Looking back at the Nate McLouth Trade

Of all the trades that have been made in the last two years, the one that comes as the biggest surprise was the Nate McLouth trade. We knew that the Pirates were shopping Jason Bay and Xavier Nady in 2008. We knew that the Pirates were shopping Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, and Adam LaRoche in 2009. At the same time you could figure that a McLouth trade was in the future plans, especially with Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata in the system, and Nyjer Morgan playing so well in the majors, but I don’t think anyone expected it to happen so soon.

The Pirates dealt McLouth on June 3rd to the Atlanta Braves, with no rumblings or rumors to give us any warning that a deal was coming. In return, the Pirates received Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Gorkys Hernandez. At the time I was upset over the move, mostly because I felt we should have gotten Tommy Hanson or Jason Heyward for McLouth. After those lofty expectations passed, I took a look at the deal, including a closer look at McLouth.
The Pirates signed McLouth to an extension before the 2009 season, following his breakout year in 2008 in which he not only won the NL Gold Glove award in center field, but also hit for a .276/.356/.497 line with 26 homers and 23 steals in 597 at-bats. It seemed that the Pirates had their first star center fielder since Andy Van Slyke left in 1994. However, those assumptions weren’t looking so good as the 2009 season progressed.
First of all, there was plenty of controversy surrounding the Gold Glove award for McLouth. While there are no perfect defensive measurements, the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) statistic is generally regarded as the best measuring tool. In 2008 McLouth ranked 15th out of 16 qualifying MLB center fielders in UZR. He also ranked 129th out of 138 MLB players who played center field in the 2008 season. That doesn’t exactly scream “Gold Glove”.
The results were better in 2009, although they weren’t much better. McLouth ranked 24th amongst 142 MLB players who played center field in 2009, and ranked seventh out of 18 qualifying center fielders in 2009. I’m not going to say McLouth is poor on defense, because he isn’t, but he’s not exactly one of the best players in the league, and probably wasn’t worthy of the Gold Glove in 2008.
Next comes the hitting. McLouth hit for a .276 average in his breakout 2008 season. Looking closer, he hit for a .312 average in the first two months of the season, with a 1.004 OPS. From June to the end of the season he hit for a .257 average with a .768 OPS. In 2009 he started the season hitting for a .256 average with an .819 OPS with the Pirates. With Atlanta he hit for a .257 average and a .773 OPS.
There’s a trend here that suggests his 2009 performance wasn’t a fluke. In 1812 major league at-bats, McLouth is a .260 hitter with a .796 OPS. I feel that’s the level of player he is. Before I go on, I want to say that I don’t place much value on batting average. The difference between a .276 hitter and a .256 hitter in 600 at-bats is 12 hits. That’s about a hit every two weeks, which is pretty insignificant. However, I’m not going to say that batting average doesn’t get evaluated in regards to a player’s value. There’s a reason .300 hitters make the Hall of Fame, while .250 hitters don’t.
At the time of the deal, it looked like McLouth was still capable of that .276 average and .853 OPS, and that he was just struggling in April and May. At the end of the season it looks like McLouth is a .256 hitter capable of an OPS just under .800. I’d take a leadoff hitter who hits .256 but has an on-base percentage around .350 and steals 20+ bases per year, while playing center field. The thing is, I don’t think you get Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Gorkys Hernandez in return for that guy.
As for the guys we got in return, in the long run this may go down as the best trade Neal Huntington has made. Morton pitched in the majors this year and anyone who saw him can tell you he’s better than the stats he put up. As for those stats, outside of his atrocious August 14th start at Wrigley, in which he allowed ten earned runs in an inning of work, Morton had a 3.66 ERA. As for my projection of Morton in 2010, let’s look at two players:
Player A: 5.8 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9
Player B: 5.2 K/9, 4.8 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9
Player A was Morton this year with the Pirates. Player B was Ross Ohlendorf last year in his time with the Pirates. Neither pitcher stuck out a lot of batters. Morton was significantly better than Ohlendorf in regards to his walk rate, and his home run rate. In 2009, Ohlendorf put up a 5.6 K/9, a 2.7 BB/9, and a 1.3 HR/9. It’s hard to say how much of that gets attributed to Joe Kerrigan, but you can’t say that Kerrigan didn’t play a factor. In order for Morton to match these ratios by Ohlendorf, he only needs to drop one walk per nine innings of work. Anyone think this is impossible after a winter with Kerrigan?
The prospects in the deal were Gorkys Hernandez and Jeff Locke. Hernandez was ranked as the fourth best prospect in Atlanta’s system coming in to the season, while Locke was ranked seventh. Hernandez is only 21 years old, and was hitting for a .316/.361/.387 line in 212 at-bats with Mississippi, Atlanta’s AA affiliate, before the trade. After the trade, Gorkys hit for a .262/.312/.340 line in 344 at-bats with Altoona.
It’s hard to pinpoint the struggles, since the Eastern League is actually easier to hit in compared to the Southern League. Gorkys showed success in the Southern League, but struggled in the Eastern League. It could be the trade that affected him. This is the second time Gorkys has been traded in three years. He spent the 2007 season with Detroit in A-ball, the 2008 season with Atlanta in high A-ball, and the 2009 season between Atlanta and Pittsburgh in AA. Moving up a level each year is hard enough. Moving up a level and being with a new organization each year is harder. Add to that the fact that Hernandez is only 21 years old, and this could be the reason for the struggles.
At the worst, Hernandez could end up as a fourth outfielder. He has great defense from what I’ve read and heard, and seems to do well on the base paths, with 113 steals in his four year minor league career. He could either be a poor man’s Nyjer Morgan off the bench, or he could be as good as Nate McLouth if he reaches his potential.
Jeff Locke pitched in Lynchburg following the trade, and also saw his struggles, although from my first hand observations, I can say that his stuff looks great. You can see for yourself in the video recaps I’ve done of his games. Locke is also fairly young, at 21 years of age, and put up a 4.08 ERA in his time with Lynchburg, with a 56:18 K/BB ratio in 81.2 innings pitched.
Locke has been mentioned in many trade rumors over the last few years, including the Jason Bay to Atlanta trade rumors last year, and the Jake Peavy trade rumors over the winter, but Atlanta refused to include him in the deals. The Pirates may have had a buy-low opportunity after Locke posted a 5.52 ERA in 45 innings of work with Atlanta’s high A affiliate. The biggest cause for Locke’s struggles with Atlanta this year were due to his 5.1 BB/9 ratio. Locke significantly reduced that, putting up a 2.0 BB/9 ratio in his time with Lynchburg, which is more in line with his minor league track record.
Locke throws his fastball in the 88-92 MPH range, and complements that with
a hard breaking ball, which could be an excellent pitch if he manages to control it. Locke is said to have the upside of a middle of the rotation starter, although if he somehow masters control of that breaking ball, I could see him being a top of the rotation starter, as his curve looks un-hittable when it is on.
The biggest thing this trade demonstrated was that this team has their eye to the future. That’s apparent when they trade a guy like Nate McLouth, but it also shows with the future plans. At the time of the trade, many questioned why the Pirates couldn’t bring up Andrew McCutchen and move McLouth to right field, with Nyjer Morgan in left. After Morgan was traded for Lastings Milledge, the same questions were raised, only with Milledge in place of Morgan.
I agree that it sounds like a good outfield. The only question is, what do you do when Jose Tabata is ready, which could be as early as June 2010? At that point you would likely see McLouth traded. The only problem is, at that point, McLouth’s value may have already dropped to a .256 hitter, not to mention the value drop when it comes to changing positions. McLouth’s numbers look a lot better in center field than they do in a corner outfield spot.
A Nate McLouth trade was inevitable with all of the outfield talent the Pirates have. I just don’t think anyone expected it to come so soon. It may have come at the right time, as McLouth’s value would have taken a hit not only if he moved to right field to make room for Andrew McCutchen, but also if he continued to hit for a .256 average like he did in Atlanta. In return the Pirates got two potential middle of the rotation starters in Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, plus a guy who has the skills to be as good as McLouth in Gorkys Hernandez. As I said before, I don’t think the Pirates get this return if they wait and trade McLouth at a later date.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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