July 2, 2009
One of the more arrogant positions I hold is the idea that just because you have or had the talent to be a major league player, it doesn't necessarily follow that you have the talent to evaluate players. You can extend this to "have the talent to evaluate teams" or any number of ideas that require a grasp of analysis, both skills and statistical. It's the difference between being an airline pilot and being an airline mechanic-both jobs are critical for keeping a plane in the air, but they're not interchangeable in any meaningful way, and they require competely different abilities. It's not an insult to say that a pilot probably couldn't fix an engine, and it's not an insult to say a shortstop probably couldn't run a roster.
"It's just hard for guys who have been here and seen these exact same trades happen and seen it absolutely do nothing. I've been here nine years. I've seen two or three of these trades every year and still haven't had a winning season."
That's Jack Wilson, who you may remember from such classics as "consecutive .312 OBPs" or "diminished range after his age-27 season," or-my favorite-"1.4 WARP per season in a nine-year career." If you're Jack Wilson, and you're wondering why you've never been on a winning team, do you think that he would you ever think, "maybe it's because I have a career .312 OBP, 36 steals, and have been taking down about 10-12 percent of the payroll for that production"?
Neal Huntington didn't make the Jason Bay, Nate McLouth or Nyjer Morgan trades because he doesn't want to have winning seasons. He did it because he knows that the Pittsburgh Pirates, as currenty constituted, don't have winning seasons. He did it because he knows that they're not going to unless he turns over 20 or maybe 22 of the guys in uniform for new ones, Jack Wilson inclusive. He's not breaking up the 1984 Tigers here; if you're part of a group of players that never finishes above .500, you forfeit the right to whine when you're treated as such.
Wilson, again, speaking of Morgan, who has 614 major-league plate appearances at the age of 28:
"What you saw on the field wasn't even close to what he brought to the team. That's the type of player, guys of that caliber, like Jason Bay, Nate McLouth ..."
This may be true, and it points to the blind spot that players have that makes them bad general managers, from either the front or the back seat. Players care a lot about intangibles and personality, because it makes their day-to-day lives better to work with people they like. All baseball personnel overrate soft factors because of this, even though it's been shown time and again that ephemera like "character" and "chemistry" are labels distributed as much after the fact as before, and as fleeting as the next losing streak. It's the GM's job to ignore the effect of a trade on Jack Wilson's job satisfaction. It's human to want to think that a positive workplace is a successful one, but in baseball, talent is paramount.
That's why this trade is such a great one for the Pirates. Lastings Milledge is more talented than the other three players in the deal combined. Perhaps he doesn't crack jokes or buck up the boys the way that Morgan does, but then again, Morgan had never even played for a .500 team, so how much value could that possibly have to winning? And as far as the reason for Milledge even being available is concerned, his reputation as a "bad guy," I'll take my chances on Lastings Milledge maturing into a better person over Nyjer Morgan's shot at becoming a great baseball player, and I'll so every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
This all sounds like I'm down on Morgan. I'm not. He's a good defensive outfielder who has some on-base skills, and he can be a sort of Gary Pettis clone for the next few years. I'd advocated him for the Pirates' job in center field, even when they had McLouth, and he'll be an asset for the Nationals, who have put some brutal outfield defenses out on the field this season. It's just that he has no upside, and the Nationals have no business trading upside and not getting some in return. The argument for acquiring Morgan is that good defense helps young pitchers develop, and the Nats' most important task right now is turning Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, and others into a rotation. I just think they could have gotten a comparable talent without giving up on Milledge.
The Pirates aren't a very good baseball team. They're under .500, and while they've outscored their opponents by four runs, there's no looking at the talent here-or the talent here three weeks ago-and concluding that they're a contender. This same group of players, more or less, has failed year after year, and the veteran core here has no business whatsoever complaining about the direction that Neal Huntington has taken. Wilson is an overpaid mediocrity. Adam LaRoche is an adequate first baseman in the Paul Sorrento mode, and is probably the team's best player; if your best player is Adam LaRoche, you have no hope of contending. Freddy Sanchez is 31 and working on the fourth good season of his career, batting .315 despite a 45/14 K/BB in 302 ABs. Matt Capps is 25 but looks as if he's peaked. The decent ERAs put up by the soft-tossing starting rotation, probably the biggest reason why the Pirates are good enough to create this controversy, are likely to rise with the temperature. Every single Pirates starter is overperforming his peripherals right now-some of that was Morgan's defense-and when that changes, the Pirates will go away.
Huntington and Frank Coonelly have a difficult job, turning around a franchise that spent a decade in the woods. They're doing the job well so far, and that the players they inherited-the core of those .440 juggernauts-don't like it is perhaps the best indicator of their success. It's Neal Huntington's job to make Jack Wilson unhappy, no matter what the short-term ramifications of that are. Jack Wilson isn't a part of the future in Pittsburgh. Lastings Milledge is.