HE LIKES TO SPEAK
Photo: Trigger 25.
Nyjer Morgan is an exciting player. But that is not the same as being a good player. Jim Tracy, in what seems like a confusion of style and substance, has decided that the best use of this month is to take an extended look at Morgan while keeping Nate McLouth and especially Steve Pearce pinned to the bench. Since September 14, Morgan has started every game and received 26 at bats; McLouth has gotten eleven at bats, and Pearce just five.
Morgan is easily the oldest of the three and has by far the least convincing track record. McLouth has hit very well at the major league level this year, with a .798 OPS, and he's been even better when starting - he's struggled as a pinch hitter throughout his career. He has also played good, if unspectacular, defense and has been terrific on the basepaths, stealing 20 bags and only being caught once. He's sixteen months younger than Morgan and has had a higher OPS in the majors this year than Morgan has had at any level above rookie ball.
Pearce, meanwhile, posted All-Star caliber numbers at three minor league levels this year and has hit pretty well in a limited sample in the big leagues, showing good athleticism along the way. He's almost three years younger than Morgan. (Pearce and Morgan play different positions, but Pearce has ridden the bench in part because Tracy has sometimes played McLouth in a corner so that Morgan can play center - and Pearce may have lost even more playing time because of Morgan, since Tracy thinks playing several rookies at a time somehow undermines the "integrity of the game.")
It is disheartening that Tracy has apparently allowed a couple of good catches to convince him that, of the three, only Morgan deserves consistent playing time. It is especially disheartening because Tracy refuses to learn from the recent history of the franchise - the team has been fooled again and again by speedy centerfielders who look like somebody's idea of a leadoff hitter but who prove, over and over, to be all style and no substance. Morgan is just Chris Duffy all over again, except Duffy was better.
Let's compare their last three years of minor league numbers before they debuted:
2005 Age 24 Class A+ .286/.328/.357 252 AB 12 2B 3 3B 0 HR 40 K 11 BB
2006 Age 25 Class A+ .307/.393/.364 228 AB 7 2B 3 3B 0 HR 40 K 20 BB
2006 Age 25 Class AA .306/.359/.393 219 AB 6 2B 5 3B 1 HR 28 K 15 BB
2007 Age 26 Class AAA .305/.374/.354 164 AB 4 2B 2 3B 0 HR 28 K 15 BB
2003 Age 23 Class AA .273/.355/.350 494 AB 23 2B 6 3B 1 BB 78 K 44 BB
2004 Age 24 Class AA .309/.378/.439 453 AB 23 2B 6 3B 8 HR 77 K 33 BB
2005 Age 25 Class AAA .308/.358/.464 308 AB 13 2B 7 3B 7 HR 57 K 16 BB
As a hitting prospect, Duffy was roughly equal to or better than Morgan in every possible area. He typically played at the same levels as Morgan at younger ages. He hit for similar averages and on-base percentages as Morgan, struck out only a bit more often, and hit for vastly better power. Duffy had excellent speed and was probably a better basestealer than Morgan, and he played excellent defense. Basically, Duffy as a prospect was Morgan, except Duffy was significantly younger and had much better power. And yet, Duffy hasn't worked out.
It's not just Duffy, either - compare Morgan's minor league numbers to those of Adrian Brown in his last three years before debuting:
1995 Age 21 Class A .300/.372/.422 287 AB 15 2B 4 3B 4 HR 33 K 23 BB
1995 Age 21 Class A+ .242/.284/.298 215 AB 5 2B 2 3B 1 HR 20 K 12 BB
1996 Age 22 Class A+ .321/.368/.447 215 AB 9 2B 3 3B 4 HR 24 K 14 BB
1996 Age 22 Class AA .296/.345/.372 341 AB 11 2B 3 3B 3 HR 40 K 25 BB
1997 Age 23 Class AA .303/.388/.428 145 AB 4 2B 4 3B 2 HR 12 K 18 BB
1997 Age 23 Class AAA .319/.383/.379 248 AB 10 2B 1 3B 1 HR 38 K 27 BB
Morgan simply is not in the class Brown was in as a prospect. Brown showed a skill set similar to Morgan's at the highest levels of the minors at an age when Morgan was still trying to get out of rookie ball. Brown was a much better prospect than Morgan. And yet, like Duffy, Brown never made it as the Pirates' centerfielder.
These are not isolated examples. Check out Tike Redman's minor league numbers. They don't compare as cleanly, but Redman was a better prospect than Morgan too. And yet, like Duffy and Brown, he didn't make it as the Pirates' centerfielder.
One might think that Tracy would look back and notice the pattern here. But apparently not. Morgan is just like all these failed prospects, except worse. And yet, he'll play at the expense of much more interesting young players in McLouth and Pearce, because he's exciting, just like Duffy was in 2005 and Redman was in 2003. I didn't have a blog in 2003, but I warned about Duffy before he debuted in 2005. Tracy is making the same mistake with Morgan that Lloyd McClendon made with Duffy, trusting a few exciting plays or a couple weeks of decent play over years of proof that a player is not any good. Minor league stats matter a lot more than a couple of nifty catches.
Morgan obviously has skills that can be useful to a big-league baseball team, and I have no problem with the Pirates using him as a defensive replacement and pinch runner. The problem is that he's never going to hit enough to be a starter.
Morgan's background as a hockey player might lead some to believe that he's a late bloomer. But I see no reason to believe that would be the case. For one thing, he's had five years in the minor leagues, and has improved steadily but slowly - he's put up similar stats at pretty much all of them. So his next burst of big-time improvement will be his first, and since he's already 27, it's unlikely to ever happen.
Also, I'm not really sure what a burst of improvement for Morgan would look like. The real trouble with Morgan (and, to a lesser extent, Duffy, and Redman, and Brown) is that the Pirates appear to be looking for a type of centerfielder and leadoff hitter who rarely has sustained success in the big leagues.
How is a player supposed to succeed with no power at all? This isn't the '80s anymore. Players who have zero power rarely go anywhere. Morgan has had one home run in his last three years of professional baseball.
This season, eleven players have had five home runs or fewer while accumulating enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Not one of them has an OPS above .737. Three of them (Jacque Jones, Jason Kendall and Omar Vizquel) are veterans who have been allowed to accumulate plate appearances largely because of their reputations rather than their current performance. Six more (Jason Bartlett, Mark Loretta, Ryan Theriot, Luis Castillo, Nick Punto and Tony Pena Jr.) are middle infielders who are playing because of their defensive value or their reputations or their youth or some combination thereof.
That leaves Reggie Willits and Juan Pierre, both centerfielders like Morgan. Morgan has never shown anything resembling Willits' outstanding batting eye, so the two are not comparable players. And Pierre broke into the big leagues at age 22 - when, again, Morgan was playing short-season ball. Pierre was a much better prospect than Morgan, and even Pierre is stretched as a regular at this point, despite his gazillion-dollar contract. (Willy Taveras didn't have enough plate appearances to qualify this year, but he's another example of an outfielder with no power. He's had some success, but it's been very limited, and he was vastly better in the minors than Morgan, and younger to boot.)
In short, the Pirates' archetypal centerfielder does not exist anymore. Outfielders like Omar Moreno don't have starting jobs anymore. Players who don't hit for any power tend to play in the middle infield or not at all, and the really good leadoff-type hitters (Hanley Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki, Jimmy Rollins, Curtis Granderson, and so on) tend to have some power to keep pitchers honest.
Morgan is a relic, and that's probably why Tracy likes him so much. Unfortunately, baseball evolved away from players like Morgan for a reason. His presence in the lineup is the Pirates' vestigial tail.