In a shocking move Tuesday, the Pirates dealt Nate McLouth to the Braves, and called up heralded prospect Andrew McCutchen to take McLouth’s center field duties. The 21-year-old McCutchen was hitting .303 (61-for-201) with four home runs, 20 RBIs and 10 stolen bases for Triple-A Indianapolis prior to his promotion. For the Bucs, McLouth was the final piece – and the last star – left in one of the best outfields in the Majors last season.
“We know moves like this are going to be made,” manager John Russell told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And we stand behind them because we know they’re going to make us better in the long term.”
With McCutchen waiting in the wings the McLouth trade is different than last year’s midseason move of outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, simply because the Bucs already have a younger, cheaper replacement already in place. The All-Star and Golden Glove winner McLouth (.256/.349/.470) was a top-notch player and all-around good guy, but ultimately he would grow too expensive in the coming seasons of his multi-year deal. As a team with a smaller payroll, the Pirates are less interested in paying McLouth’s $6.5 million and $10.65 million salaries in 2011 and 2012, especially considering the team’s emphasis on building for the future.
While it’s too early to deem a winner in any trade involving still-developing prospects, I combined the McLouth loot with the players pocketed for Bay and Nady last season. These are the guys who will be counted on to elevate the beleaguered franchise’s farm system and eventually turn around a franchise losing streak that’s creeping up on 17 straight seasons. Below is a closer preliminary look at how the traded players stack up, with all statistics current through Thursday’s games.
CF Gorkys Hernandez, .316/.361/.387
The Venezuela native was originally acquired from Detroit in the Edgar Renteria deal. Hernandez, rated the “fastest base runner” in the Braves farm system by Baseball America last year, is a speedy fielder with limited power and an average on-base percentage. He’s homerless through 52 games in Double-A, and his stolen base drop-off –from 54 in 2007 to 20 last year – is a red flag. For now, the 21-year-old’s numbers don’t project well at the Major League level and with McCutchen figuring to be a mainstay, Hernandez would have to move to a corner outfield spot.
LHP Jeff Locke 1-4, 5.52 ERA
Locke has struggled with control (5.12 BB/9 IP) over his first 10 starts in Class-A Advanced. The Braves second-round pick in the 2006 draft, Locke has a low-90s fastball and power curve that induces a high ground ball rate (1.63 GO/AO). He is also reportedly developing a more effective change-up. The Pirates farm system is devoid of any standout lefties and Locke’s strikeout totals (8.47 K/9) and youth instantly elevates his stock. It’s always difficult to predict a pitcher’s future progress, but given the Bucs pitching problems, the 21-year-old Locke could make a case to crack the rotation in a few years if he stays on track.
RHP Charlie Morton 7-2, 2.26 ERA
The furthest along of the trio, Morton has 16 games of Major League experience under his belt. Unfortunately, that experience doesn’t reflect too fondly on the right-hander. Morton was hit around during his stint with the Braves last season, and posted a 6.15 ERA on 51 earned runs over 74 2/3 innings. A third-round pick in 2002, Morton has a fastball that tops out at 90 mph and gets by with a good breaking ball and improved change-up. Morton has fared well in 11 starts at Triple-A, and could be called up this season if necessary.
The Deal: On July 26, Nady and relief pitcher Damaso Marte were sent to the Yankees in exchange for pitcher Jeff Karstens and three prospects– pitchers Daniel McCutchen and Ross Ohlendorf and outfielder Jose Tabata.
RHP Daniel McCutchen 3-4, 4.61 ERA
An older prospect, the 26-year-old McCutchen is at an age where he needs to start producing now, if ever. With 50 strikeouts for Indianapolis, McCutchen is averaging a little less than one per inning, but he’s also walked two or more batters in four of 10 starts. Free passes never bode well in the Major Leagues, and his fly ball tendency (0.79 GO/AO) is another pressing issue.
OF Jose Tabata .250/.324/.297
Considered the cornerstone prospect of the deal, Tabata hasn’t played since April 28 and is currently nursing a strained right hamstring. Prior to the injury, Tabata got off to a poor start with Double-A Altoona and continues to make headlines off the field. Tabata was suspended for several days after leaving a game early (without notice) while in the Yankees farm system. This March, his much-older wife was arrested for kidnapping , although it’s an incident Tabata had not been linked to. Rated the third-best prospect in the Yankees organization last season, Tabata is young and immensely talented but could be more trouble than he’s worth.
The pair of prospects earned the Pirates No. 4 and 5 rotation spots out of Spring Training, and thus won’t be discussed in detail.
The Deal: With reportedly seconds to spare in last year’s trade deadline, the Pirates dealt Bay to the Red Sox as part of a three-team deal with the Dodgers that netted four prospects : Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris.
3B Andy LaRoche .298/.368/.423
RF Brandon Moss .264/.310/.372
RHP Craig Hansen 0-0, 5.68 ERA
The aforementioned trio immediately joined the big leagues following the trade, with LaRoche and Moss both everyday starters. Hansen was placed on the 15-day disabled list (and later moved to the 60-day) retroactive to April 25 with neck spasms that have plagued him since midway through Spring Training.
RHP Bryan Morris 0-0, 0.00 ERA
Morris is currently shelved with right shoulder inflammation and is on the Class-A Advanced roster. The Dodgers first-round pick in the 2006 amateur draft, Morris was shut down last season after pain in his right shoulder and arm (as well as his right big toe) and tossed a combined 20 games for the Class-A Great Lakes Loons and Hickory Crawdads. Prior to his injury, Morris went 2-6 with a 3.47 ERA.
In less than a year the Pirates demolished one of the most promising outfields in baseball, but in evaluating each trade’s early returns second-year general manager Neal Huntington has unquestionably restocked the organization’s depth. For better or worse, the Pittsburgh brass appear content with knowing 2009, and possibly 2010, won’t be their time.
Add in the extra cash flow caused by dumping McLouth and the Pirates should be able to add another top prospect by signing their first round pick in this week’s amateur draft.
McCutchen won’t be expected to match McLouth’s productivity in Pittsburgh right away, but the Bucs have a young, speedy left fielder in [Nyjer] Morgan (.256/.349/.470) and a solid platoon of Moss/Eric Hinske holding down right field. While clearly not the popular move, you have to give Huntington and Co. credit for making a gutsy call and dealing McLouth. Whether he was sold high or will continue to post 20-plus home runs a season remains to be seen. But with 16 straight losing seasons, the Bucs made the choice to invest and patiently wait for their farm system. At this point, it’s all they’ve got.