June 4, 2009
A New Age of Reason?
In the first major trade of the season, the Braves attempted to address their desperate outfield situation by swapping three prospects to the Pirates in exchange for nominal center fielder Nate McLouth. The deal is a lot more interesting than that, not least because what you're about to read here and what at least one other BP analyst says will be fairly divergent. Any time you can get that kind of disagreement, you have an interesting deal.
The Braves' end of the deal is simple: they get a major league outfielder. McLouth doesn't have to repeat his peak season of 2008 to help the Braves. He doesn't even have to play as well as he has so far this season (.256/.349/.470, with seven steals in as many attempts), although I'm sure they'd like to see some happy medium between the two. Braves outfielders have been so mind-alteringly bad that McLouth could go into a slump and still be outplaying all three starters. Garret Anderson, Jordan Schafer-demoted this week-and Jeff Francoeur have combined to be 12 runs below replacement level, and all three have come in below that pathetic standard. With his indifferent defense and his lack of speed, Anderson has been one of the worst players in the league.
The key part of the trade for the Braves is in who loses the playing time. If McLouth takes Gregor Blanco's place in center field, then much of the gain in acquiring him is washed away. Upgrading from Schafer to Blanco this week was a necessary change for a team desperately in need of some OBP. Blanco had a .366 mark last season thanks to a high walk rate, and if that number may be hard to reach again, a .270/.340/.350 line is achievable. Blanco should stay in the lineup now, with McLouth getting Anderson's playing time. That would give the Braves two major league outfielders, where a week ago they had none. Benching or demoting Blanco as a result of this deal would turn it into, if not a wash, a much less attractive trade.
At 27, McLouth has retained more of his 2008 value than I expected he would, upping his walk rate, continuing to steal bases, and retaining some of the power spike he experienced a year ago. Taken together, his 2007-09 seasons are pretty stable, and the idea that 2008 was a peak is as much about playing time and arc—it was his first season as a full-time player, and he got off to a huge start—as it was about value. I like the comparison of McLouth to Rusty Greer, who walked more and hit more singles, but had less power and speed. Greer was also a corner outfielder stretched in center field, one whose defensive performance lagged behind his reputation due to a penchant for making highlight-reel catches. Like McLouth, Greer got his first full-time run at 26, and was a good player for a number of seasons before his body gave out at about 32 years old. I could see McLouth having that kind of career arc, which is a little more generous of an opinion than the one that I had of him two months ago. There's still a sense that he's a very good fourth outfielder who is a marginal starter, but even as I type that, I wonder if the concept is dead. How many "good fourth outfielders" exist any longer? The players I tag with that label all seem to end up starting; Shane Victorino, Gary Matthews Jr., Eric Byrnes all come to mind.
Bringing it back to the trade, I see the Pirates as having done all right in it. They traded a player at or near the peak of his value, whose useful career would not extend into their next run of success, for quantity. Gorkys Hernandez is hitting an empty .316 at Double-A with a high strikeout rate, which isn't much to get excited about. For the Pirates, though, he becomes a rated prospect who could be a fair regular in a corner, at low cost, for a few seasons. To put it another way, he could be their next Nate McLouth. Neither Charlie Morton nor Jeff Locke is an impact prospect; both, however, continue to add to the Pirates' depth, similar to how they added bodies in the Xavier Nady and Jason Bay deals a year ago. Talent accumulation is a reasonable goal for this organization right now, and this trade addresses that.
The most interesting thing to me about this trade is what it says about the industry's evaluation of defense. The trade works because Nate McLouth was correctly valued, and that value takes into account that he's not a good defensive center fielder. The Pirates, who would have as good a read on McLouth's actual value as any team given that not only do they see him every day, but they employ Dan Fox as an analyst, took back a package that clearly did not value McLouth as a "Gold Glove" center fielder. If that deal were out there, if there were a team thinking of McLouth as a defensive stalwart, surely the return on him would have been better.
This strikes me as a turning point, the first time we've seen what amounts to a rejection of the conclusion of Gold Glove voters relative to the objective performance record. The industry has voted on Nate McLouth, and it's saying that his defense is closer to the numbers, and therefore worthy of three OK prospects in a deal, rather than closer to his reputation and worth more. A true +20 center fielder—one who's truly Gold Glove-caliber in the field—with McLouth's bat would be a steal for this package; no one involved sees him as such.
The trade is a good one for both teams. The Braves upgrade a black hole, while the Pirates trade a player at or near the peak of his value for more building blocks. The real conclusion, though, is that the trade is a win for the industry. It signals an embrace of rational approaches to player evaluation that would have been hard to foresee 15 years ago.