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June 4, 2009

Transaction of the Day

The McLouth Trade

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Activated LF-L Garret Anderson from the 15-day DL; optioned LF-L Brandon Jones to Gwinnett (Triple-A). [5/5]
Activated C-L Brian McCann from the 15-day DL; optioned C-R Clint Sammons to Gwinnett. [5/8]
Placed UT-S Omar Infante (fractured hand) and LHP Jo-Jo Reyes (strained hamstring) on the 15-day DL; purchased the contract of RHP Kris Medlen from Gwinnett; recalled SS-R Diory Hernandez from Gwinnett. [5/21]
Optioned RHP James Parr to Gwinnett; recalled RHP Manny Acosta from Gwinnett. [5/22]
Placed RHP Buddy Carlyle on the 15-day DL; activated RHP Jorge Campillo from the 15-day DL. [5/26]
Optioned CF-L Jordan Schafer to Gwinnett; recalled CF-L Gregor Blanco from Gwinnett. [6/2]
Acquired OF-L Nate McLouth from the Pirates for RHP Charlie Morton, LHP Jeff Locke, and CF-R Gorkys Hernandez; returned RHP Jorge Campillo to the 15-day DL (shoulder); recalled OF-R Brian Barton from Gwinnett; released LHP Tom Glavine. [6/3]

The Braves are usually in a position to deal from depth, and they certainly did so with this exchange, adding an outfielder they desperately needed for a collection of talent they could readily swap out. While Hernandez and Locke rated among the organization's top 10 prospects on Baseball America's top prospects list, and Locke just missed on Kevin Goldstein's here at BP, that's more impressive-sounding than it really is. The Braves threw stuff at the Pirates, and it turned out to be the right combination to feed the Bucs' omnivorousness for prospects of any and every stripe. There isn't one player given up that the Braves will really miss all that much, though I'm sure they'll be happy to see all three succeed in the Steel City, since it might encourage other dumping teams to deal for depth. It isn't like they're going to give up the real crown jewels of the system, Jordan Schafer or Tommy Hanson or Jason Heyward.

So, throwing together a package to get an at-peak outfielder like McLouth, one who can at least play some in center, works for me and then some. I know, he leaves most of us statheads unimpressed, and Clay's fielding numbers put him down for a below-average 94 in center this season, an improvement on his Gold Glove-winning '08—but the man does boast a tasty .947 Revised Zone Rating. That said, I think it's safe to concede the point that he's not a great center fielder; he wasn't seen as one coming up, various defensive metrics generally aren't charitable to him, and he was sort of sucked into the vacuum there in Pittsburgh because top prospect Andrew McCutchen wasn't ready yet. I think it's also safe to say he won't have to be a center fielder for the Braves for very long, not when Schafer's blue-chip status hasn't started fading from navy to azure, just because of one rough introduction to the majors.

McLouth's right-now offensive value also shouldn't be understated. True, he won't repeat what he did last season. But take his PECOTA projection for 2009 and change it from the Pirates to the Braves, and you still get triple-crown rate stats of .283/.365/.489 calling Atlanta home, and a .295 EqA instead of his .297 with the Pirates. Add in that he's currently delivering an EqA in the .290s, and there's a certain predictability to the value the Braves can anticipate from their new outfielder. That's obviously somebody you want and can win with right not, and to get it for a center-field prospect you can't use if you understandably prefer Schafer plus two arms you can't contend with, and I think it's clearly a very good trade for the Braves when it came to applying assets to resolve big problems on the major league team. Pulling this deal off now, when you've got four more months of regular season yet to go, simply makes it an inspired action from the front office, as a pro-active outfield fix for a team that can't afford to let their opportunities slip by while the Phillies begin to get vincible in their rotation and the Mets watch their lineup fall apart.

For the Braves, this deal comes with the additional benefit of cost certainty. McLouth is locked in for 2010 and 2011 for $11 million, with a 2012 club option that would cost a steep $10.65 million to pick up for his age-30 season, or a comparatively modest $1.25 million to buy out. Whichever choice you make in terms of the average annual value of the deal—$12.25 million for two seasons, or $21.65 million for three, that's the balance of his peak seasons bought at a price you may not be able to equal on the free-agency market for an older hitter.

That's not the only long-term planning benefit that adding McLouth brings the Braves. They get the immediate benefit of the initial positional value of employing him in center (setting aside the debate about his defense for the moment), and that buys time for Schafer so that the prospect can reacquire his bearings and be ready to take over in 2010 or 2011—or after Garret Anderson is gone, a point at which McLouth might move to either corner. (This also puts Brandon Jones and Jeff Francoeur in the unenviable position of trying to prove they have a place in the Braves' future at something like 14 months at the outside, what with Jason Heyward raking in the Carolina League.)

Which will bring me to a point of disagreement with Joe's bit from earlier today, which is that nothing the Braves do with their other outfielders makes this deal worse—this deal's the deal the Braves made, and still quite sweet. Whether they swung it or not, they still also have the same decision tree to go through that they already had to deal with, in terms of what to do about Anderson and Francoeur after already sending down Schafer. Adding McLouth is a first step in fixing the outfield; the deal itself is a win. Whether the Braves use McLouth in center (now) and/or left (later) is a separate issue, one that can only be resolved by the team's following up on the same sort of coldly rational decision-making when it came to cutting Glavine to give Tommy Hanson his major league debut this weekend, and applying that to what to do about Frenchy in right and Slapless Slappy in left.

Now, returning to my thought that Heyward's eventual arrival will force people's hands by some point either late in 2010 or in time for 2011, I'd argue that fixing the outfield is a conundrum the solutions to which ought to involve expansion to include Brandon Jones and Matt Diaz beyond getting worked up over Blanco. While I could comfortably assert that Blanco in center, McLouth in right, and a Bratt Joniaz platoon in left represents a best-case set-up with a set of Strat cards, I can understand the Braves preferring Anderson and Diaz in left. That was the plan from the start, Anderson's recently hitting for power after missing most of April, and he might enjoy some additional benefit of the doubt on the basis of his latest slow start just being an echo of his doing likewise in 2007 (.285/.286/.424) and 2008 (.263/.302/.388) before having big second halves in both campaigns (.305/.361/.530 in '07, then .335/.360/.496 in '08). It's easy to shout for change here, but I'd leave that for sports radio-inflicted rabies. I can also understand letting Francoeur's flailing run on a bit longer, but I doubt they'll indulge him into July if there's no improvement. The question really is whether they see nailing down one outfield spot with the McLouth deal after shipping out Schafer as a nice first step, or the only fix they need to make at the moment. Letting it ride in left would be understandable; if there's an issue, it's standing by Francoeur for too much longer, but if they wound up with Schafer back and in center, with McLouth moving over to right, while they stick with the old men in left, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised, nor would I blame them for going that route.

With Blanco, Anderson, and Jones (and Schafer) all batting lefty, and Francoeur and Diaz from the right, they have options aplenty, but in saying this, I guess it's important to not get too worked up over Blanco. He's a decent OBP source and someone who can run, yes, but not some overlooked everyday center fielder, yearning to be free, not when a quick check of assorted defensive metrics—Clay's, John Dewan's Plus/Minus, UZR, and RZR—reveals that only one of them (RZR) suggests that he's a defensive asset up the middle, and when his arm is probably really only suitable for left. Adequacy afield matched with tepid hitting skills for someone in his age-25 season? Well, OK, that's an upgrade on Francoeur in Frenchy's present predicament, sure, but now we're well into tallest midget competitions; for the reasons discussed, I wouldn't race to bench the Anderson/Diaz platoon for him. To turn to the other option, while I've been willing to give Jones a lot of benefit of the doubt for a while now, he hasn't hit for power this year or last. That just brings us back to the more basic problem, which is that, absent Schafer's being ready, none of the alternatives are that worthwhile, not as options to get McLouth into a corner on an everyday basis. Platooning Francoeur with Jones or Blanco might be a temporary solution

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Optioned MI-R Brian Bixler to Indianapolis. [5/11]
Activated SS-R Jack Wilson from the 15-day DL. [5/12]
Acquired RHP Eric Hacker from the Yankees for RHP Romulo Sanchez, and assigned Hacker to Indianapolis; transferred LHP Phil Dumatrait from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/16]
Placed RHP Tyler Yates on the 15-day DL (elbow inflammation), retroactive to 5/16; recalled LHP Tom Gorzelanny from Indianapolis. [5/17]
Claimed RHP Steven Jackson off of waivers from the Yankees, and assigned him to Indianapolis; released RHP Jimmy Barthmaier. [5/18]
Placed LHP Donald Veal on the 15-day DL (strained groin), retroactive to 5/30. [5/31]
Recalled RHP Steven Jackson from Indianapolis. [6/1]
Traded CF-L Nate McLouth to the Braves for RHP Charlie Morton, LHP Jeff Locke, and CF-R Gorkys Hernandez; purchased the contract of CF-R Andrew McCutchen from Indianapolis; transferred RHP Craig Hansen from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [6/3]

Meh.

I hate the one-word paragraph almost as much as I hate the one-word sentence. It's a cheap stunt as far as trying to invest whatever sentiment with an elaborate, overstated bit of drama, and I usually associate it with a kind of prosey laziness I don't usually have much patience for it in others, and treat as an anathema in my own. And yet there it is, my response to this latest addition of other people's talents to an organization admittedly short of talent in any form. Meh.

In part, this response is inspired by the timing. The Pirates didn't need to make this deal in a hurry, and certainly could have afforded themselves the opportunity to shop around; if this really was the best they could do for McLouth, that says something about how McLouth might, of all things, be underrated despite a silly Gold Glove selection, because we in the chattering classes like to pillory that particular process, and McLouth was such a disappointment initially, and he's not going to be a great player for years and years. But setting ahead those kind of well-worn talking points, the questions are these: what did the Pirates get, and is it something they can use?

The obvious prize in the exchange is Gorkys Hernandez. That he's 21 and already in Double-A is impressive; that he's hitting .316/.361/.387 while getting caught stealing eight of 18 times isn't really. (That translates to a pathetic pair of performance stats, .207 EqA at present with a .239 Peak EqA.) Now, he's young, and he's run better than this before, and he won't only be a singles hitter, and he plays a fine center field. All swell, those qualities, all very admirable things if you're on a quest to go out and get a little man's gamer. Assuming his defensive value sticks, and he's probably going to be a better player than his set of top comparables coming into the season: Carlos Gomez '07, William Canate '93, Desmond Jennings just last year, and the ubiquitous Gregor Blanco circa 2005. If that collection of names sounds mildly disappointing as a crew of comps, that's because it should be. So a young low-powered center-field type who isn't running well in the Southern League; how keen. Is that really what a team that has Andrew McCutchen for center field for the foreseeable future needs? If this makes for a future in which McCutchen's in right field, color me disappointed and a little frightened over what that might mean for the Pirates' offensive future, because while I like his upside as a center fielder quite a bit, the forecast for his peak seasons as a hitter suggests he'd be a bad choice to start in a corner.

Maybe this means that Hernandez is meat on the hoof, an interesting prospect worth having, sort of like Jose Tabata, somebody toolsy who you pick up hoping for the upside potential to come through for you. Maybe you can repurpose him in some future deal. Sure, maybe, but I guess I find that it's more likely that Hernandez's perceived value may never be higher than it is right now, and that if you're instead left with a singles hitter who runs some but not all that well and plays center really well, that sounds like a third-division starter, somebody who, like Willy Taveras, you could get carried away with briefly, but also someone you end up regretting having a fascination for. It also makes for a player you'll be lucky to find another front-office exec willing to value as highly, because a few months or years down the road, if Hernandez grows up to be the new Gregor Blanco, nobody's going to give you really good stuff for that, and nobody should.

Then there are the pitchers, and you can never have too many of those, right? Well, I suppose that's true, after a fashion, and Charlie Morton's good enough to be in somebody's rotation. There's a reasonable argument to be made that he might wind up as the best player the Pirates received in the deal. (Faint praise, meet damnation.) Sort of like Hernandez, he's got the big frame and solid low-90s heat that make it easy to think he's got the tools to stick around. Having blossomed as a starter last season, earning a big-league trial, he followed that up with an equally impressive ten-start run in Triple-A this season, managing seven quality starts for Richmond, capped by a nine-inning complete-game shutout on May 29 (nicely timed, that). With 55 strikeouts against just 16 walks in 64 2/3 innings, 2.5 runs allowed per nine, and three working off-speed pitches to mix in with that fastball, he's ready enough to step right into the Pirates' rotation right now, though if he got the job, it would be at the expense of one of the depth-deal add-ons from last season, either Ross Ohlendorf or Jeff Karstens. Since they're locked in on multi-year commitments to Ian Snell and Paul Maholm, and have a pair of arbitration years with Zach Duke yet to contend, that may seem like pointless churn. However, while it may well work out that way, I'm beginning to lean toward the idea that Morton has more upside as a starter than either Ohlendorf or Karstens, and if this deal converts the former into a quality reliever while improving the rotation, that's improvement, however modest.

Then there's Locke. Only 21 and a second-round pick in 2006, he's got the immediate virtue of being left-handed while throwing a low-90s fastball and a good curve. He also has problems with consistency in his delivery and with his mechanics, and he was being lit up by High-A hitters, allowing 78 baserunners and 31 runs in 45 2/3 IP; outside of pitcher-friendly Myrtle Beach, that jumps up to 40 baserunners and 19 runs in 19 1/3 IP. The 43 strikeouts he's logged suggest the promise that puts him on prospect lists, and before an ugly May, he'd been able to count on an above-average number of ground-ball outs. Perhaps the Pirates have seen something that explains why he's not generating grounders, and if they get him turned around, we can then tout their scouts and coaches for identifying a fixable problem and making it go away. Barring that, Locke's a live-armed lefty having problems in A-ball, however talented and worthwhile he is.

Put that all together, and what do we have? A center fielder who isn't as good as the organization's already-ready center-field prospect. A starting pitcher who might be a reliable fourth man with potential for more. A lefty with better-than-average velocity for a southpaw. Perhaps paradoxically, if this was December 2007, I'd say this was a great deal for the Pirates, but as a matter of cashing in on McLouth's value, I'm left thinking this was a deal made too soon for too little. With the draft around the corner and the international signing window about to open, it's worth wondering out loud if this isn't also perhaps a matter of getting out from under a financial commitment to McLouth, because nobody has been or ever likely will be interested in taking any of the money owed to Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez off the Pirates' hands. That's a bitter thing to ponder, of course, given that the organization's supposed to be beyond the bad old days of Kid McClatchy, Cam Bonifay, and David Littlefield, but it's clear that turning this thing around was going to take years. My problem is that I don't really see this deal adding substantively to that turnaround, and if this was all they could leverage out of McLouth's peak, it could be a cold, perhaps even downright frosty July where deadline deals are concerned.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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