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Why The Pirates Won The Joel Hanrahan - Nyjer Morgan Trade

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Something got me to thinking earlier today about the 2009 trade in which the Pirates received Joel Hanrahan and Lastings Milledge in exchange for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett. It's a very interesting trade, and it's one in which the Pirates cleaned the Nationals' clocks, and yet even Neal Huntington defenders rarely talk about it, probably because there are a lot of moving parts and loose ends.

It's an interesting trade in part because it wasn't like a lot of trades Huntington was making at the time, in which he'd ship out veterans for prospects. Regardless of your preferred way of thinking about those trades, they turn out to be pretty easy to evaluate. (Either the Pirates got good value at the time, or they didn't; or, either the prospects worked out, or they didn't.) Instead, the Nationals/Pirates swap was a challenge trade between two teams whose goals should have been pretty much the same. Both were dreadful teams who should have been trying to build for the future.

First, some values since the trade:

Nyjer Morgan: 3.1 WAR in 2009, 1.1 in 2010

Sean Burnett: -0.1 WAR in 2009, 1.4 in 2010, -0.4 in 2011

Total for the Nationals: 5.1 WAR

The Nationals also got Cutter Dykstra and cash when they shipped Morgan to Milwaukee; Dykstra was horrendous in Class A+ in 2011 as a 22-year-old and probably isn't going to turn into anything.

Lastings Milledge: 0.6 WAR in 2009, 0.6 in 2010

Joel Hanrahan: 0.5 WAR in 2009, 1.4 in 2010, 2.0 in 2011

Total for the Pirates: 5.1 WAR

So far, the WAR totals for the trade come out even. And yet I think the Pirates came out way, way ahead. A couple points about that.

-P- You could make a very good argument that Nyjer Morgan was the best player involved in the trade, and actually, his 2009 turned out to be a thing of beauty, as he posted 5.2 WAR in only 120 games. And yes, his ridiculous 27.6 UZR that year was an enormous fluke, but still, that's amazing. Unfortunately for the Nationals, Morgan turns out to be completely insane. The quality of his play is also almost as unpredictable as his personality, and so when he spent 2010 not hitting and acting completely bonkers, the Nationals traded him, and got very little. (There's some pun in there about the Nationals getting a "Cutter"-rate return, but ... ah, actually, I think I just went there, unfortunately.)

-P- All the Nats have left over from the trade now is Burnett, a generic lefty reliever. Hanrahan is a nasty, fireballing closer. The Pirates are likely to continue to get more value in the future from Hanrahan's play than the Nats get from Burnett's, and in the likely event that the Bucs end up dealing Hanrahan, they're going to get even more value back then, because GMs love flamethrowing closers.

-P- This is the key point:

Based on what we knew in 2009, some of the eventual outcomes of these players' careers would have been hard to predict. In some alternate universe, Morgan doesn't completely lose his mind. (In fact, if there's some alternate universe out there, Morgan probably already has an alter ego ready.) In that alternate universe, maybe Milledge blossoms into a minor star. Maybe Hanrahan continues to struggle with his control and flames out after a couple frustrating seasons in middle relief. Burnett turned out to be a generic lefty reliever in real life, which was probably his upside at the time of the trade. But a lot of things could have happened with the other three players.

When we look at the range of possible outcomes at the time, though, the Pirates had a plan - they traded for two young players with upside when their value was low. The Nats, on the other hand, traded for an older outfielder when his value was high, and a generic reliever whose value was unlikely to increase much. This would have been one thing if the Nats had been a contending team then, but they weren't. They won 58 games in 2008 and 59 in 2009.

So why did they make this trade? It's true that Morgan was and is an outstanding defensive outfielder, but there wasn't much in his profile to suggest he could hit much, so what plan did the Nats, a rebuilding team, have for turning Morgan into talent that could help them in the future? Morgan turned 29 two days after the trade and appeared to be playing at the peak of his ability; it wasn't as if he looked likely to be a long-term piece.

And so now, in 2011, the Pirates are still getting value from this trade, whereas the Nationals really aren't. Both teams are still struggling to contend, but only one of them can continue to use what they got in this trade to help them do so, and that's the Pirates.

That outcome was easy to predict at the time. The particulars weren't easy to predict - Milledge easily could have been the player who broke out, but his power never came along. But the Pirates got two players with upside, and one of those players, Hanrahan, reached that upside. The Nationals, meanwhile, got a speedy defensive outfielder and a random middle reliever. That might have made sense if they'd been in contention and they needed those things for a stretch run. But what they really needed was upside, and instead of acquiring it, they gave it away.

Poker analogy alert! I was playing a no-limit hold-em cash game with my brother a while ago, and he was in the small blind. An aggressive player in late position raised to four big blinds, and my brother called. I forget what happened, but it turned out my brother had ace-10 offsuit.

Now, I guess calling was a defensible play, but I would have preferred to see him either reraise or fold to such a large raise, because there were three rounds of betting after that, and my brother would have to act before the aggressive player on each of them. If an ace or 10 didn't come on the flop, as was likely, my brother might easily end up having to fold the best hand; if an ace or 10 did hit, my brother would have to proceed gingerly, knowing he could end up losing a lot of money against a hand like ace-jack that had him dominated.

When I asked him why he decided to call before the flop, my brother said that he called because he was likely to have the best hand. Well, true, but it's not a great idea to call without having a plan on future rounds of betting, knowing your opponent will be able to act after you each time. I would much rather be raising with a speculative hand like 8-7 suited in late position and have my opponent call me with ace-10 than be the one with the ace-10, because there are a number of high-upside outcomes if I'm the one with 8-7 suited and the opportunity to act last during each round of betting, and very few if I'm the one with ace-10.

The Nationals were the team with ace-10 in this situation. They got Morgan, who was the best player at the time. But they didn't have a plan beyond simply getting the best player. The Pirates did, and assuming they're able to trade Hanrahan sometime soon, they're going to be the team reaping the benefits.