The Washington Nationals have been adding players to their team who the cellar-dwelling Pittsburgh Pirates have rejected at one time or another. These are players there were among the most volatile, but also among the most promising ones on their original team. And their specific quirks, plus those of Washington, make them particularly useful to the Nationals.

As I believed at the time, the Nats got the better of the Burnett and Nyjer Morgan for Joel Hanrahan and Lastings Milledge deal in the summer of 2009.

It’s easy to see why the Pirates preferred the “sabermetrically” superior Hanrahan over Burnett. The former looks better on the “sabermetric” variables of home runs, walks and strikeouts, and on FIP (a “synthetic” ERA using these variables).

But Burnett gives up fewer hits on balls in player (BABIP) and therefore has the lower actual ERA. Maybe he’s been “lucky” in this regard. And maybe he knows something we don’t.

The Pirates rightly feared the Morgan would collapse in 2010. But so did Milledge, in a much bigger way.The Bucs wanted Milledge because his minor league record suggested that he had a higher ceiling.

But Morgan usually has a high batting average and on-base percentage (lacking only power) and can also defend well. The fact that both offense and defense suffered in 2010 suggests that he was having a bad year for pyschological, not physical reasons. His year-end outburst suggests that.

But Morgan, not Milledge, is the one with the five win above replacement (WAR) ceiling. If he rebounds in EITHER of these two categories in 2011, his value rises from one to three WAR. He could go back to five WAR if he fully regains both attributes. Of the two, the offensively competent Nationals could benefit more from Morgan’s defense, which is easier to recover.

Adam LaRoche is a replacement for Adam Dunn at first base. The two Adams both hit around .260, and both drive in about 100 runs in a year. Dunn gets there with more power, i.e. with about 50 percent more home runs. But LaRoche is a MUCH better defender, meaning that his overall value is about one game higher than Dunn’s. And this for a saving in salary.

LaRoche’s problem? He plays a lot better in the second half of the season than the first, a pattern exhibited by only 3 percent of all baseball players. He is a replacement level producer in the first half and a star in the second half.

That pattern might be an advantage for his new team. Washington played relatively well in the first half in 2010, flirting with .500, then crumbled in the second half. La Roche might give the Nats a lift when it is most needed.

The salary savings were used partly to sign Jayson Werth. I don’t like his SEVEN-year contract for $126 million, or $18 million per year.

But Werth has been producing at the $20 million level for three years now. A FOUR year contract for $18 million per would probably be okay. But the likely overpayment for the three “back” years are a problem for a new (six-year) baseball “generation.”

The most recent acquisition is Tom Gorzelanny, at one time the Bucs’ No. 2 starter, who might be “No. 2” caliber in Washington, behind Livan Hernandez but ahead of John Lannen and Craig Stammen.

Gorzelanny was a confusing, frustrating pitcher who the Pirates never understood. I’ll make things simple by noting that his ERA, over the years, seems to converge on 4.00.

But Gorzelanny gets there in a strange way. Part of the time, he is a pitcher with a 2.50 ERA, and part of the time, his ERA is more like 6.50, so his “4.00” is a weighted (toward the good side) average of the two extremes.  As a Pirate fan, I have a recollection of him pitching well every OTHER game (or just a bit more).

Suppose he pitches 10 good games out of 20. The Nats hit well enough to win most (perhaps nine) of them. They will also be able to win a fraction (say three) of the 10 bad games he pitches. If Washington can win 60 percent of the games started by Gorzelanny, they will have gone a long way to becoming a winning team.

And even future stars like Steve Strasburg and Bryce Harper can be considered Pirate “rejects.” That’s because the Pirates lost the “race to the bottom” for the first overall draft pick in 2008 and 2009.

If these players make a big impact in 2012, just when the others mentioned above might be hitting their stride, the Washington Nationals might be a team to contend with next year. And early signs of this might be apparent even in 2011.


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