Looking back at the Nyjer Morgan Trade

The last few days down here in Virginia have seen crazy weather. It started out at 70 degrees, then dropped to the low 50s the next day, followed by another jump to 70 degrees today, and the rest of the week is forecasted for mid-40s. Of course that means not only do we enter my least favorite time of the year, the fall, but we also start fishing our fall coats out of the closet.

Every once in awhile you’ll throw on that coat that you haven’t worn for a year, grab your wallet and keys, go to place them in your coat pocket, and as you reach in the pocket you discover a $20 bill left inside from last year. The feeling is enough to make the total crap weather that is the fall seem worthwhile (and if you give me this “the leaves change colors” crap, then I’m going to have to ask you to take your readership to another web site).
That “found money” feeling is the same way I feel about the Nyjer Morgan trade. Coming in to the season I had two feelings. The first was that I wanted Lastings Milledge on every one of my fantasy teams, thanks to his stats from the previous year. Milledge hit for a .268/.330/.402 line last year, although in the final two months of the season he hit for a .318/.378/.485 line with seven homers in 198 at-bats, a pace for almost 20 homers in a season.
My other feeling was that I didn’t want Nyjer Morgan starting for the Pirates in left field. There were two reasons for this. First, I didn’t feel Morgan had the power we needed from the left field position. Second, I didn’t appreciate the value of defensive skills as much, something I’ve been focusing more on this season.
The performance by Morgan this season was like finding a $20 in your fall coat. Trading for Lastings Milledge was like taking that $20 and buying an HDTV that was on a ridiculous sale. I like what Morgan did, and his performance this year wasn’t a total surprise. He hit for a good average last year, showed speed on the bases, and that’s pretty much what we saw this year. However, Morgan won’t improve from this. He won’t go on to develop power. He’s basically a Juan Pierre clone, and the Pirates have a version of Morgan that can hit for power in Andrew McCutchen. There’s no need for two leadoff hitting center fielders on the roster.
Milledge on the other hand is all upside. As the season went on, Milledge not only showed his hitting ability, batting for a .291/.333/.395 line, but he also showed some good defensive skills, with an 11.2 UZR/150 rating in his time in Pittsburgh. The only thing Milledge lacked was power, although he hit 14 homers in 523 at-bats last year, so there’s no reason to think he can’t do that again.
There was a second part to the deal which was met with some controversy. Leading up to the deal we kept hearing about a Morgan for Milledge swap, which seemed too good to be true. When the deal was made, we found that it included a Sean Burnett for Joel Hanrahan swap. That swap makes sense, as Burnett had more value than the struggling Hanrahan at the time. Burnett had a 3.06 ERA with the Pirates in 32.1 innings pitched, while Hanrahan had a 7.71 ERA at the same time with Washington.
Since the trade Burnett stayed about the same, with a 3.20 ERA and similar ratios with Washington. Hanrahan, on the other hand, turned things completely around, with a 1.72 ERA in 31.1 innings pitched. When it comes to relievers, the ratios tell the bigger story than the ERA. Let’s look at the ratios for both pitchers.
Sean Burnett had a 6.71 K/9, a 4.37 BB/9, and a 0.94 HR/9 ratio this season. That’s similar to his 6.67 K/9, 5.40 BB/9, and 1.11 HR/9 ratio last year, although Burnett saw his ERA drop by over a run and a half. The only thing that changed between his 2008 and 2009 season were slight drops in BB/9 and HR/9, although I don’t think one fewer walk per nine inning is going to drop his ERA by 1.64 runs.
The key to Burnett’s success this year was the low amount of hits allowed. Burnett allowed a 5.6 H/9 ratio, thanks to a .201 BABIP. Last year Burnett allowed a 9.1 H/9 ratio, thanks to a .298 BABIP, which is more in line with the average pitcher. Elite pitchers have been known to post lower BABIP numbers, but I’m not sure Burnett can be considered an elite reliever.
Mariano Rivera, one of the best relievers in the game, has a career BABIP of .276. His best season was a .223 BABIP. His career BB/9 ratio is 2.11. Burnett has a career BB/9 ratio of 4.35, and his best BABIP was 2008’s .298. So either Burnett legitimately was harder to hit in a single season than Mariano Rivera has ever been in his career, while showing poor control on the walk side of things, or Burnett was a fluke.
As for Hanrahan, it was more of a tale of two pitchers. With the Nationals, Hanrahan posted a 9.64 K/9, 3.86 BB/9, and an 0.83 HR/9 in 32.2 innings pitched. With the Pirates, Hanrahan posted a 10.63 K/9, 5.74 BB/9, and no homers allowed in 31.1 innings pitched. Hanrahan had a 13.8 H/9 ratio with the Nationals, thanks to an extremely unlucky .451 BABIP. With the Pirates, Hanrahan posted a 6.6 H/9 ratio, thanks to a .309 BABIP, which is closer to the norm for a pitcher, but slightly unlucky.
Unlike Burnett, there’s reason to believe that Hanrahan wasn’t a fluke in his time with the Pirates. Hanrahan has seen success before. In 2008, Hanrahan pitched 84.1 innings, with a 3.95 ERA. His 2008 ratios, compared to both of his 2009 ratios:
2008 Was: 9.9 K/9, 4.5 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 7.8 H/9, .306 BABIP
2009 Was: 9.6 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 13.8 H/9, .451 BABIP
2009 Pit: 10.6 K/9, 5.7 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9, 6.6 H/9, .309 BABIP
Hanrahan’s ratios in 2009 with Washington were similar to 2008, but he was extremely unlucky with the BABIP. I think Hanrahan’s 2008 season was legit, and wouldn’t be surprised if he returns to that level full time next season. With a K/9 ratio of over 9.0, a K/BB ratio of 2.0 or better, and a HR/9 ratio under 1.0, Hanrahan has the stuff needed to be a successful closer, something I don’t think Burnett will ever be.
Overall this was a classic buy low/sell high deal. The Pirates traded a talented player in Morgan, although Morgan didn’t fit their needs, as Morgan is best used as a leadoff man and a center fielder, something the Pirates have covered with Andrew McCutchen. What the Pirates lacked was a five tool talent, which is what the Pirates potentially received with Milledge.
As for the reliever swap, I’m not sold on Burnett yet, for reasons listed above, and while Hanrahan doesn’t have years of success, he’s at least put up similar ratios in the past compared to what we saw in the second half with Pittsburgh, something that can’t be said for Burnett. Also, with the way Matt Capps was struggling, the Pirates added a quality reliever with closer experience, and the ratios desired from a closer. I don’t think they get Hanrahan if he hadn’t gone through his unlucky stretch in Washington in 2009, with his .451 BABIP.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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