Thoughts on the McLouth trade

The Pirates stunned fans everywhere by trading Nate McLouth to the Atlanta Braves for three prospects tonight. In return, the Bucs received 25-year-old pitcher Charlie Morton, 21-year-old outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and 21-year-old pitcher Jeff Locke.

Let’s start by looking at the philosophy of this trade. McLouth was signed through 2011, plus a team option for 2012. Most likely, the Pirates were not going to be competitive until he was approaching free agency. As fans, we considered McLouth to be part of a future core that included Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm. In reality, the team is building around Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Brad Lincoln, etc. We are still a few years away from competing, and McLouth probably would not have been here when the time came.

Now that we have established that McLouth was not untouchable, let’s look at the actual trade. First of all, what are we losing? McLouth had a very good 2008 season, worth about 3.5 wins. That number ranked him 22nd out of 62 qualified MLB outfielders. Thus, in a season that very well may have represented his peak, McLouth barely cracked the top third at his position. I love Nate, but he is a good player that we consider to be a great one because of the lack of talent around him in Pittsburgh. His offensive production has exceeded the expectations of many scouts, particularly regarding his power numbers. But the label that he was tagged with early in his career is still an issue. He is not a great center fielder, and his bat is much less appealing when it is coming from a corner outfield spot.

Morton is having a solid 2009 season in Triple-A, with 55 strikeouts, 16 walks and only three home runs allowed in 64.2 innings. Opponents have hit .222 against him, contributing to an impressive 1.05 WHIP. Morton throws hard with a power sinker, but struggles with consistency at times. He will be assigned to Triple-A and could be in line to move into the major league rotation very soon.

Hernandez is a toolsy guy that scouts love. He is described as a special defender with exciting speed, and has spent most of his professional career at advanced levels for his age. He has not displayed ideal patience or power to this point. If Hernandez ends up in the same outfield as McCutchen someday, the Pirates are going to run down a large number of fly balls.

Locke probably has the most upside of these three prospects. He is also the farthest from the major leagues and the biggest risk. He throws hard with good movement, mixing in a strong curveball and a developing change. Locke has also struggled with consistency, and high walk totals have hurt his numbers this season. However, the rest of his peripherals remain strong. Locke immediately becomes one of the top pitching prospects in the system.

Obviously, this is a bold move by Neal Huntington. Pirate fans are already calling for his head, and the criticism will only get worse. The return on this trade does not blow me away, but it has the potential to produce positive gains down the road. The pitching depth in the organization is abysmal, something that needs to change for the team to ever compete. Huntington dealt one of his best and most popular players in an attempt to improve that pitching depth. It remains to be seen how successful the move will be.

One positive is that we now have the chance to see what McCutchen can do in Pittsburgh.

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