Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nyjer Morgan, Steve Pearce, and the future of the Pirates

There is quite the debate raging on over at Charlie's site right now over the worth of Steve Pearce and Nyjer Morgan to the future of the Pirates. Though I haven't talked much about either of these guys this year, I feel like it's kind of incumbent on me to say something about this because I feel like a lot of the misunderstanding that's going on right now is based on something I said over the winter that, if I'm not mistaken, Charlie more or less agreed with me on. I'm talking, of course, about my suggestion over the winter that non-tendering Xavier Nady and going with Steve Pearce as the starting right fielder might not be the worst idea in the world, given what we knew about those players at the time.

I took a lot of flack from a lot of people when I said that and I think that's where the idea of the "Pearce lovefest" originally came from. As things turned out, cutting Nady and going with Pearce would've been a poor choice. Nady had a career year and we managed to swing Jose Tabata and four pitchers in a trade for him and Damaso Marte while Pearce has dropped off this year and shown almost no power at the major league level until his home run off of Randy Wolf last night. Neal Huntington clearly diagnosed that situation correctly and acted appropriately and the Pirates are better off for it.

You probably recall that in the immediate aftermath of the Nady trade, I was very down on it. Lots of people were, but there were some very smart people in the comments and otherwise who urged me to view the trade as a representation of Neal Huntington's thought process rather than a +/- transaction on a ledger. As a thought process, Huntington dealt two guys that meant very little to the future of the Pirates for three pitchers and an incredibly high upside outfielder who was available because of his injury and character issues. Ohlendorf, Karstens, and McCutchen are far from overwhelming and Tabata's risks still may outweigh his upside, but as a thought process the trade represented a huge shift in ideology for the franchise that's hard to dislike. Viewing the thought process instead of the net effect was why I said that it wasn't a terrible idea to non-tender Nady and play Pearce; an unknown quantity is always of more interest to a team in the Pirates' position than a quantity with a known ceiling.

Instead of viewing Pearce and Nyjer Morgan and Jason Michaels as players with a net effect on the field, let's instead view this situation as a thought process. We know what Nyjer Morgan is. He's a fast outfielder with no power, almost no on-base skills, subpar defense, and terrible baserunning ability for such a fast guy (how many times has he overslid bases?). He is fast and athletic, but he has no way of turning either of those things into appreciable baseball ability. At the age of 27, it seems unlikely that he ever will. We know what Jason Michaels is. He's a career fourth or fifth outfielder that can provide some pop off the bench if necessary, but he's certainly not a good enough hitter to be a starting corner outfielder in the major leagues. Do we know what Steve Pearce is? He's a 25-year-old that was brought slowly through the low minors for reasons that are only known to Dave Littlefield and Brian Graham. He's always had good plate patience and he flashed some pop, both in Hickory as a (too old for the level) 23-year-old, and all over the map last year in his breakout year. He took a huge step back this year and that's troubling, but I don't think anyone here expected Steve Pearce to be Albert Pujols. Even with his lack of power in AAA and Pittsburgh this year, Pearce is still much more interesting than Nyjer Morgan or Jason Michaels.

In the long run, all we have to judge a front office by are the moves that they make. Playing Michaels and Morgan over Pearce represents a thought process that is much more reminiscent of Littlefield than the other things done by Huntington to this point in time, which is why it's interesting and why it's written about a lot. Wanting to see Pearce play doesn't imply that he's going to be an all-star or a useful player, just that the Pirates stand to potentially gain more in the long run from playing him regularly than they do from playing Morgan or Michaels and it's puzzling and a little worrisome that the front office appears to see things differently.