Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

How’s that Milledge trade looking now?


This is the only time i’ve ever seen Burnett’s hat on straight. Photo:

6/30/2009: The Nationals and Pirates announce a trade:

  • Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett coming to Washington
  • Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan going to Pittsburgh.

To Nationals faithful, the 6/30/2009 trade with the Pirates was a serious talking point.  It was the first major trade of the Mike Rizzo era after a contentious spring training that deposed Jim Bowden.  At the time of the trade, Milledge was sitting in AAA Syracuse after having hit .161 in April, and Hanrahan was busy compiling a 7.71 era while blowing as many saves (5) as he had successes as our closer.

We all know what happened next: Morgan came over, slotted into center field and had a career season.  And Burnett settled into the bullpen and gave us better-than-loogy performances that continue to today.  Milledge hit significantly better for Pittsburgh than had been hitting for us, and suddenly Hanrahan found the plate again and has morphed into a half-way decent late-inning option for the worst team in baseball.

At the time though, pundits far and wide talked about how the Pirates “fleeced” the Nats in the deal.  Here’s one take from a USA Today columnist, and here’s MLB Trade Rumor’s round up of the typical analysts and their comments like “easy win for the Pirates.”

I remember thinking at the time that baseball pundits seemed to constantly be in love with Lastings Milledge.  Nobody could see who he was as a player (immature, egotistical, uncoachable) or see his lack of accomplishments (he has a career 91 OPS+).  All they could see was his age and his “potential.”  (Hmm, reminds me of how Jim Bowden looked at *every* prospect)  Meanwhile, Hanrahan was somehow valued higher than Burnett despite the fact that he had a 1.9 whip for 2009 (as a closer!  That’s nearly two baserunners per inning for a guy you’re entrusting to finish wins) and he was a righty.  Burnett was an effective lefty and remains that way today.

Anyway.  When Milledge was non-tendered in December and then subsequently got into a massive brawl in the Venezuelan Winter League, I didn’t see any mea culpas from these pundits.  The Pirates, probably the worst-run team in baseball and with one of the smallest payrolls, didn’t want to gamble with a probably salary in the $1M range on Milledge turning it around for 2010.  He only lasted four at bats for the White Sox, who DFA’d him today.  He’s officially worn out his welcome for four teams now (New York, Washington and Pittsburgh and Chicago) inside of 5 seasons.

Of course, Milledge’s counterpart in the trade Nyjer Morgan was similarly jettissoned at the end of spring training when he lost out his starting center fielder job to Rick Ankiel.  Morgan was traded to Milwaukee for a low-A player (Cutter Dykstra) that Keith Law described as no better than an “organizational player.”  So now the trade looks more like Hanrahan for Burnett and Dykstra.  Who is winning now?  Burnett has been great for us, and while he’s not a 95-mph flame throwing back of the bullpen type he has been nothing but consistent, continuing to give better-than-loogy performances and now he seems slated as the closer-for-now.

There was so much vitriol in the blogosphere aimed towards the Nationals front office for this move that I feel like bringing it up.  I havn’t seen too many mea culpas out there from the same people who flamed the Nats at the time.

Written by Todd Boss

April 7th, 2011 at 3:51 pm

5 Responses to 'How’s that Milledge trade looking now?'

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    This is why the Milledge trade was a bad idea.

    Its wasn’t that Milledge was or is ever going to turn into a useful player like Phillips did, it was that the Nats preferred taking a veteran mediocracy like Morgan instead of rolling the dice with Milledge. It was philosophical not on talent or attitude.

    As it has so far turned out, Rizzo was right about Milledge. But I’m sure Krivsky thought the same thing when he traded Phillips. Sometimes you are right and sometimes you are wrong.

    Given the choice between a nothing vet and a young but troubled prospect, the correct choice for the Nats should be the young but troubled. They may eventually turn into something very useful. The nothing vets are a dime a dozen. If they don’t work out, so be it. Not a lot of prospects do. But at least you are choosing the option most likely to pay out big rather than grind along.


    7 Apr 11 at 4:23 pm

  2. I think the trade was about more than just trading Milledge. If you recall (not sure if you follow the Nats closely or not) Milledge had basically played his way out of Washington and was sitting in AAA at the time. He had attitude problems and had maturity problems. My perception was that Rizzo wanted to rid himself of “young but troubled” throughout the entire system (see Dukes, Elijah as well, while we’re talking about rolling the dice with talented young prospects). While he was at it, he was able to solve our leadoff problem (at least for a year or so, before Morgan proved he was a replacement-level player) and get something in return for a hard-throwing right hander (Hanrahan) who clearly had talent but needed a change of scenery.

    I have no problem with what Rizzo did; i thought it was a good trade then and still think its a good trade now. Bowden loaded the Nats team with so many head cases, problem children, clubhouse lawyers and toolsy-but-incomplete players that Rizzo literally had to start almost over from scratch. I saw a stat that said the Nats 25-man and 40-man rosters are something like 75% rolled over just in the last two years. Hard to compete when you’re clearing out so many players.

    Todd Boss

    7 Apr 11 at 5:04 pm

  3. I liked the trade at the time.

    Dukes and Milledge just did not take the game, or their talent seriously. Terrible attitudes permeating the major league club outfield. And look where they both are now? It has nothing to do with high ceilings, age and all that. It was all about attitude and Rizzo was exactly right in his final assessment of both players.

    Hanrahan vs. Burnett. Hanrahan a righty, Burett a lefty with a history of Tommy John’s. In this case Hanrahan was getting crucified. They made him the closer way too early on … and it seems the Nats have learned from that experience, (see Drew Storen, Colin Balester, Cole Kimball, Henry Rodriguez, Adam Carr, etc?) Hanrahan needed a change of scenery even if he had more potential. Just like Morgan apparently did … for many of the same reasons … the nice thing is that Burnett is a lefty … a good one is a rarer commodity.


    7 Apr 11 at 5:11 pm

  4. Like your Blog. Paid Columnists (Blogers) tend to forget what they write as soon as it is printed (posted). One has to view the trade as slightly better for the NATS. Hanrahan has saved every Pitt win this season while Burnett has been lights out from the get go. The NATS got slightly more out of Morgan than Pitt did out of Milledge.

    Sec 204 Row H Seat 7

    8 Apr 11 at 9:48 am

  5. To be fair … professional baseball writers are paid (and probably directed) to make a snap decision/opinion on every major trade and signing and to offer bold predictions at the beginning of the year. I’m sure not all of them are necessarily comfortable about it.

    The thing that got me in particular about the Milledge trade in 2009 was the insistence on most scouting-heavy writers about how dumb of a move it was for the team. There’s more to a player than his age and his potential. If a guy is an absolute clubhouse nuisance and doesn’t exhibit max effort at all times … then he’s gonna get moved out. I’m thinking of guys like Elijah Dukes, Felipe Lopez or perhaps Yunel Escobar (the SS the braves essentially dumped and then subsequently applauded his replacement).

    When looking straight up at Burnett for Hanrahan, you have to say that both teams have benefited. Which is the goal of a trade right? Hanrahan went from a 7.71 era for us to a nifty 1.72 ERA for the Pirates in 2009.

    (btw, thanks for reading!)

    Todd Boss

    8 Apr 11 at 10:01 am

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