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July 1, 2009

Transaction of the Day

Rebooting the Pirates

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Activated INF-R Cody Ransom from the 60-day DL; designated INF-R Angel Berroa for assignment; traded RHP Jose Veras to the Indians for Currency-$ Stacks O'Cash. [6/24]
Acquired 4C-L Eric Hinske for RHP Casey Erickson and OF/C-R Eric Fryer. [6/30]

Adding Hinske so soon after getting Ransom, the nondescript journeyman infielder they strangely felt compelled to keep on the 40-man roster over the winter, suggests progress, to be sure. While Hinske's never going to be a good third baseman, or a very good outfielder for that matter, as a four-corners reserve, he's playable in short stints at all four. He offers lefty pop in a park that adds carbonation to just about anything that goes airwards, and as someone they can use to pinch-hit for the center fielders or alternate with Nick Swisher or Hideki Matsui in right field or at DH on a semi-regular basis, it's all relative gravy to finally field a roster that, absent Xavier Nady, really only went 10 deep. The price paid was also relatively modest, so credit Cashman and company for adding a worthwhile mercenary to make that bench less a collection of Clay Bellinger types for the remainder of the season.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Optioned RHP Ian Snell to Indianapolis (Triple-A). [6/25]
Recalled RHP Virgil Vasquez from Indianapolis. [6/26]
Traded LHP Sean Burnett and OF-L Nyjer Morgan to the Nationals for RHP Joel Hanrahan and OF-R Lastings Milledge; traded 4C-L Eric Hinske to the Yankees for RHP Casey Erickson and OF/C-R Eric Fryer; recalled 1B/OF-L Garrett Jones from Indianapolis. [6/30]

I like all of this to some extent, so let's start with the upside play of adding Milledge for the aging Morgan. The pitching's besides the point; this is about being the latest self-conceived lucky winner of the Milledge prize, and if this might seem something like the Bucs' brass having similar faith that Jose Tabata will deliver on his promise, that's a reasonable proposition. Since Nyjer Morgan's just a filler type of ballplayer who was marking time until the Pirates decided to do something about their post-McLouth outfield, flipping that for a guy with lousy marks in citizenship but still some promise as a prospect sounds like a risk well worth taking. Put in an organization where he'll never have to play center field for the big-league team-not when it's already employing Andrew McCutchen-the possibility is there for Milledge to regroup, take over in left field sometime soon, and perhaps do something like what we expected as an outfield regular, getting aboard at a .350 clip or so, slugging better than .450, and perhaps helping the Pirates move that dial ever closer to .500 and beyond as he enters his age-25 to age-29 peak range. If not, let's face it, they effectively gave up just so much organizational junk to find out what Milledge's future holds.

Try not to get worked up about the stuff received from the Yankees for Hinske. Fryer's future as a catcher was always somewhat notional, and at 23 years old and struggling to hit in the High-A Florida State League (.250/.333/.344), he's really not a prospect. Erickson's also 23 (and will be 24 in August), so it isn't all that surprising that he's doing well in the Single-A Sally League against kids several years younger. He's got a big, moving sinker that he's used to generate more than three times as many ground-ball outs as flies, and add those infield outs to 37 strikeouts in 44 innings, and it might seem somewhat surprising that he's also managed to allow 51 hits. While he's interesting as a worm-killing curiosity, unless he's been entirely betrayed by his defense-which in the lower minors is all too possible-he's just another guy. If he shows up in the Pirates' pen as a back-end type, that might simultaneously represent a credit to their scouting and a statement of the system's relative weakness.

Instead, what's fun about this deal is that the Pirates could ditch Hinske and, for how little that they were using him, make a one-for-one replacement by turning to Jones, who was hitting .307/.348/.502 for Indy, and was particularly raking against right-handers (.312/.368/.566). Let some of the air out of those numbers by translating them, and you wind up with a guy producing roughly a .271 Equivalent Average-playable, but not special, and at best a part-time asset you might get platoon mileage out of by picking your spots with him. At 28, he's no prospect, but as a perfectly acceptable fall-back from Hinske for a second-division ballclub, he'll do. Pending any deal involving Adam LaRoche, he'll get added to the mix of options for the outfield corners, where his heavy-footed stomping isn't really that much of an issue for a club that's giving Delwyn Young's unlovely leather work an opportunity. Between Young, Brandon Moss, Steven Pearce, and Jones, the Pirates could fashion a platoon or two, ride the hot hand, or just pick names out of a hat; none are prospects, all might be roughly as valuable in what might be termed the Frobel-icious phase of rebuilding. If any one of the four is part of the next really good Pirates team, it would be a bit of a surprise.

Finally, it's more than a little amusing to see Snell go down; serves me right for exulting too soon at Brian Cartwright's expense that Snell outlasted Jeff Karstens. Consider this karma or a Pyrrhic victory as such arguments go, because now both are out of the rotation. At least Ross Ohlendorf seems to have taken the hint and thrown four quality starts in their last five, and Charlie Morton's getting his opportunity. To round out the rotation, Vasquez is marking time the way you might expect a well-traveled journeyman might, but with five quality starts in 14 at Triple-A, there's not of cause for getting worked up. He's sort of a red flag, someone whose presence in the rotation might gall Snell or Tom Gorzelanny or Brad Lincoln or whoever that an opportunity to stick in The Show exists, if you just show the organization something down on the farm. Perhaps a few more games like Snell's first back in the minors will reflect a new-capacity for self-improvement and reliability. If not, the organization's made its statement on the price of failure.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Designated RHP Kip Wells for assignment; recalled RHP Tyler Clippard from Syracuse (Triple-A). [6/24]
Activated LHP Scott Olsen from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Shairon Martis to Syracuse. [6/29]
Acquired LHP Sean Burnett and OF-L Njyer Morgan from the Pirates for RHP Joel Hanrahan and OF-R Lastings Milledge. [6/30]

Where this leaves the Nats' outfield is semi-interesting, in that putting Morgan in center pushes Elijah Dukes out of a regular role and into an outfield rotation that has Adam Dunn moving between first and left and Josh Willingham bouncing from right to left and back again, while Austin Kearns and Willie Harris can lament their lot as reserves. (Although I wouldn't be surprised if Kearns or Ronnie Belliard gets designated for assignment once they activate the pair of former Pirates, since somebody has to go and the Nats dialing back down to 11 pitchers seems more than a bit unlikely.)

I guess my problem is that this is so very fundamentally a surrender deal, where the Nationals gave up the likely best player in the deal-however troubled and troubling Milledge might be-on the thought that Morgan is supposed to provide some immediate defensive respite for a pitching staff . Maybe that'll play; metrics like Clay Davenport's old-style and new-style fielding metrics like him, so does UZR, but Revised Zone Rating does not. Might it make enough of a difference in an outfield that's challenged with Willingham and Dunn being planted in the corners? Maybe, but I'd expect this means that the Nats shouldn't stop here as far as their making any deals. Whether they shop Dunn, Nick Johnson (making Dunn the regular at first), or Willingham, moving one of those three would still make some sense, ideally for something more than a placeholder in center just about to turn 29 years old.

As much as speed players are supposed to age well, let's face it, Morgan's filler. He's slappy, and that's made for some modest success in terms of his reaching base, with his career BABIP in the big leagues bouncing up above .340. While his OBP is over .350 at the instant of his getting dealt (.351, in fact), he's generating walks in a little more than eight percent of his plate appearances, just about adequate if he brings more to the table, but other than the slappiness, that's it with the bat. We've touched on the likely defensive value, and there is of course the value that might add to a pitching staff so used to getting nailed you'd wonder if they weren't escorts. And, given that Morgan's a speed player, there's the notion that he add value on the bases. He has some value as a baserunner, but not a ton-among major leaguers, he rates a tepid 67th in Equivalent Baserunning Runs, although a great deal of the problem is his league-leading 10 times caught stealing, which drops him down among the 20 worst players in terms of the negative impact he's had trying to steal a few bags. (Check that latter link, and you'll see that Elijah Dukes leads the majors, and Cristian Guzman ranks ninth; it would seem Morgan might fit right in on a club that takes 'run 'til you're tagged' a bit too seriously as an operative principle.)

At least they got Burnett for Hanrahan, right? Well, sure, because getting Hanrahan off the scrap heap means on some level they've gotten something for nothing. Even so, it's a sort of "whatever" exchange that suggests the Nats will be flipping either Joe Beimel or Ron Villone or both shortly, now that they've added a mid-career southpaw who's actually outpitched both of his better-known teammates, posting a 0.499 WXRL to Beimel's -0.128 and Villone's -0.220. While Villone won't generate much in any deal if he's not part of a package, Beimel's cheap contract ($2 million) and past work for playoffs-bound ballclubs might make him a little more valuable in the eyes of prospective acquirers. Burnett's been a survivor, having come back from multiple surgeries yet still shy of his 27th birthday, but his spotty performance in terms of getting lefties out this season-with an ISO mark above .200, when he makes a mistake against one of the fellow members of the gaucheoisie, it hurts-suggests he might not be set for situational stardom as much as he might just be the latest maybe on a list that has included Wil Ledezma and Mike Hinckley.

Finally, as nice as it was for Olsen to enjoy a venegeance start against his former employers and throw his third quality start of the season-not to mention a walkless seven-strikeout effort in seven frames-but we'll have to see a lot more of that before we can start claiming that he's back to being the sort of upside guy we effectively haven't seen since 2006. That said, this is the Nats, so relative improvement is relatively easily achieved. While watching Martis tap-dance his way around another beating as he tries to redefine moxie is to some people's tastes, as a somewhat fly-oriented starter he might seem the sort who would benefit most from Morgan's addition. It isn't like Craig Stammen's done all that much better, certainly.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  Nyjer Morgan,  The Who,  Sean Burnett,  Eric Hinske

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