|Hovering near .500 and sitting within striking distance in the National League East, the Braves traded three minor leaguers to the Pirates for 27-year-old center fielder Nate McLouth, an All-Star and Gold Glove recipient last season. The move upgrades a significant area of weakness for the Braves, who have received minimal production from their starting outfield trio of (from left to right field) Garret Anderson, rookie Jordan Schafer and Jeff Francouer—though it should be mentioned that platoon left fielder Matt Diaz has hit well in limited action.
In the trade, the Pirates acquired speedy center fielder Gorkys Hernandez, as well as 21-year-old lefthander Jeff Locke and righthander Charlie Morton, a 2002 second-round pick who broke out last season in Triple-A and made it to Atlanta to start 15 games for the Braves.
The trade of McLouth completes the Pirates outfield overhaul, which has resulted in Pittsburgh dealing away its entire 2008 Opening Day outfield in the span of 10 months. First, the club shipped Xavier Nady to the Yankees as the trade deadline loomed, a move that quickly was followed by the trade of Jason Bay to the Red Sox.
|The Young Players|
|A native of Venezuela, Hernandez signed with the Tigers in 2005 and began his career in the U.S. in style, winning the Gulf Coast League batting title in 2006 and then the Midwest League MVP award in 2007. He joined the Braves organization in the Tigers’ regrettable trade for Edgar Renteria following the 2007 season. Hernandez, a 21-year-old, slick-fielding center fielder, batted .316/.361/.387 with 11 doubles and a pair of triples in 52 games for Double-A Mississippi prior to the trade.
A hamstring injury in 2008 cut into Hernandez’s above-average speed and caused him to miss a month of the season. His stolen base total plummeted from 54 in 2007 to 20 last year as a result, and he began this year by going a spotty 10-for-18 on the basepaths. His career high for home runs has held steady at five—and he’s clubbed just 18 in 389 pro games—as his power is strictly gap to gap. Hernandez’s on-base percentage has been trending in the right direction over the course of the past three seasons, and it’s a skill he’ll need to maintain if he’s to fulfill his potential as a top of the order presence.
A Braves’ second-round pick in 2006 from a Conway, N.H., high school, Locke battled control problems with high Class A Myrtle Beach and had walked 26 batters in 45 2/3 innings (5.2 per nine innings) at the time of the trade. Overall, the lefty was 1-4, 5.56 with 43 strikeouts and only one home run allowed in 10 starts. At his best, Locke attacks opposing hitters with a lively 91-94 mph fastball and a hard curveball. Because his emphasis is power, he lacks feel for his changeup, and he also struggles with other nuances of pitching, such as fielding his position and holding baserunners. Locke’s delivery has been described as both herky-jerky and difficult to repeat, which, though it helps to deceive the batter, likely has been a contributing factor in his lapses in control early this season.
Once viewed as an organizational afterthought, Morton is that rare prospect who emerges at the Triple-A level after spending years pitching in obscurity. The product of a Redding, Conn., high school, he’s spent eight years as a professional, yet he won’t turn 26 until after the season ends. At the time of his trade to the Pirates, Morton was building on his strong Triple-A campaign from a year ago by ranking among the International League’s elite in terms of ERA, strikeouts, innings and wins. He went 7-2, 2.26 in 11 starts for Gwinnett, racking up 62 strikeouts and 17 walks in 71 2/3 innings of work.
Morton tossed seven shutout innings in his Pirates debut, for Indianapolis, which improved his overall Triple-A numbers to 12-4, 2.16 in 24 games (23 starts), during which time he’s struck out 134, walked 44 and allowed just three home runs in 150 1/3 innings. Not too shabby for a pitcher who entered 2008 with a career 4.90 ERA. Best of all, Morton has the stuff—including easy 92-94 mph velocity that he locates down in the zone and a 77-80 mph downer curveball—to back up the numbers.
|The Braves optioned Schafer to Triple-A in the midst of a prolonged slump, so McLouth steps immediately into the center field void. He was batting .256/.349/.470 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs in 45 games with the Pirates, functioning mostly as their No. 3 hitter. The Braves, no doubt, were intrigued by McLouth’s breakout 2008 season, in which he batted .276/.356/.497 with 26 home runs, 94 RBIs, 23 stolen bases in 26 attempts and an NL-leading 46 doubles. Though he won a Gold Glove award, McLouth is regarded by most advanced defensive metrics as an average-at-best defender. He signed a three-year, $15.75 million extension with the Pirates in February, so the Braves are set through 2011, at which point they can exercise a $10.65 million club option for one more season.
Hernandez, Locke and Morton join a growing stable of young trade acquisitions who, in conjunction with the organization’s own domestic and international scouting efforts, figure to form the core of future Pirates clubs. Previous trade acquisitions like Robinzon Diaz, Jason Jaramillo, Jeff Karstens, Andy LaRoche, Ross Ohlendorf, Brandon Moss and Delwyn Young already were contributing to the big league club in 2009.