The Pirates traded Nate McLouth to the Braves today for three players – AAA starting pitcher Charlie Morton, who may or may not be a Matlock character, AA outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, who is not to be confused with these dudes, and single-A lefty starter Jeff Locke, who should provide endless easy headlines should he ever make his way to the majors and pitch effectively.
My initial reaction to the deal: Why the hell not? The Pirates aren’t going anywhere this year, and the deal gives them three prospects of various ages and skill sets from a deep minor league system, and opens up a spot for Andrew McCutchen in center on the major league club; obviously McCutchen was gonna squeeze in there eventually anyway, but by making the deal now, the Pirates can play him in center field without having to move McLouth out of center and possibly dent his perceived trade value.
Bob Smizik interprets the deal as a sign the Pirates are giving up on 2009, but 1) If they are, who gives a crap, so we might not finish above the Astros, and 2) It’s not like they’re fire sale-ing the ’97 Marlins here, the Pirates are a middling major league ballclub trading a very good major league outfielder and replacing him with their highest-ceiling prospect (save Pedro Alvarez); they roll the dice on three prospects in exchange for losing a left-handed bat and some power in the short term, and they likely even improve defensively. So the team finishes with 70 wins instead of 74 – who cares? Are there even any knee-jerk casual fans left to alienate after the Bay trade?
On further examination, though, this deal serves as another reminder of just how highly baseball teams value prospects nowadays, even in comparison to just a half-decade ago. The days of Steve Phillips dealing Scott Kazmir in the midst of a pennant run are long gone; a combination of economic factors (particularly with the unstable economy facing MLB this season) and a virtual eradication of incompetent GMs has made trading for top prospects essentially impossible. Teams require a Miguel Cabrera or a Josh Beckett — a monstertalent who’s still young and under control for years — to even consider parting with a top prospect these days. The Pirates learned this firsthand a year ago when the Rays wouldn’t budge on offering Wade Davis, one of their many top-notch prospects, to land Jason Bay — a far superior hitter to McLouth, though admittedly, only under control for another year and a half — in the midst of their first-ever pennant race.
Instead, teams like the Pirates are forced to trade for quantity and depth, accept a level of risk (think Jose Tabata and injured Bryan Morris), and hope to ultimately hit on enough prospects to win out in the long-term. Perhaps it’s a fallacious argument on my part to assume that the lack of a better return for McLouth means that they probably couldn’t have gotten much more (or that the Pirates believe extra-highly enough in these three guys to pull the trigger on a deal when they didn’t have to), but that’s what I’m inclined to believe. And for fans whining about not getting one of the Braves’ heralded top two prospects, just stop — even a drooling baby in a Braves blanket wouldn’t have traded Tommy Hanson for 27-year-old Nate McLouth.
McLouth is hitting .256 / .349 / .470 this year, which is right in line with his .276 / .356 / .497 from his career year (and first full season) in ’08, and at 27, is highly unlikely to suddenly improve upon those numbers. He also slugged 30 points higher at home with the short PNC right field last year than on the road, and is slugging 116 points higher at home in ’09 (albiet in just 195 PA), plus, meaningless Gold Glove aside, most defensive metrics suggest he doesn’t belong in center field — both of these facts suggest he may not be quite as valuable overall as he has appeared to be for the Pirates the past season and a half. His trade value will almost certainly never be higher than it is right now, and with McCutchen tearing up AAA and the Braves’ outfield in shambles, June 3rd was as good a time as any to make the move.
Bottom line, Neal Huntington inherited a player who never received more than 330 at-bats under Dave Littlefield and parlayed him into two of the top seven prospects in a rich Braves organization, with another depth starting pitcher thrown in. In the current MLB climate of unparalelled organizational prospect-hoarding, I’ll call this a good deal for the Pirates.
And I imagine every Pirate season ticket holder will feel the same way.