Every fan thinks their team should win every trade that their General Manager makes. It’s part of our human nature to keep score on who won and lost a trade, even as soon as the trade is completed. The reality is that most trades can’t be properly analyzed for quite a few years.
I’m not necessarily a scorekeeper of trades. It’s easy to say what Neal Huntington’s worst trade was, although I don’t fault him 100% for it. Bautista was said to be nigh-uncoachable and was on the verge of getting non-tendered at the end of the 2009 season in Toronto when his hitting coach suggested he tweak his batting stance. That was September 2009 (when he hit 10 of his 13 homers that year) and the rest is history.
Neal Huntington doesn’t have that slam-dunk type of trade, like the one the Rangers made when they traded Mark Teixeira to the Braves for Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Matt Harrison, but he has made some very solid ones. Tops on that list, in my opinion, is the Nate McLouth trade to the Braves.
In February 2009, the Pirates signed Nate McLouth to an extension of 3 year/$15.75M with a fourth year club option for $10.65M. This deal bought out McLouth’s three arbitration years and the option was for his first year of free agency. The year before, McLouth won a Gold Glove for his work in CF, further proof that defense doesn’t matter in Gold Glove voting. Rather, he was noticeable for his career year at age-26 of .276 AVG/.356 OBP/.497 SLG, with a league-leading 46 doubles, plus 26 homers and 23 steals. It was a heck of a year. When the deal was signed, there was an expectation (naturally) that McLouth would be around for a while. With Andrew McCutchen coming up through the minors, albeit not at a blistering clear-the-way pace, one of them would have to move off of CF.
But just four short months later, GM Neal Huntington found a deal that was too good to pass up. He traded McLouth to the Braves on June 3rd, 2009 for RHP Charlie Morton, LHP Jeff Locke, and OF Gorkys Hernandez. Morton was a starter with a lot of promise that just couldn’t put it together with the Braves (a sign of things to come here, too), Hernandez was viewed as a defensive wizard that was probably a good 4th OF, and Locke was the upside piece that could be a #3 starter.
Once McLouth was traded, center field was cleared for McCutchen and he made his debut the next night on June 4th, 2009. That’s worked out well. McLouth had a good-not-great rest of 2009 with the Braves; in two-thirds of a season he hit 11 homers and stole 12 bases with a 773 OPS. However, for whatever reason, he absolutely cratered during the rest of his tenure with the Braves, hitting .190 with a 620 OPS in 2010 and hitting .228 with a 677 OPS in 2011.
The way a trade tree works is to look at the whole picture of return for a player. If a player received in a trade is then subsequently traded himself, then the tree branch gets to continue growing the return for the asset. Let’s look at it graphically:
Graphic by TPOP
In my mind, there are three types of players:
- Cornerstone players — These are guys regularly delivering 5+ WAR seasons and players you hope will be with the team for more than 6 years
- Complementary players — Every team needs these guys that consistently deliver 2 to 4 WAR seasons. These kind of guys are usually on a team for 3 to 6 years, until they either get too pricey for their production or are traded for another asset
- Role players — Mostly bench and bullpen guys that give 0.5 to 2 WAR in a season. They’re usually around for 1 to 3 years are replaceable.
To me, McLouth was a complementary player. At the time, he was moved for two guys that were anticipated to be complementary guys (Morton and Locke) and a role player (Hernandez). Gorkys Hernandez was subsequently moved for two players, one of whom was Gaby Sanchez. The McLouth trade has returned three solid players that have contributed to the recent winning nature of the Pirates. At this point, I would say the return has been for one complementary player (Morton) and two role players (Locke and G. Sanchez, while he was here).
Morton has shown flashes, whether it’s a dominant game like in the 2013 NLDS against the Cardinals or for a stretch of time like carrying the rotation in August 2013, of being a solid #3 starter. But his injury history (Tommy John and now two hip labrum surgeries) and lack of a true out pitch have suppressed his inning totals to the point that he is more like a #4 starter for me.
Jeff Locke also seems to slot in as a back-of-the-rotation starter, due to his low inning totals and less-than-dominant stuff. He is also capable of flashing a great game here and there, but his ceiling at this point is a #4 starter. That sounds like a negative, but there is real value in having a rotation member making only $500,000.
Gaby Sanchez became a platoon 1B. He was the “short side” of the platoon, meaning as a right-handed hitter he only got at-bats versus the less plentiful left-handed pitchers. But the Pirates received 2-1/2 seasons of below-market cost production from Sanchez. With his non-tender, the book is closed on him.
If the Pirates trade any of these guys, the trade tree continues to grow with whatever asset is received in return. In my opinion, the return to date on McLouth is a perfect example of how to sell high on an asset before he loses value. Not as flashy as the Teixeira trade, but quite useful.