Over the last few years, one of the easier running jokes in baseball was to suggest that any available outfielder would interest the Washington Nationals. Jim Bowden couldn’t hide his love of toolsy, athletic underperformers, so every kid who had ever been ranked on Baseball America’s Top 100 and became available gravitated towards the nations capital. So, it would be easy to continue to chuckle right along with the old joke, as today, Washington traded for another outfielder, completing the rumored Lastings Milledge for Nyjer Morgan swap by agreeing to exchange Joel Hanrahan for Sean Burnett as well.
However, this move is different. Morgan doesn’t follow the previous pattern – he can actually play baseball, especially defense. Washington’s outfield has combined for a -24.5 UZR this year, easily the worst in baseball (the next lowest is the Blue Jays at -19.2). The combination of Elijah Dukes, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Austin Kearns, and Willie Harris have been disastrous in the field, which is a pretty significant problem when you’re trying to develop a young pitching staff.
Morgan is far form a defensive liability. He has 743 innings between LF/RF and a career UZR of +15.4, along with 391 innings in center field and a UZR of +11.9. Those numbers are off-the-charts awesome. If Nyjer Morgan was really a +35 UZR/150 center fielder, he’d be in the conversation for the best defensive outfielder of all time.
Now, he’s almost certainly not that good. There’s a lot of noise in small sample UZR numbers, and we only have about one full season’s worth of data on Morgan as an outfielder. Odds are Morgan is just a good defensive CF, not the best that anyone has ever seen. If we were to project his defensive value going forward using a regression, we’d likely end up expecting him to be something like a +10 to +20 center fielder, which puts him in the category of guys like Carlos Gomez, Franklin Gutierrez, Mike Cameron, Rajai Davis, and Darin Erstad.
Given what we know about Morgan’s skillset and his status as one of the fastest players in the game, this shouldn’t be that surprising. He has the physical skills to be a terrific defensive player, after all, so when the metrics and the scouting reports agree, there can be increased confidence in the result.
Of course, guys that are this good at defense usually aren’t much offensively. Morgan follows the pattern of a slap-hitting groundball guy who tries to get on base via a horde of singles to compensate for his lack of power. Unlike Gomez and Erstad, though, Morgan has shown some adeptness at making this work for him – his career line in the majors is .286/.351/.376, which translates to a barely below average .322 wOBA.
That’s the high end of what the Nationals should expect going forward, however – it is based on a career .346 batting average on balls in play, and while fast guys do better than average at getting on via contact, .346 is still tough to sustain. If his BABIP falls down to .320 or so, about what ZIPS projects for him going forward, than he’s more of a .310 wOBA guy.
A .310 wOBA and +10 defense in center field is still a pretty nifty player, though. Over a full season, that would make him a +2 to +2.5 win player, or right around league average. Considering that his lack of service time means he’ll be making the minimum the next couple of years, the Nationals are getting a pretty significant value in this particular outfielder. The upside isn’t super high, but he’s instantly one of the better players on that team, and will make them better both in 2009 and going forward.
For the Pirates, they get to try to figure out how to extract some value from Lastings Milledge, who would have to take several steps forward before he was as good as Morgan is now. Can’t say I’m a fan of this move for Pittsburgh, but that’s getting to be a theme lately. The Pirates have made a series of head-scratching moves of late, and this one just continues that trend. Hanrahan is a nice buy low candidate, and a better bet for the future than Burnett, but relievers just aren’t that hard to acquire. The Pirates get worse now for some hope of getting better in the future, but that hope is tied to a belief in Lastings Milledge’s improvement that I don’t have.
Good trade for Mike Rizzo and the Nationals. For once, they finally acquired an outfielder with some usefulness.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.