The rumors are that the Nationals are trying to swap Lastings Milledge for Nyjer Morgan. We wouldn't be fleecing the Pirates by any stretch, and I don't love the idea of trading a young player with upside at the bottom of his value, but I don't think this is a terrible idea.
The argument for Morgan is simple: the guy can flat-out play defense. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR/150) says his glove is worth 25.4 runs above average per 150 games.
We all know how bad the Nationals defense has been, but centerfield has been particularly terrible. For the year, Nationals centerfielders have posted a ghastly -17.8 UZR/150. A 43.2 run swing at a single position is enormous. That's like the difference between 2008 Willy Taveras, the worst regular CF in baseball, and 2008 Josh Hamilton.
The glaring defensive ineptitude of the Nationals is really killing them right now. The bullpen can't get four outs, and the team won't risk making young arms go deep in games.
The knock on Morgan is that he really has no power at all. His OBP last season was a solid .345, but that came on the strength of an unsustainable .367 BABIP, so one would expect him to be back in the low-.300s in OBP this year. That's what most projection systems expected from him--CHONE had him at .326, and PECOTA had him way down at .300.
This year the BABIP is indeed down to .319, which for a guy with his wheels probably is sustainable, but his walk rate has nearly doubled, and his OBP remains right at .345. He still strikes out more than you'd like for a guy with his skill set, but overall he can keep this up if he keeps walking in 10% of his plate appearances.
Morgan's best role would be as a fourth outfielder defensive replacement and pinch runner, but for the Nationals, with their glaring weaknesses, he'd be a more than an adequate stop-gap if he's hitting .330 OBP. At .345 he's a legitimately average overall starting centerfielder.
And at 28, Morgan isn't young. But he started baseball relatively late. It's possible that he's still getting better.
Shipping Milledge away would be hard. He's still just 24, and he really did show steady improvement over his 2008 season.
But there's a big part of me that's felt for a while that Milledge won't be an above average player unless he can figure out how to make his glove play in center. He just won't have enough bat to be a premium corner outfielder. If Rizzo's judgment is that it's not going to happen (a judgment I'd be hard-pressed to provide evidence to counter), then I see Milledge as a fourth outfielder on a contender also.
Plus, Rizzo clearly doesn't like Milledge. Rizzo values defense, and Milledge isn't very good at it. Rizzo likes good clubhouse guys, and Milledge isn't one.
If the team could get more for Milledge, then obviously they should. But I'm not sure there'd be any takers. In fact, the coverage is that it's the Pirates that turned down the Milledge-for-Morgan deal, asking for Craig Stammen too. Two years ago, Milledge fetched Ryan Church and Brian Schneider. Since then, his stock has surely dropped at least some.
It's certainly possible that this would be a really bad idea. If Milledge clicks and becomes a plus defender in a corner outfield spot and his bat takes a leap forward, he could still be a much better player than Morgan for a lot longer. But he won't be a star. Fans still reminiscing about rumors of Lastings for Manny straight up are way, way out of touch with the current reality.
This is the kind of deal that's less about making a splash and more about building a team. That's probably what I like most about it. From the greater emphasis on defense to the groundball pitchers to the bias against raw tools guys in the draft, Rizzo is showing that he wants to build a basebal team rather than a collection of flashy names.
We're seeing a guy with an actual plan for constructing a roster and maximizing the value of assets available. I know it's unfamiliar for Nationals fans, but it's a welcome change.
Update: As noted in the comments, there's a report that the Nationals are pursuing Braves prospect Jordan Schaefer. This would be an exciting development, and the Braves are desperate for a corner outfield bat. I've thought they were a good possible trading option for a long time. But it's hard to imagine the Braves doing this for less than Adam Dunn.