Braves Acquire Nate McLouth From Pirates In Win-Win Deal

First of all, I think the term "win-win" is way over-used.  Trades are a zero sum game, and just because both teams receive a good player doesn't mean they each won the trade.  When there's a winner, there has to be a loser, and in order for both teams to win, that means the losers need to be the other teams in baseball.

That being said, the trade of Nate McLouth from the Pirates to the Braves in exchange for prospects Gorkys Hernandez, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Locke was actually a win-win move.  Let's take a look at the value of each piece of the trade, and then look at the specific situations in Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

The Players

  • Nate McLouth, 27, had a breakout season with the bat in 2008, posting a .369 wOBA and 23 runs above average on offense, and is continuing on that pace so far in 2009.  It's McLouth's skills in the field that make him a slightly overrated player, however.  UZR puts him at -10 runs per 150 games relative to other center fielders and TotalZone puts his 2008 season at -7 runs.  Given a typical skillset, that adjusts to about average in a corner outfield spot, and given that the Braves have a number of true center field outfield prospects, they know he's a corner outfielder.
    What's McLouth's future value?  Well, if over a full season he's +20 runs on offense and a league-average corner outfielder (-7.5 runs), that's a 3.25 WAR player worth about $15M on the free agent market at $4.5M per marginal win.  Assuming Atlanta picks up his 2012 option, he's due to earn $1.3M more in 2009, $4.5M in 2010, $6.5M in 2011, and $10.65M in 2012. That's a net value of $32M over the rest of his contract.
  • Gorkys Hernandez is a center field prospect, debuting at AA this year at age 21.  He came to Atlanta in the Edgar Renteria deal and scouts love his speed and ability to hit line drives, although he'll probably never be much of a power guy and could stand to improve his plate discipline.  Defense, however, might be his biggest strength.  TotalZone saw him at +18 runs per 150 games in 2007 A ball and +27 runs per 150 in 2008 A+ ball.
    As a hitter ranked between 51 and 75 by Baseball America (Kevin Goldstein puts him at 78), his future expected value according to Victor Wang's research is $12.6M.
  • Jeff Locke is a 21-year-old left-handed starting pitcher, who's struggled over his ten starts in A+ ball so far in 2009.  Hot-Prospects says his low-90s fastball induces a lot of ground balls and his power curve and change-up have the potential to be plus pitches at the major league level.
    As a B-level pitching prospect, according to John Sickels, Locke's future value is $6.5M.
  • Charlie Morton is a 25-year-old right-handed starting pitcher who's dominated AAA in about 150 innings, but struggled over 14 starts for the Braves last year.
    Morton wasn't ranked by BA or online by Sickels, but on the chance he's a C level prospect in his book, and because he certainly should be a cheap, useful option out of the bullpen, let's give him a future expected value of $1M.  Bold, I know.

If you add it all up, the Braves win the deal $32M to $20M.  Considering they needed outfield help, McLouth won't be pushing anyone of value out of the lineup, and they have a number of other center field and pitching prospects, this was a obviously a good trade for them.  As for the Pirates...

Pittsburgh's Motivations

In case you hadn't noticed, the Pirates aren't very good.  Sure, they're getting better and I trust Neal Huntington to make them the best team they can be given ownership and payroll constraints, but they're not going to compete for a playoff spot this year, nor in 2010.  That's not reason enough to give away every useful player, however.  One, Pirates fans need players to root for even on bad teams.  And two, winning more games, even when the change is from 72 to 75 games, does bring in additional revenue (or at least is expected to).

But what the Pirates did here was clear the way for their own outfield prospects, including center fielder Andrew McCutchen and corner outfielder Jose Tabata.  McCutchen appears to be getting the call immediately and should start in center, while Nyjer Morgan and various combinations of Eric Hinske/Brandon Moss/Craig Monroe will hold down the corners until Tabata and eventually Gorkys are ready for the show.  Fortunately for the Pirates, none of those options are near replacement-level, meaning instead of losing 3.25 wins by losing McLouth, they're probably only sacrificing two wins in the near future and less down the road, all for starting players they've already committed to paying.

One quick and dirty way to measure the effect of not competing for a couple years and being able to plug much of the hole left by McLouth is to just not consider his net value to the Pirates until 2011.  That bumps his value down from $32M to $13M, putting the gains from the trade ahead of the losses.  Yes, that's probably overstating the point, but not by much.

Summary

In a vacuum, without considering the context of either team, the Braves won this deal.  While McLouth isn't an All-Star caliber player like many people think he is, he's still pretty good and will be underpaid for the next three and half years.  Of course, the Braves and the Pirates aren't in similar situations.  The Braves are looking to win both now, while Chipper Jones is still a stud and without a dominant team in the NL East, and down the road.  The Pirates, on the other hand, are at least two years from contending, and have good replacement options for McLouth.  As a team with a smaller payroll, they also are less interested in paying McLouth's $6.5M and $10.65M salaries in 2011 and 2012, needing to stretch every dollar further than most teams.  The Braves certainly gained from this trade, and the Pirates did, too, as they are now more likely to make a playoff appearance over the next five years.  The losers?  The rest of the teams in the National League, who will find it harder to compete for a playoff spot against two improved teams.

One possible knock against the Pirates is that they could have received a larger return for McLouth.  Perhaps that's true, and it's possible the Braves offer wouldn't have gone down from now until the trade deadline if the Pirates wanted to wait on it.  Or it's possible that Huntington called around and couldn't find a better offer and the Braves were willing to throw in Morton if the Pirates made the trade now, instead of keeping McLouth from helping in the NL East race for another two months.  I'm not sure we can know.  Let's just say this trade was a bit better for the Braves, possibly could have been better for the Pirates, and yet was a win for both teams.

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