Revisiting the Nate McLouth trade

Pittsburgh Pirates vs St. Louis Cardinals

In today’s Q&A, Chuck Finder answers a question from a fan upset about last June’s Nate McLouth trade. I understand why this trade incensed many fans. McLouth was a quality player and a fan favorite. He was one of my favorites, too. But once we get past the emotional reaction, we see that the trade of McLouth, along with the subsequent acquisition of Lastings Milledge, did not exactly hurt the Pirates. In 2009, McLouth was only marginally more valuable for Atlanta than Charlie Morton was for the Pirates. When we consider Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones were more productive outfielders, it is clear that the McLouth deal did not affect the Pirates last season.

Let’s look forward to 2010, primarily at the difference between an outfield duo of McLouth/Nyjer Morgan and McCutchen/Milledge. I converted CHONE’s projected wOBA into runs using the formula (wOBA – .330)/1.15 * 600. This gives us offensive runs above or below average, based on 600 plate appearances. Combining Erik Manning’s UZR/150 projections with a positional adjustment gives us a total defensive value.

2010 Age Offense Defense Overall
Nate McLouth 28 13.0 -1.5 11.5
Nyjer Morgan 29 -4.7 3.5 -1.2
Andrew McCutchen 23 14.1 3.5 17.6
Lastings Milledge 25 4.2 -2.5 1.7

The Pirates have upgraded for 2010 in both left and center field, while becoming significantly younger in the process. McLouth is likely experiencing his peak, while Morgan will never replicate his 2009 production. McCutchen, on the other hand, is ready to burst into stardom, while Milledge is just approaching his prime years. Both of these players will improve, while McLouth and Morgan are more likely to decline. McLouth is a better option in right than Garrett Jones, but Charlie Morton provides a similar boost to the starting rotation. Besides, Jose Tabata is knocking on the door to take over right field.

2010 Age Offense Defense Overall
Nate McLouth 28 13.0 -1.5 11.5
2010 Age FIP Runs *
Charlie Morton 26 4.16 11.8
* based on 180 innings

McLouth was an asset in the outfield, a position of relative team depth. The Pirates exchanged him for Morton, a similarly valued asset on the mound, where the team was weak. The Bucs also received two of their current top 15 prospects in the process. I know it is not easy to accept as a fan, but the trade improved the Pirates’ future, without sacrificing much of the present.

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Matt Bandi

Matt has covered the Pirates at Wait ‘Til Next Year, Pittsburgh Lumber Co. and now Pirates Prospects. He served as Pirates team expert for Heater Magazine in 2009 and 2010 and has contributed to Graphical Player 2009, 2010 and 2011. Matt was also the editor of the 2011 and 2012 Pirates Prospects Annuals.

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  • PhillyJake

    Two thoughts –

    I think Morgan is going to have a better year than people think.

    The one thing I hated about the McLouth trade at the time was the giving up on the ’09 season. Not the quality of the trade. It was obviously a trade for the future. More a heart vs. logic anger. I had no illusion that the team was going anyplace. I just hated quitting.

    • Matt Bandi

      It may have been a trade for the future, but it still didn’t hurt the Pirates at all in 2009. The outfield was upgraded by replacing McLouth with McCutchen and Garrett Jones, and the rotation was upgraded by adding Morton.

      • PhillyJake

        Very true. Note that I said at the time. :-)

        Actually, I’m intrigued by the salt man. I looking forward to seeing what he can do. The broadcast team last year was gushing about his *stuff*. Let’s see him show it.

  • e poc

    Plus, if you view the two trades together, the Bucs seem to have exchanged Nyjer for a newer model (G Hernandez).

    • Matt Bandi

      Good point. Gorkys is likely to play an elite CF, while the bat is still a question mark. I would say Gorkys’ floor is Nyjer.

  • Will

    Don’t agree at all.

    First, why does everyone assume it was either McLouth or McCutchen? I for one would MUCH rather have had BOTH of them in the lineup. McLouth in left, McCutchen in center, and Jones/Tabata in right would be an INCREDIBLE all around outfield. Further, Nate was already signed for very reasonable dollars for another two seasons before the ridiculous balloon-payment option on the back of his contract. Milledge, if I’m not mistaken, is arb-eligible after THIS SEASON. Where do we win there? And while Milledge definitely has some ability and has definitely said and done all the right things since coming here—all very much to his credit—I’d much rather have Nate’s proven lefthanded power, far superior basestealing, and significantly better defense than Milledge’s overrated-to-this-point righthanded bat. Any. Day. Of. The. Week.

    Don’t even get me started on Gorkys Hernandez. Most “elite prospects”, quote-unquote, are definitely NOT traded TWICE in two seasons! We should count our blessings if he ends up being anywhere close to Nyjer Morgan, let alone Nate McLouth.

    I’ll concede that Charlie Morton definitely has electric stuff, but Morton alone does NOT come anywhere close to replacing what we lost in McLouth. And the idea that the trade “didn’t hurt us last year” is just not so. We took a proven 20-20 guy with a plus defensive game out of the everyday lineup and replaced him with an promising but unproven every-fifth-day pitcher who himself missed lots of time with hamstring injuries—and I don’t have to tell you that that is frequently the kiss of death for pitchers.

    Nope, I wasn’t on board with this trade then, and I’m not now. At minimum, we traded Nate a year too soon and for a much too speculative return.

    • Matt Bandi

      Milledge was about a league average player with the Pirates last year. McLouth, three years older and in the middle of his prime years, was only marginally better. Milledge has four more years before free agency. McLouth has two, plus a $10 million option in 2012. When McLouth was Milledge’s age, he hit .233/.293/.385. Personally, I would prefer to have Milledge moving forward.

      I’m not very high on Gorkys, but the fact that he has been traded twice has nothing to do with his future. Lots of players are traded. Jason Bay was traded three times before he reached the majors.

      Morton had a 4.15 FIP last year (league average – 4.32). Morton was worth maybe half a win less than McLouth to the Pirates. And Morton is two years younger. If we keep McLouth in 2009, we are weaker in the rotation and Garrett Jones never gets a chance to play regularly. And Jones greatly outplayed McLouth.

      Also, Morton missed 16 days to a hamstring injury in 2009, compared to the 22 days that McLouth missed with a hamstring injury.

  • Will

    Milledge was a “league average” outfielder? I don’t think so. Is 4 HR and 29 RBI in nearly 300 at bats a “league average” outfielder? Milledge’s batting average was definitely respectable (.291) and he definitely hustled. But his career OPS is a sickly .729. That’s not very good for a middle infielder, let alone a corner outfielder. And he was supposed to be a “five tool player” when he was drafted.

    And I wasn’t talking about when he’s eligible for free agency. I was talking about when he is eligible for ARBITRATION.

    Yes, McLouth missed time due to his own hamstring injuries, but he was still a 20-20 man for the second consecutive season. FAR superior to what Milledge did for us, and it’s not close.

    • Matt Bandi

      Milledge was a 1 win player in 239 plate appearances with the Pirates. Over a full season, that’s an average 2.5 win player. McLouth was worth 3.6 wins in a full season. “Marginally better” was probably an exaggeration, but it’s not a giant gap when you consider McLouth is 3.5 years older.

  • Will

    And the bit about McLouth hitting .233 is a canard. Nate didn’t get regular playing time “when he was Milledge’s age” thanks to the managerial genius of Jim Tracy and Dave Littlefield. Milledge was run out there every day upon coming up to the Pirates, while McLouth was used as a pinch hitter and occasional starter. Any and every time McLouth got to go out there every day, he produced, pure and simple. So the “comparison” with Milledge at the same age is bogus, too.

  • Will

    A player being younger than another player is no guarantee—in and of itself—that he will be objectively better on the field. McLouth is still in his prime, and will be for another 2 to 3 seasons at least. He was signed for very reasonable dollars for that entire time frame. Milledge (again, please correct me if I’m wrong here) will be arbitration eligible after 2010, and could conceivably cost more money than McLouth will over the next 2-3 years if Milledge has a big season in 2010 and cashes in.

    Again, this should not be read as bashing Milledge. If he continues his good soldier behavior, and if he is healthy (to be fair, he had the wrist injury last year), there’s still a chance he will be a decent-to-good starting outfielder. He hasn’t been over 1200 at bats to this point in his career, and that’s not a small sample size. I’m just saying, McLouth is better, Milledge might actually end up being more expensive to hold onto than McLouth would have been, and in any event I’d much rather have had McLouth and McCutchen together than just one or the other.

    Thanks for the good discussion and debate.

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