Thursday, June 4, 2009

You Have to Look Deeper to Find Pirate Motivation Behind the McLouth Deal

McLouth's gritty determination should make him a fan favorite in Atlanta

The Atlanta Braves shook up things fairly dramatically in the NL East on Wednesday as they not only released long-time fan favorite Tom Glavine, but they acquired all-star CF Nate McLouth from the Pirates for three minor leaguers. On the surface, it is a huge positive move by the Braves, as they not only acquire a first rate defensive CF with a solid bat, but they do so acquiring a very manageable three year contract and didn’t have to let go of their front line prospects to get him. But this is a deal that goes far deeper, with far greater impact than just McLouth for three prospects.

So why would Pittsburgh deal their 27yo, #3 hitter, all-star CF, who is under a very reasonable contract and is seemingly just entering his prime? From my perspective, there are three forces at work. First, the Pirates starting lineup prior to the trade was just barely over 26 years of age. Just this move, drops it below 26yo and makes it one of the youngest in baseball. Clearly this is a team that is not being built to win today. With McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Brad Lincoln and Jose Tabata all likely to be major contributors by the end of next season, although only 27yo, McLouth’s best years are likely to be wasted if he remains in Pittsburgh, so why not move him at the point of his highest value. The second reason that this makes sense for the Pirates is Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen is clearly one of the Minor League’s best talents and based on his performance this season, .303/.361/.493 in 200 AAA ABs, he is ready to contribute at the Major League level. The conventional wisdom was that McCutchen was going to force McLouth to RF and Moss to the bench, but this clears all obstacles in McCutchen’s path. Finally, the Pirates and Neal Huntington are looking to stamp a new face on the Pirates. They pick #4 in next week’s draft and are looking to follow up last year’s Alvarez selection with something that begins to erase the draft failures of the past. They are also believed to be looking to free up money to make a big splash in this July’s Latin American signing period. Dealing McLouth frees up a few more dollars and further erodes those links with the previous regime.

For the Braves, this seems like a no brainer. McLouth is exactly what they need right now in Atlanta--a solid CF defender , who can contribute offensively near the top of the order. I am not Bobby Cox, but I would slide McLouth into the #2-hole in front of Chipper and have one of the most solid #2-#6 lineups in the National League. But perhaps more importantly for the Braves, this gives Jordan Schafer a chance to go back down to Gwinnett and spend the time he obviously needs to fix the holes in his offensive game. Schafer whiffed 63 times in 167 At Bats and right now is clearly in over his head at the Major League level. With McLouth under contract for three more seasons, Schafer has plenty of time to develop. The icing on the cake for the Braves is that all of their top three pitching prospects: Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen and Cole Rohrbough and all of their top three hitting prospects: Jason Heyward, Jordan Schafer and Freddie Freeman, remain with the team.

So what did Pittsburgh get in return? Here is the real problem with the deal from my perspective. I am not in Huntington’s position, and I haven’t been testing the market for McLouth, but my gut tells me that he could have gotten more. It’s not a bad package, but I would have liked it better if it included at least one of the players from the list above. Gorkys Hernandez is the center-piece of the deal. A 21yo, CF, who has the tools to eventually force McCutchen to Right. While Hernandez isn’t as strong offensively as any of the CFs we have talked about thus far (McLouth, McCuthen and Schafer), his defense and speed make him the prototypical lead-off hitter…but he is likely nearly two years away. The next best player in the deal is the somewhat unheralded Jeff Locke. Locke is a 21yo, LHP, that possesses three league average pitches, including a low-90s fastball. I have significant concerns about how Locke has had increasing difficulty with control as he has moved up the ladder, and it is extremely prevalent (26BBs in 45 IP) in his Carolina League performance thus far this year. Finally there is Charlie Morton. I am not the biggest Morton fan, as he strikes me as the quintessential 4A pitcher who is clearly better than AAA, but hasn’t been able to translate that talent to Major League success. The Pirates are weak at the back end of the rotation with Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens, but I don’t see Morton as a better answer than say Tom Gorzelanny, and certainly isn’t as good of an option as I believe Brad Lincoln could be. So when it all gets boiled down, the Pirates dealt away the commitment of roughly $5 million per year and a link to the failures of the past for a potential Major League lead-off hitter and a pitcher with probably a 50/50 chance of ever contributing much at the Major League level. Unless you can call this addition by subtraction, I am not sure how this becomes of win for Pirate fans.

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