- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

MIAMI | When the Washington Nationals broke camp this spring and prepared for what they hoped would be a breakthrough season, they were counting on a young center fielder with a load of talent and a young closer with a cannon of an arm to help lead the renaissance.

Within weeks, Lastings Milledge was in the minor leagues and Joel Hanrahan was in a mop-up role. And now neither player is employed by the Nationals.

In the first significant trade of the Mike Rizzo era, Washington’s acting general manager dealt Milledge and Hanrahan to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday, acquiring speedy outfielder Nyjer Morgan and left-handed reliever Sean Burnett in return.

It was a trade, the Nationals believe, that takes care of two major needs (a strong defensive center fielder and an effective young reliever) while unloading two ineffective players.

“Right-handed corner outfielders, we think we’re very deep in those skill-set players,” Rizzo said. “And what we got, we addressed two of our biggest needs: athleticism and speed and defensive ability in center field and… a bullpen guy that we can have control of for the next three years.”

Both Morgan and Burnett are expected to join the Nationals on Wednesday, though not in time for the start of the matinee series finale against the Florida Marlins. Hanrahan’s departure left the club with only 24 active players for Tuesday night’s game, and Washington will need to remove another player from the roster - possibly outfielder Austin Kearns or infielder Ronnie Belliard - to make room for the additions.

Morgan, who turns 29 on Thursday, is one of the game’s fastest players - he has 18 stolen bases and five triples this season to go along with a .277 average and .351 on-base percentage - and is a gifted defender. The Nationals plan to make him their everyday leadoff man and center fielder, hoping at last to have found a long-term solution in both departments.

“I’m very happy that I opened up somebody else’s eyes and somebody wants me,” Morgan told reporters in Pittsburgh. “It’s flattering. I look at it as a positive thing, not a negative thing.”

Formerly a promising junior league hockey player who only turned to baseball full time in 2000, Morgan also has been lauded for his work ethic and character traits.

“His attitude and makeup and high energy level is really a big part of his package as a player,” Rizzo said.

The Nationals had targeted Morgan for several weeks, but the key to finalizing the deal was the acquisition of Burnett, a former first-round draft pick whose career was derailed by Tommy John surgery but has since been revived out of the bullpen. The 26-year-old had a 3.06 ERA in 38 relief appearances this season and is effective against both left-handed hitters (.189 batting average against) and right-handed hitters (.211 batting average against).

Both players make slightly more than the league minimum salary of $400,000. Burnett will be eligible for arbitration this winter. Morgan won’t reach arbitration until after the 2010 season.

The Nationals probably didn’t envision trading either Milledge or Hanrahan when the season began, but both players got off to ragged starts and fell out of favor within the organization.

Milledge, in particular, was touted as a star-in-waiting and a cornerstone in Washington’s rebuilding effort when he was acquired from the New York Mets in December 2007 for Brian Schneider and Ryan Church. But after leading the club with 14 homers and 61 RBI last season, Milledge regressed.

Asked to lead off and play center field this spring, he opened the season 4-for-24 with several defensive miscues. He also was late to a team meeting, which combined with his poor play led to his demotion to Class AAA Syracuse in mid-April. A broken finger then sidelined him for more than a month, but he began a rehab assignment over the weekend and could join the Pirates’ roster in short order.

“I’m a big believer in him,” said manager Manny Acta, long one of Milledge’s strongest supporters. “I think it’s going to happen for him. It’s just tough that it didn’t happen here.”

Hanrahan wasn’t touted nearly as much as Milledge when he signed with Washington as a minor league free agent before the 2007 season, but the hard-throwing right-hander emerged as the club’s top option at closer after Chad Cordero got hurt and Jon Rauch was traded. He blew five of 10 save opportunities, though, and was demoted with an ERA of 7.71.

“I thank Manny and I thank Rizzo for sticking by me throughout the year,” Hanrahan said as he packed his bags Tuesday afternoon. “I have a good relationship with the guys here, and that’s the hard part about it: leaving people and leaving D.C. But careerwise, it might be a good move.”

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