Nate McLouth, trotting the bases

Nate McLouth, trotting the bases

The timing of this is really quite shocking to me.  It was financially advantageous to keep Nate around for most of the remainder of his reasonably-priced three-year contract (this was not a salary dump–of the $15.75 million Nate was guaranteed, about two was already paid out, and take into account the major league minimum the three players will make for their first three years in the bigs, and you’ve got about 10 million net over three years…not a dump by any measure), and while I would expect a move like this in the second-to-last or final year of his contract, right now was seemingly not the time for such a trade.  However, let us look closer.  The Pirates outfield, antetrade, was Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss.  Andrew McCutchen was on cusp of making the major league team this spring, but the management had a couple legitimate (if “nit-picky”) aspects of his game that they wanted to see improved, like stolen base efficiency.  Another concern, which was not publicly voiced by management, was Major League service time.  He has performed admirably in AAA so far this season, and looked primed to come up to the big league club, especially since call him up now makes it unlikely that this entire year will count against his service time, thus basically adding another year to how long the Pirates control him (or so I understand it).

So why didn’t they just bring him up?  Well, who do you replace?  Theoretically, none of these players should block a prospect of McCutchen’s caliber.  It was generally accepted in the “Pirates Community” (all seventeen of us) that McLouth would give way in center field to McCutchen; but you don’t just bench him, he hits home runs and has speed.  You would move him to a corner:  likely right field because left field in PNC park is much larger than right and has an odd (and deep) notch in left-center.  Nyjer Morgan can absolutely fly in left field, and has much improved his defensive presence this year, so much so that he is currently the best defender, regardless of position, in the major leagues according to “ultimate zone rating”, as well as other metrics.  Morgan will save at least 35 runs (over average replacement) this year with his glove, so if you put McLouth who (despite a Gold Glove award) does not fare well according to most defensive metrics, in left, you lose a lot of runs defensively.  However, if you put him in right, you put Moss on the bench, which is tantamount to giving up on him:  25-year-olds do not generally develop well as fourth outfielders.  The power isn’t there and he hasn’t played well this year, but you still can’t sit him down, not until he proves vehemently that he can’t do it.  So, pragmatically, he is a little blocked by this outfield.  What are we to do?

Along comes Atlanta:  “We have an absolutely god-awful outfield with the likes of Gregor Blanco, Garret Anderson, Matt Diaz and Jeff ‘almost one month out of every year I can legitimately hit’ Francouer.  We want Nate McLouth.”  Interesting.  To me, it is fairly clear that this deal was Atlanta driven:  they came to the Pirates, desperate to get McLouth to shore up their outfield and energize a lineup anchored by Chipper “Methusala” Jones.  According to Huntington (Pirates GM for those not in the know), Atlanta was up front with the idea that Tommy Hanson and whoever their second best prospect is would not be involved in any deal.  The demands the Pirates made were initially turned down.  They eventually caved to the original demands.  The package:  Charlie Morton, who will replace Snell in the rotation after he gets bombed for 5 earned runs in 5 innings with 6 walks versus a lowly Houston team on Sunday, Jeff Locke, a high upside young pitcher (a lefty, tantalizing) who throws heat and an excellent curveball, as well as a work-in-progress changeup, and Gorkys Hernández who was in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects last year and ranked fourth among Atlanta prospects this year.

Hernández is perhaps the most interesting piece of the trade.  Gorkys’ speed is indisputable, and his patience and bat at the plate are quite good for a 21-year-old.  I’ve heard comparisons to Nyjer Morgan and Juan Pierre–that is, that he completely lacks power.  However, Pierre had one home run in his approximately 1500-plate-appearance minor league career, while Gorkys has 14 in an almost identical number and Nyjer had only seven in over 2200 plate appearances.  Clearly, he already has more power than these guys, and he has bat speed.  They say his power could develop:  sometimes “they” are right about this, sometimes wrong.  Take a look at McLouth’s own minor league numbers:  yearly homerun average is not dissimilar.  What’s that you say, he hit twelve in one year at Hickory?  Turns out, Hickory is the same place where Nyjer hit four of his seven in one year.

What this trade comes down to is the Pirates new working model.  Gone are the days of trading Aramis Ramírez and Kenny Lofton (yes he was old but still putting up a useful OPS) for José Hernández (a 33-year-old who literally sat out the last week of 2002 so he would remain one shy of Bobby Bonds strikeout record) and Matt Bruback–even at the time I don’t believe this guy was considered a prospect.  Pretend that he was though.  One lousy prospect (at a time when teams were far more willing to part with top prospects than nowadays) and a well below-average aging veteran for an above-average aging veteran and possibly the best young third baseman in the game.  Now that is a salary dump.  Here to stay are the days of taking comparatively small financial risks on lots of talented youngsters, developing them in your minors, and controlling the good ones for five or six years of their young career, signing some to fairly cheap extensions while young, before trading them away for more prospects.  Or worst case scenario letting them go in free agency for draft picks.  It’s all about calculated risk, delaying most financial risk until players are already showing promise at the major league level.  Compare this with signing extremely expensive “proven” veterans who still fail at an alarming rate.  How’s Putz, New York?  Boston–you liking Brad Penny?  Not only can the Pirates literally not afford to do that while still fielding an entire baseball team, it is not a model that has worked well for any team like the Pirates.

One more thing.  We must force ourselves to judge this trade as we see it now, not as things pan out.  Sure, all the prospects could fail, but it is the potential and consensus upside seen by scouts that makes them valuable now.  Look at it from the other side:  Nate McLouth has just come off a very good year, and that could turn out to be a career year, but even if it does, I think both sides suceeded in this trade.  Atlanta got a guy who is playing with pop and speed, and doesn’t miss any plays he gets to (even if he doesn’t get to enough), who is fairly cheap for this year and then two more, while the Pirates got some players who might be on the next good Pirates team, because face it:  even if they don’t have a losing record this year, the next good Pirates team probably won’t hit the field until at least 2011.