June 4, 2009 at 9:53 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves, Farm System, Player Analysis, Prospects, Transactions
Most of the time when you hear about a trade you’ve already heard that it’s likely to happen. You’ll hear that “x player is being shopped” or “x team has had discussions with y team about z player”. You hear rumors anywhere from a month in advance to a day in advance, and most educated baseball fans are aware of a looming deal. Or, the deal is unexpected but it isn’t a sort of “impact” type move. A swap of a mid-level prospect for an out of options reliever or the like. But very rarely do you see a big-time deal involving an impact player for premium prospects get announced with virtually no public knowledge of an eminent deal. So that’s the first thing that makes the Pirates dealing Nate McLouth to Atlanta for three prospects: Class Single-A Advanced left-handed pitcher, Jeff Locke; Class Double-A center fielder, Gorkys Hernandez; and Class Triple-A right-handed pitcher, Charlie Morton, so bizarre. The first we heard of it occurred about an hour before the deal was officially announced. No exaggeration.
But the reason the deal is so bizarre doesn’t stop there. If you had polled 100 baseball experts and asked them, “would the Pirates consider dealing Nate McLouth?”, 90 of them would’ve responded, “no”. McLouth had just signed a 3 year, 15.75 million dollar deal buying out his arbitration years with an option for the first year he’s eligible for Free Agency for 10.65 million dollars. Number one, players, especially good players, that sign contracts well under market value, much like the one I just mentioned, are unlikely to be moved because the club likes having cheap, good, young talent around. At least not with 3 years left on their contract. Number two, clubs that hand out long-term deals like this usually do so because they’re confident this player is one they can build their franchise around. Turning around and trading them 4 months after they sign a contract like that one is very un-heard of.
If there was any indication that it was unlikely the Pirates would trade McLouth, other than the fact that they just signed him to that team-friendly contract, it was the fact that during their fire-sale of 2008, the one that saw them part with 2 of their 3 ever-day outfielders (the other being McLouth), McLouth not only wasn’t moved, but the idea of moving him was never even so much as rumored to have any validity. So the baseball world generally thought McLouth was there to stay for at least the next two years.
But upon further examination, it did make sense for the Pirates to deal McLouth for talented prospects that could help them win down the road. Number one, they’re not in contention to win their division or a wild-card berth, so results this season are irrelevant and any investment in their future that can be made at this season’s expense should be made. Number two, their second best prospect, Andrew McCutchen, was MLB-ready. And if their is any lesson we have learned in baseball it is that teams can not afford to let MLB-ready talent rot in the minor leagues, especially smaller market teams. Not that the Pirates are small market, and not that the player that was blocking him (McLouth) makes a ton of money (2 million dollars, only 5 times the league minimum, which is peanuts for a player of McLouth’s caliber), but it makes sense to go for the cheaper option and receive some prospects along the way, which is what they did.
And for the Braves the move makes a ton of sense. The Braves need production from their outfield and McLouth gives them that. McLouth will serve as the every day center fielder until the organization deems Jordan Schafer MLB-ready (again). After that, be it later this year or some time next year, McLouth will most likely shift to a corner. But considering the complete lack of production from the outfield across the board, McLouth could play any position and immediately contribute much more than what the Braves had on their roster. He instantly becomes the Braves best outfielder, and it’s not even close. Last season McLouth hit .276/.356/.497 with 26 home runs and a league-leading 46 doubles. Those 26 were more than anyone on the Braves roster hit last season and were also one shy of what the Braves outfield combined to hit last season. He also demonstrates great base-stealing ability. I eventually envision an outfield comprised of McLouth, Schafer, and Jason Heyward, which is downright scary.
McLouth is a very accomplished player. Last year was essentially his first full season starting every day. He was selected for the All Star Game and won a Gold Glove. Now, he did not deserve the gold glove, not at all, but he isn’t as bad in the field as the metrics suggest. Let’s just go straight to John Dewan, the founder of The Fielding Bible and creator of the +/- system, to clear up the issue:
Well, I thought he was the worst outfielder in baseball, but Nate McLouth won a National League Gold Glove in 2008. Nate McLouth had a -40 plus/minus in center field. That means this: —Take every ball hit in the air anywhere in the vicinity of Nate McLouth when he played center field —Replace McLouth with an average center fielder —The average center fielder would have caught 20 more of them than McLouth did, allowing a total of 40 fewer bases taken on those 20 caught balls McLouth’s -40 was the worst plus/minus figure for any center fielder in baseball last year. Not only that, it was the worst plus/minus figure for any outfielder in baseball. Not only that, it was the worst plus/minus figure for any player in baseball. Is he that bad? No, absolutely not. The fact that there are a significant number of managers and coaches that think he’s good definitely means something. There are aspects to being a good defensive outfielder that come into play other than catching balls hit in the air. They are lesser aspects, but important ones. I will get into more depth on these in The Fielding Bible—Volume II coming out in February of 2009. For example, we are planning a video review of all McLouth’s key fielding plays. But let me touch on a couple of things here. First, his throwing. While he only had two baserunner kills last year (direct throws to a base or home plate to nab a baserunner), he was the seventh best center fielder in preventing runners from taking an extra base on singles and doubles hit to centerfield. Second, his Good Plays and Defensive Misplays. The Video Scouts at Baseball Info Solutions have 27 categories of Good Plays and 55 categories of Defensive Misplays. They review every play and decide if a play fits one of those categories. It sounds somewhat subjective, but because of the strict definitions of the categories, it actually becomes quite objective. For example, here’s the definition of one of the 55 Defensive Misplays: “Defensive Misplay Number 38, Failing to Anticipate the Wall: Outfielder goes to the outfield wall, allowing a ball to bounce over his head back toward the infield, allowing a runner or runners to take bases which they might not have been able to take had the fielder turned and played the ball off the wall.” It turns out that this happened to McLouth six times last year, tied for the most in baseball with right fielder Bobby Abreu, and more often than any other center fielder (Aaron Rowand and B.J. Upton were second in CF with five). This is another weakness for McLouth. Overall, adding the six wall-difficulty plays to his other misplays, McLouth had a total of 24 defensive misplays and one error last season. That total of 25 is the ninth highest among all center fielders on the 30 teams last year. So, despite his low error total, McLouth is more prone to making poor plays in center field than the majority of other center fielders in baseball. However, his good plays more than make up for the 25 misplays and errors. He had 31 good plays, good for third place among center fielders behind Carlos Gomez of the Twins (33) and B.J. Upton of the Rays (32). This is clearly what managers and coaches who vote for the Gold Gloves were seeing. Net Plays are good plays minus defensive misplays and errors. McLouth had six more good plays than defensive misplays and errors, or six Net Plays. That was the seventh highest total in baseball among center fielders. Not bad. All in all, I no longer think of McLouth as the worst center fielder in baseball. It means something that at least some of the managers and coaches think highly of him. And we see that two areas of his defense are above average: his ability to prevent baserunners from advancing on hits and his ability to make a play above and beyond the ordinary. But we also see that, despite this low error total, he has more than his share of defensive misplays. And the most important aspect of playing outfield defense is covering ground, and McLouth struggles here big time.
So just acquiring a player with a bat like McLouth’s, despite his defensive struggles, is a great start for Frank Wren. But the fact that he dealt from positions of depth in the organization, the fact that he didn’t give up any blue-chip prospects, and the fact that the Braves probably won’t miss any of them too much makes this deal a perfect 10. Don’t get me wrong, the Braves gave up some good prospects, very good, but they really won’t be missed. Not that much, anyway. Gorkys Hernandez I have ranked 4th on my list of top 40 prospects. But, the future in CF most likely belongs to Jordan Schafer, and if he doesn’t pan out the contingency plan was acquired in the deal, Nate McLouth. Hernandez is a lightning-fast, defensively gifted prospect that is currently hitting for a high average, but he isn’t displaying much secondary offense and he doesn’t possess too much base-stealing ability, especially for his speed. He profiles as the prototypical lead-off hitting center fielder, but his game needs a lot of polish if he wants to make it to the big leagues. He’s only 21, so there’s at least a decent chance he will develop into a MLB player, but there’s very little chance he’ll be as much of an offensive force as either McLouth or Jordan Schafer, so the club really didn’t have much of a future for him. Jeff Locke, another 21-year old, is a high-upside left-handed pitcher. Locke was one of the most coveted pieces by rival GM’s this winter and would have been shipped off to San Diego in any Peavy deal if one happened. I have him ranked 7th on my list of top 40 prospects, but he’s bested by 3 right-handers, Tommy Hanson, Randall Delgado, and Julio Teheran, and the prospect behind him is a left-hander who is a year ahead of Locke developmentally, Cole Rohrbough. Locke has gotten progressively worse at every level, but he’s only 21 and the upside is still there, so I don’t think the Pirates are upset about acquiring him. Charlie Morton is probably the most well-known of the 3 due to his stint in the bigs last year during the “can anyone make a few starts for us?” injury bug of 2008. Morton wasn’t particularly good, but he’s been pitching very well at AAA and was a highly regarded prospect before his promotion to the bigs. I don’t have him ranked because he isn’t a prospect anymore, he has big league experience, but he’d be somewhere between 16 and 24. There’s little evidence that he won’t have some success at the big leagues, but there’s also little evidence that he will. He’s 25 years old, so if he doesn’t reach some of his potential soon he’ll be a bust quicker than not. With Medlen, Reyes, and Tommy Hanson all about his age, the Braves have some depth in their AAA starters, so there’s also no reason he isn’t expendable.
The fact that Jordan Schafer, Tommy Hanson, and Jason Heyward along with the super-high upside pitchers, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran are still in the system and the Braves were able to swing a deal for an outfielder in his prime signed cheaply for the next 3 years is a huge win. I believe the Braves got the better end of the deal. Even if all 3 prospects pan out, this move won’t cripple the farm or organization for years to come like the Mark Teixeira deal and they got a guy who will be a mainstay in their line-up for years to come, as opposed to a rental. I declare the move a perfect 10.
Now, this doesn’t make our team perfect, or even close to it. Wren shouldn’t be done looking for productive outfielders. Unless Garret Anderson and Jeff Francoeur seriously turn it around, as Garret is appearing to do, we are still a bat or two away from being serious championship contenders. But we’re that much closer than we were a week ago. And there’s plenty of reason to be encouraged by that.