Active Pirates Land Lastings Milledge In Four-Player Deal With Nationals

The last-place Nationals feature one of National League’s worst defensive units, so even with their crowded outfield picture they sought out 29-year-old center fielder Nyjer Morgan to provide a boost. In return, the Pirates are betting on 24-year-old outfielder Lasting Milledge’s potential upside, making him the key to the deal for Pittsburgh. The two clubs also swapped relief pitchers Joel Hanrahan, a righthander, and lefty Sean Burnett.
The Young
Milledge fell out of favor with Nationals management early this season. He’s been late to team meetings and has had makeup issues dating back to 2003 when the Mets made him their first-round pick. After struggling in center field and at the plate to start the season, the Nationals optioned Milledge to Triple-A after just seven games. He responded poorly and had a .594 OPS in 22 Internationla League games for Syracuse before breaking his right index finger, an injury that required surgery. He recently began rehabbing in the GCL last weekend and will continue to do so before joining the Pirates’ Triple-A Indianapolis club.

Milledge struggled defensively in center field for the Nationals in 2008 and early 2009, and now the presence of Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh likely will push him to a corner. (Incidentally, McCutchen was compared to Milledge in 2005 as a fellow talented Floridian amateur.) Milledge ought to perform better defensively at a corner, but his power production may be a bit shorter than ideal for the position right now.

Morgan has proven to be an outstanding defender in left field this year, his first full season, and he should be able to cover the center field gaps in Washington with his excellent speed, while also fitting in atop the Nationals’ lineup. He’s a slap hitter who gets on base at an above-average clip, but he lacks power. If Morgan doesn’t get on base and steal bases, his value is limited to that of defensive replacement and pinch-runner.

Both products of the 2000 draft, Burnett, 26, and Hanrahan, 27, are former starters who converted to relief roles in 2008. The Pirates selected Burnett in the first round, while the Dodgers took Hanrahan in the second. Hanrahan has a blazing fastball (averaging 94 mph this year) that has earned him a number of chances over the past few years, but his poor control continues to plague him. He failed to hold down the closer role for the worst team in baseball this year and had a 7.49 ERA in 34 innings. Conversely, last year he pitched 84 innings and had a respectable 3.95 ERA.

Hanrahan has not pitched as poorly as his 2009 ERA would suggest. He’s trimmed his walks per nine innings rate from 4.48 in 2008 to 3.74 in 2009, while maintaining similar strikeout rates (9.92 in 2008 vs. 9.62 in 2009). Moving from one of the worst defensive teams in baseball to one of this year’s best should bode well for his immediate future.

Burnett, who missed the entire 2005 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, has performed better than Hanrahan this year, albeit without the same overpowering stuff. His average fastball clocks in around 90 mph, but it’s his breaking ball that keeps him employed. For his career, he has limited lefthanded batters to a meager .649 OPS. In 34 innings with the Pirates this season, Burnett has a shiny 3.21 ERA, but he also had averaged 4.01 walks per nine innings, countered by a modest 6.15 strikeout rate.

The Pirates got more upside in both pieces of the deal, while Washington went for more certainty. The Nationals continue to clear out some of the pieces accumulated by ex-general manager Jim Bowden, and this trade fits that bill. Milledge’s makeup concerns and a crowded outfield situation prompted Washington to deal. Morgan will help cover for left fielder Adam Dunn’s lead-footed defense in the Nats’ outfield, but he’ll have to maintain his current on-base level (.351) for this trade to work for them. (He averaged .370 in 513 minor league games.)

Pirates GM Neal Huntington sold high on Morgan to gamble on the toolsy-but-oft-injured Milledge, who already is moving to his third organization in seven pro seasons. His future offensive output will be the biggest determining factor in whether or not the trade works for Pittsburgh, though a bit more luck also could help Hanrahan re-emerge as a solid power arm in the bullpen. His batting average on balls in play had registered at an abnormaly-high .449 with the Nationals.

Central 2009