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Hanrahan comes with pedigree

July 9, 2009
By John Perrotto,

PITTSBURGH - John Russell isn't usually a media critic but the Pirates manager was somewhat baffled by the coverage of the four-player trade his team made with the Washington Nationals 10 days ago.

The Pirates sent left fielder Nyjer Morgan and left-hander reliever Sean Burnett to the Nationals for right-handed reliever Joel Hanrahan and Class AAA outfielder Lastings Milledge.

"It seemed like everything I read and heard only focused on Milledge," Russell said. "It seemed like everyone kind of ignored that we got Joel Hanrahan in the deal. I think people are overlooking the fact that we were able to pick up a young pitcher with a great arm and a lot of ability, someone who could help for a long time."

Milledge, currently with the Pirates' top farm club at Indianapolis, came to the Pirates with pedigree. He has been considered a potential superstar since the New York Mets selected him in the first round of the 2003 first-year player draft as a high school senior in Bradenton, Fla.

At 24, the Pirates believe Milledge can become an integral part of their latest rebuilding project.

However, the 27-year-old Hanrahan also has pedigree, even if he isn't as well known as Milledge.

Hanrahan was the Los Angeles Dodgers' second-round draft pick in 2000 following his senior year of high school in Norwalk, Iowa. Hanrahan threw two no-hitters in the Dodgers' farm system before injuries eventually derailed his career. But he was so highly regarded after his first full season with the Nationals last year that he was selected to play for the United States in the World Baseball Classic this past March.

Pirates left-hander John Grabow was also part of Team USA's bullpen and was impressed.

"He has great stuff, the type of stuff to pitch at the back end of a bullpen and be very successful," Grabow said. "I didn't know much about him before the WBC, but he really opened my eyes. I don't know what happened with him in Washington this year, but I'm glad we have him."

It seems everyone wants to know what happened to Hanrahan with the Nationals.

Hanrahan had a rocky rookie season with them in 2007, going 5-3 with a 6.00 ERA in 12 games, 11 starts. He then thrived last season after being converted to a reliever in spring training, going 6-3 with nine saves and a 3.95 ERA in 69 games.

Hanrahan followed that with an impressive WBC, allowing only one run and three hits in five innings and six appearances.

However, counted on to be the Nationals' closer, everything fell apart when the regular season began. He twice was removed from the closer's role as he converted just 5 of 10 save opportunities while going 0-3 with a 7.71 ERA in 34 games.

Hanrahan says his downfall was attributable to a combination of factors, including putting too much pressure on himself to succeed in the closer's role and trying to mix in a changeup to keep hitters off balance after throwing primarily his 95-mph fastball and 86-mph slider in 2008.

While many pitchers seemed to struggle after pitching in the WBC because all the off days built into the event's schedule threw them off their normal spring-training routine, Hanrahan said that was not a factor.

"It was a good experience and I learned a lot from pitching in the high-pressure situations," Hanrahan said. "What happened is I had a couple of bad outings, the team was playing bad then everything snowballed for me and everyone else on the team."

The Nationals have the worst record in the major leagues. While the Pirates appeared headed for a 17th consecutive losing season, Hanrahan believes changing teams has helped him clear his mind.

It is the not the first time he has changed organizations. The Nationals signed him as a minor-league free agent after the Dodgers dropped him off their 40-man roster in 2006.

"Sometimes change can do you good and I had certainly reached a point where I needed a change in Washington," he said. "Changing organizations when I went from the Dodgers to the Nationals helped a lot because it gave me a fresh start. Changing from a starter to a reliever helped because I had more success in the new role.

"I think change is going to be good again this time. I'm with a young team with a lot of good guys who are still trying to establish themselves in the major leagues, like I am. We can all grow together and that's a good fit for me."

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