By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Just a few months ago, the Washington Nationals envisioned Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan as building blocks -- the future center fielder, the future closer. Yesterday, in a move dictated by a pair of disappointing seasons, the Nationals sent Milledge and Hanrahan to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for outfielder Nyjer Morgan and relief pitcher Sean Burnett, both of whom will be in uniform for today's series finale in Florida.
The first significant trade orchestrated by acting general manager Mike Rizzo reflected his team-building strategy, which favors reliability over high-yield potential, a counter to predecessor Jim Bowden. The trade, too, commences Washington's attempt to restock a malformed roster on which few outfielders can catch and few relievers can hold leads.
The Nationals had hoped Hanrahan could serve as their closer, but five blown saves, shaky confidence and a 7.71 ERA cost him the job -- twice. The Nationals had hoped Milledge could play center field and bat leadoff, but poor defensive instincts and fleeting patience made him ill-suited for both roles and led to his mid-April demotion to the minors.
Neither Morgan nor Burnett can carry a team, but both fill voids. Morgan will become the centerfielder and leadoff man. Burnett (1-2, 3.06 ERA), a left-handed specialist with the Pirates, will pitch both to lefties and righties in the middle innings.
"We addressed two of our biggest needs: athleticism and defensive ability in center field, and a bullpen guy we'll have control over the next three years," Rizzo said.
Morgan and Milledge, the central components of the deal, charted almost opposite courses to the big leagues. Morgan, who was raised as a hockey player, came out of Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College, drafted in the 33rd round in the 2002 draft. Milledge was drafted out of high school in the first round, 12th overall, in 2003. In 2006, at age 21, he was already in the big leagues.
Only this year has Morgan become a regular big league player. Known for his speed and defense, he started mostly in left field for the Pirates, batting .277 with a .351 on-base percentage. In 278 at-bats, Morgan had two home runs and 27 RBI. Most important, for Washington: Numerous metrics used to measure defense rank Morgan's range among the best in baseball.
Morgan, while packing his bags in the Pittsburgh clubhouse yesterday, welcomed the trade. "My thoughts, I'm pretty pumped up, because I'm flattered when you have a team like the Nationals and they really want you," he said. "I'm almost out of words."
The trade brought an unceremonious end to Milledge's tenure with Washington. Acquired by Bowden in November 2007, picked up from the New York Mets in exchange for starters Ryan Church and Brian Schneider, Milledge was tabbed as a star. In 2008, playing 138 games, mostly in center, Milledge led the Nationals in RBI (61) and homers (14).
But the goodwill generated by that season dissolved this spring, shortly after Manager Manny Acta anointed Milledge as the team's everyday center fielder and leadoff man. In both spots, he struggled. He misjudged fly balls. He dismissed the importance of walks. On April 14, after just seven games, the Nationals demoted him to Class AAA Syracuse. While playing for the Chiefs, Milledge broke his right ring finger and has missed 1 1/2 months. Only late last week did he begin a rehab assignment.
Milledge, according to reports out of Pittsburgh, will soon join the team's Class AAA Indianapolis affiliate and will need to earn a 25-man roster spot on merit. Hanrahan will immediately join the Pittsburgh bullpen.
"It was a surprise," Hanrahan said of the trade. "Obviously things haven't gone the best here this year so far. It's a fresh start over there."
Staff writer Amy Shipley contributed to this report from Miami.