/.750 in 2004, mostly dropped him out of the team’s plans as he went hitless in eight September PAs. Another run through Vegas in 2005, after the Dodgers signed Jeff Kent to play second base, resulted in a .288/.326/.412/.739 line before the Dodgers sent Thurston to the New York Yankees in July. There’s no clear info I could fine on what, if anything, the Dodgers received for Thurston, who left the Yankees organization in the offseason following a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Thurston bounced through multiple organizations (Boston, St. Louis, Atlanta, Florida, Minnesota and Philadelphia again) during the next seven years. In 2009, the Cardinals gave Thurston 307 PAs in 124 games which ended up as his only significant run in the majors. 

About Cody Bashore

Cody Bashore
Cody Bashore is a lifelong Dodger fan originally from Carpinteria, California (about 80 miles north of Dodger Stadium along the coast). He left California to attend Northern Arizona University in 2011, and has lived in Arizona full-time since he graduated in 2014 with a journalism degree. He now works for the university’s athletics department after spending seven years with the local newspaper.