Neal Huntington had been general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates for little more than a season in early 2009 when he made a trade that was intensely unpopular among Pirates fans. Center fielder Nate McLouth was just 27 years old and coming off an All-Star campaign in 2008 that was worth 3.5 wins above replacement, when he was suddenly shipped off to the Atlanta Braves for three prospects.
What made the trade especially sting for the Pittsburgh faithful was the fact Huntington had signed McLouth to a three-year contract extension less than four months earlier, positioning McLouth as one of the faces of the next good Pirates team; this wasn’t the usual “trade them before they can leave” cycle that had been happening in Pittsburgh for years and fans felt betrayed.
Worse, the trade was made on the unusually early date of June 3, leaving Huntington vulnerable to accusations that he’d already given up on yet another Pirates season by trading the club’s best player — McLouth was off to a good start, hitting .256/.349/.470 at the time — when the team was just four games under .500.
After having traded Jason Bay the year before and then proceeding to also move veteran infielders Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, among others, at the July trading deadline, Huntington infamously added that “it wasn’t like we were breaking up the ’27 Yankees.” That only further stoked fan discontent as they stared at yet another rebuilding process, and the Pirates eventually bottomed out at 105 losses in 2010.
Four years after the trade, McLouth has been a disappointment, bouncing from Atlanta, back to Pittsburgh and now on to Baltimore. The Pirates have the third most wins in baseball in 2013 and are virtually assured of their first winning season since 1992. And the McLouth trade, the one that was so reviled at the time? It’s the trade that keeps on giving, having brought Pittsburgh 40 percent of its current starting rotation and, by extension, half of its regular first-base platoon.
In exchange for McLouth, the Braves sent pitching prospects Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez to Pittsburgh. The now 25-year-old Locke has developed into a valuable and important starter in his first full season for the Pirates, pitching more innings than anyone else on the staff while being named as a National League All-Star — just the third time the Pirates have had a starting pitcher gain that honor since 1995. As the rotation has weathered injuries to A.J. Burnett, James McDonald andWandy Rodriguez, while seeing 11 different pitchers make a start, Locke is the only Pirates starter to remain in the rotation all season long.
The advanced stats don’t really support the assertion that he’s suddenly a superstar. Locke walks too many (3.88 BB/9) and strikes out too few (6.03 K/9) to be thought of in the same class as the truly elite pitchers in baseball. That’s why his FIP of 3.82 is so much higher than his ERA of 2.15. That said, any pitcher with a FIP below 4.00 is absolutely providing value, and Locke has held opponents to three runs or fewer in 16 of his 18 starts, including the past 15 in a row.
Morton’s path since coming to Pittsburgh has been a bit more up-and-down. He was decent for the Pirates for the rest of 2009 after the trade, but was then one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2010 as he gave up home run after home run — 15 in just 79 2/3 innings. He came back in 2011 as an extreme ground ball pitcher who had mimicked Roy Halladay’s delivery and gave the Pirates a solid 29 starts. He then blew out his elbow last June, requiring Tommy John surgery. Once again healthy, Morton has returned to join Locke, Burnett, reclamation project Francisco Liriano and top prospect Gerrit Cole in the rotation, showing a surprising increase in velocity and an extreme ground ball rate of 62.7 percent, as well as a 3.38 ERA.
As for Hernandez — once a top prospect with Atlanta — his bat never really progressed. The sum of his on-field contributions to the Pirates consists of 26 punchless plate appearances last summer. But even he has brought value to Pittsburgh, since Huntington swapped him — along with a compensatory draft pick — to the Miami Marlins for first baseman Gaby Sanchez and a minor league pitcher last July. Sanchez rebounded with the Pirates after having been sent to the minors with the Marlins, and while a .234/.336/.403 line in parts of two seasons with Pittsburgh may not look like much, he’s still been worth one win over replacement in that time.
All told, the quartet of Hernandez, Locke, Morton and Sanchez has been worth 4.7 wins above replacement for the Pirates, as well as still retaining nine additional years of combined team control for Pittsburgh beyond 2013. Conversely, McLouth was worth just 0.3 WAR with the Braves, even being demoted to the minors for a time, leaving Atlanta after the Braves declined to exercise his option following 2011.
The benefits from the McLouth trade even went beyond the return in players from Atlanta. At the time of the trade, the Pirates had a 22-year-old center field prospect waiting for his chance while hitting .303/.361/.493 in Triple-A. Andrew McCutchen made his major league debut the next day and scored three runs. He hasn’t stopped producing since, contributing 3.4 WAR over the remainder of the season and 23.0 over his career to date as one of the brightest young stars in baseball.
Not every veteran-for-prospects trade works out, as Huntington himself could tell you. For example, of the four players the Pirates received for Bay, only middle reliever Bryan Morris remains in the organization. Even the trades that do work out usually defer the benefits for years down the road, just as this one has, and that can be tough for fans to swallow. But for a trade that was so despised by hometown fans at the time, Huntington managed to both improve at the position that the trade was made from by promoting from within and collect valuable young talent that’s paying off for a Pirates team that’s finally in position to contend. It’s a lesson worth remembering as other teams gauge whether to buy or sell at this year’s deadline.