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Past Trade Review: Burnett, Morgan Come to Town

A short time ago we set out here at DoD to evaluate each trade that has been completed by the Nationals organization since the team came into existence for the 2005 season. We’ve taken a look at the one deal completed by former GM Jim Bowden and the first deal completed by current GM Mike Rizzo. Let’s continue with the series and take a look at the next deal to appear on Rizzo’s resume.

The Partner

The Pittsburgh Pirates had been playing above .500 baseball for much of June during the 2009 season. The team was 4-3 on their latest homestand, with interleague wins over the Indians and Royals before dropping the opener of a three game series against the Cubs – at which point they stood in last place in the NL Central with a 35-41 record.

Left-handed pitcher Sean Burnett had been one of the Pirates’ better relievers up to that point in the season. In 38 appearances he had a 1-2 record with a 3.06 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and a 23:4 K/BB ratio in 32.1 innings. He had been coming off of what was a breakout 2008 season in which he first saw success as a reliever. Over 56.2 innings in 58 appearances he was 1-1 with a 4.76 ERA and 1.60 WHIP. The improvements, however, had really shown during that season’s second half with regards to his strikeout, hit, and walk rates. Burnett had been out of the Majors for four years due to shoulder and elbow injuries but had principally been a starter prior to the string of injuries (for more specifics on the earlier part of Burnett’s career I’ll refer you to our post on Burnett’s upcoming contract option from last month). By mid-2009 the conversion to reliever had been deemed a success.

Nyjer Morgan, meanwhile, was emerging as one of Pittsburgh’s regular outfielders. A center fielder by trade, Morgan was primarily playing left field for the Pirates during the 2009 season because the team already had Nate McClouth entrenched in the position and Andrew McCutchen waiting in the wings (until he made his MLB debut earlier that month, once McClouth was dealt to Atlanta). At the time the deal came together Morgan was batting .277/.351/.356 in 321 plate appearances.

Morgan had originally been a 2002 Draft selection (33rd round) by the Pirates. He had progressed slowly through the Pirates’ minor league system before finally making his debut during the 2007 campaign at age 26. He has never been a power threat (his career high in HR is 4, set back in 2004 in A-ball and tied this past season in Milwaukee) but his speed has continued to be an asset, both on the bases and defensively.

Despite the value that both Burnett and Morgan were providing as the Pirates wrapped up what had been a strong June, there was a growing sentiment within the organization that the team needed to bolster the backend of the bullpen. Burnett was being viewed as a LOOGY, a middle relief option at best. Morgan had limited abilities and based on his age, would soon be entering his decline. The Pirates and Nationals would ultimately agree on a trade.

The Nationals would receive Burnett and Morgan.

The Pirates would receive right-handed pitcher Joel Hanrahan and outfielder Lastings Milledge.

The Price

Hanrahan had initially been drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2000 (2nd round). A starter for most of his minor league career, his progression through the Dodgers’ minor league system was slow but steady, with him reaching Triple-A for the first time during the 2003 season. However, things seemed to stall for him at that point in time. He’d spend the better part of the next three seasons at the level before becoming a minor league free agent following the 2006 season.

Less than a month later, Hanrahan signed a minor league contract with the Nationals. He would make 15 starts for the Nationals’ Triple-A, going 5-4 with a 3.70 ERA and 1.34 WHIP over 75.1 innings. It was enough to earn a callup to Washington where he made his debut late in July. He’d make 11 starts over the remainder of the season, going 5-3 with a 6.00 ERA in 51.0 innings. Command was a concern and resulted in 6.7 BB/9, 10.4 H/9, and 1.6 HR/9.

The next season Hanrahan was moved to the bullpen where he’s remained since. Over the next season and a half before the trade he appeared in 103 games, posting a 7-6 record with a 5.31 ERA over 110.0 innings of work. Once he arrived in Pittsburgh, however, things quickly turned around. Over the remainder of the 2009 season Hanrahan managed to post a 1.72 ERA over 31.1 innings of work. The next season saw further improvements as he continued to earn more trust from the Pirates organization’s lead decision makers.

By 2011 he was fully entrenched as the team’s closer and he posted career numbers. He made 70 appearances (for the second consecutive season), pitching a total of 68.1 innings last season. While he went just 1-4 he did boast a 1.83 ERA and 1.04 WHIP (both career bests). He also walked a career low 2.1 batters per 9 innings and was selected for his first career All Star Game.

Milledge, who had already been traded once in his career, has seen a much different path to his career since the Nationals sent him to Pittsburgh in this deal.  Despite having once been considered one of the best outfield prospects in the Majors, Milledge had never been able to put things together at the Major League level before coming to the Nationals. During his time with the New York Mets he was often criticized as having a poor attitude and a lethargic work ethic. Over parts of the 2006 and 2007 seasons Milledge made 391 plate appearances for the Mets, batting .257/.326/.414 with 11 HR, 51 RBI, and 4 SB. The Mets were growing tired of the questions about his makeup and decided to give up on Milledge that winter, trading him to the Nationals for outfielder Ryan Church and catcher Brian Schneider.

However, in 2008 the Nationals were able to see what scouts had expected from Milledge the years prior. In 587 plate appearances that season he batted .268/.330/.403 with 14 HR, 61 RBI, and 24 SB – all career highs. It was the first time he received regular playing time in the Majors and he responded with solid production. The “bust” tag that had started to be attached to the once top prospect was beginning to fade.

The 2009 season got off to a rocky start for Milledge. He struggled at the plate and showed up late for a number of practices early in the season, resulting in a demotion to Triple-A. Shortly thereafter he broke a finger which kept him out of the lineup for much of the coming months. Despite the injury Pittsburgh was willing to take a chance on the promising outfielder and agreed to take him back in this trade. Once his injury healed he joined the team and batted .291/.333/.395 in 291 plate appearances before the season would end. He’d post similar numbers – .277/.332/.380 – in 412 plate appearances the following season.

After the 2010 season the Pirates decided to non-tender Milledge and allowed him to leave via free agency. He signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox, spending nearly the entire 2011 season in Triple-A. He is currently a free agent who has reportedly been contacted by a handful of teams in Japan thus far.

The Prize

Since arriving in Washington Burnett has flourished in the bullpen and has become one of the Nationals’ more relied upon relievers. He’s become the team’s primary left-handed option and has shared most of the setup duties over the past two seasons with Tyler Clippard. He’s made a total of 175 appearances since the trade, posting a 7-13 record, 2.98 ERA, and 1.20 WHIP over 145.0 innings of work over that time.

Morgan, meanwhile, gave the Nationals a season and a half of solid defense and respectable offense. In 789 plate appearances during that time he batted .280/.339/.347 and stole 58 bases. However, he also had a number of on-issues that could not be ignored, most notably a bench clearing brawl that he instigated in Florida during the 2010 season.

The following Spring, just days before the season was set to begin, the Nationals traded Morgan to Milwaukee in a deal that we’ll discuss in more detail at a later time.

The Final Verdict

Two and a half seasons after the deal was completed it is still hard to conclude whether one side truly won this deal. Both Burnett and Hanrahan have proven to be valuable assets for their respective teams, solidifying the backend of the bullpen once each arrived with their new organization. Burnett is signed through the 2012 season and has a mutual option built into his contract for 2013. Hanrahan has two years of team control remaining through arbitration but has been rumored to be available should another team make an offer that blows Pittsburgh away. The pair come close to balancing eachother out.

So, this one comes down to the outfielders involved in the deal and this is where the difference in results becomes more prominent. While neither player is still with the team that acquired them, it seems like a relatively easy call to conclude that Morgan provided more value in Washington than Milledge did in Pittsburgh.  That, in the end, sways this deal in Washington’s favor.

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Tags: Joel Hanrahan Lastings Milledge Nyjer Morgan Sean Burnett Washington Nationals

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