Re-casting the Nate McLouth trade (again)

Subtitle: People do realize Charlie Morton’s not chopped liver, right?

When I first read Chuck Finder’s Monday Q&A about the Nate McLouth trade, I thought to myself “Geeeez, are people still talking about this?” Then I sat down and thought about it some and decided that a lot of people still don’t view this trade in anything close to what I’d consider to be the “right” (if there can be such a thing in a situation like this) context and that maybe I could sit down and sink a bunch of words into it because hey, that’s what I do, right? Pitchers and catchers don’t oficially report until tomorrow, so let’s flog this dead horse once more for old-time’s sake.

The problem that I have with the way the trade is still generally viewed by the public is the perception that trading McLouth was some kind of betrayal of the public’s trust. As my favorite mysterious prime-time television demigod once said, “It only ends once. Everything that happens before then is just progress.” With a little bit of hindsight, the reason for the McLouth trade seems blindingly clear to me. The Pirates traded from a strength, outfield and particularly center field depth, to acquire something that they had very little of, pitching and pitching depth.

There were a lot of things that happened between when the Pirates signed McLouth to his extension last spring and Huntington or Coonelly or whoever made the statement about him being a cornerstone or franchise player or whatever that some people now view as such a bald-faced lie. By the end of May, it was abundantly clear that Andrew McCutchen was ready to play center field in the Major Leagues, that Nyjer Morgan was a better player than any of us expected, and that McLouth was exactly what we thought he was (that is, an averageish fielding center fielder [go away Gold Glove fans] with some decent pop that wouldn’t play nearly well as well in a corner). The team was still hard-up for pitching, both at the big league level and in the minors.

When the Braves made their offer for McLouth, I think it’s easy now to see why Huntington felt it was an offer he couldn’t refuse; Morton’s got a very good groundball rate and it’s coupled with a good minor league strikeout rate, which means that there’s a very good chance that he’ll at least equal McLouth’s value himself in 2010. If you consider their value to be equal, just trading an decent-to-good outfielder destined to be an odd-man out and who’s value was only likely decrease more as his hot 2008 start faded further into the ether for an decent-to-good starter was a good move for a team in the Pirates’ position (I mean, Jeff Karstens was still pitching in the rotation) to make. But Huntington got more than that; he got Jeff Locke, a young pitcher with a very good pedigree who came on strong as 2009 ended and he got Gorkys Hernandez, a young and very raw outfield talent.

We can sit back and discuss whether that’s “enough” for McLouth until the cows come home, but that really is missing the point, isn’t it? I think a more fair question is this: Are the Pirates better off in 2010 with Charlie Morton in the rotation instead of Nate McLouth in the outfield? You may think this answer seems obvious, but McLouth hit .257/.331/.437 after June 1st in 2008, the followed that up with a .256/.352/.436 season in Pittsburgh in Atlanta. CHONE sees a slight improvement for him in 2010, to an OPS of right around .800. So is the difference between him and Jeff Clement or Lastings Milledge (one of the two would be bumped if he were playing left field) greater than the gap between Charlie Morton and Kevin Hart or Dan McCutchen? Is it bigger than the gap between Hart/McCutchen and Virgil Vasquez, presumably the sixth starter if Morton wasn’t around?

There’s not a clear answer there until the season starts, but pitchers with an FIP (to the Glossary!) of around 4.00 aren’t necessarily that easy to come by. Morton’s was 4.15 with the Pirates (even with that awful inning in Chicago!) and both Bill James and CHONE project him to maintain or improve on that. RotoGraphs (FanGraphs’ fantasy arm) has already identified him as a sleeper and they’re not the only place to make that sort of prediction.

When the Pirates extended McLouth the Frank Coonelly comment that still has people upset was this:

“The long-term commitments we have made to core players developed here, both this year and last year, reflect our commitment to build a strong core from within our system. Ryan, Paul and Nate all dedicated themselves to becoming championship-caliber players, and all three demonstrated a strong desire to play integral roles in this organization’s turnaround.”

If the goal is to build a strong core, isn’t the team best served by constantly re-evaluating what that core needs to consist of?

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.