The Pirates have shipped away another All-Star, part of a long-recurring summer theme.
In a stunning move, the team last night traded Nate McLouth, their Gold Glove center fielder with 35 home runs the past two years, to the Atlanta Braves for three prospects -- outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and pitchers Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton -- none of whom will play in Pittsburgh immediately, maybe not for years in two cases.
With the trade, the Pirates announced the immediate promotion of their top prospect, center fielder Andrew McCutchen, from Class AAA Indianapolis, perhaps the only aspect of this scenario that will placate a fan base certain to be furious again.
Management seemed braced for it.
"I know how it's going to be received back home," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said by phone from Bradenton, Fla., where the team is preparing for the amateur draft next week. "Believe me, it was the most difficult move I've made, but we believe it was the right baseball move, and we believe it firmly."
- Game: Pirates vs. New York Mets, 12:35 p.m., PNC Park.
- Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlendorf (5-5, 4.45) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (4-1, 3.88).
- Key matchup: Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' new center fielder, vs. his nerves in his long-awaited debut. Given his .295 average with runners in scoring position for Class AAA Indianapolis --13 for 44 with 16 RBIs -- pressure should not be much of an issue.
- Of note: The Pirates are 10-5 against the National League East Division this season, 7-1 at PNC Park.
"I empathize with fans who don't like seeing a player like this go," team president Frank Coonelly said. "Our fans liked Nate McLouth, and they should have. But, for the Pirates, we need to be better than we are. We're out to win a championship. And, if we take advantage of trades like this, for three quality players, we're going to be there faster. I'm convinced we're a better organization now than 24 hours ago."
McLouth, 27, had a breakout 2008 in which he batted .276 with 26 home runs, 94 RBIs and 23 steals, all while becoming the Pirates' first Gold Glover since Andy Van Slyke in 1993. This season, his average was down to .256, but he still led the team with nine home runs and 34 RBIs.
In his final game Tuesday night, his sixth-inning double drove in the winning run to beat the New York Mets, 3-1, at PNC Park.
McLouth found out he was traded through a call from Huntington, shortly after 6 p.m., an hour after the Pirates and Mets were rained out.
"Obviously, I was surprised," McLouth said. "I owe a lot to the Pirates because they allowed me to establish myself as a big leaguer, spent 10 years of my life with them. I made a lot of good friends I'm going to miss, and the fans have always been great to me. But I understand this is part of the game and, now, I look forward to the next chapter of my career."
Huntington described the call as emotional for him.
"Brutal," he said. "I like Nate, and he's a heck of a baseball player. I really mean it when I say he's the type of player we want to build around. But we need a lot of good players. We need depth at all levels. We need a strong group coming behind this one."
Some of McLouth's teammates, predictably, were disappointed or outright angry. Several called each other last night, according to many accounts, and expressed dismay that management removed a key piece with the team at 24-28 -- despite missing cleanup-hitting catcher Ryan Doumit for two months -- and having some of the best pitching in Major League Baseball.
Shortstop Jack Wilson, the Pirates' most tenured and popular player, was among them.
"It's a shock to all of us," he said. "I've been talking to a lot of the guys, and this is not going to be viewed very highly in the clubhouse by any means. We're a team, and we were battling without our catcher, waiting for him to get back. To lose your best all-around player -- and that's what Nate was, in terms of power, speed and defense -- and to do it so early in the season ... that's going to be tough to get over."
Huntington sounded braced for that, too.
"Our players are probably going to have a difficult time understanding this, probably going to have a difficult time supporting this," he said. "But, as we know them to be professionals, we expect them to come out and continue to play hard."
The Pirates have traded top players all through their 16 consecutive losing seasons leading into this one, including 2008, the first year under new management, when outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady and reliever Damaso Marte were dealt for prospects.
More could come this summer, too: Wilson, first baseman Adam LaRoche and reliever John Grabow, all eligible for free agency this fall, will be shopped for possible trades, Huntington has acknowledged. The only way that will not happen is if there are contract extensions, but none has been offered.
Part of what makes the trading of McLouth different is that management signed him and two other young players -- Doumit and pitcher Paul Maholm -- to long-term extensions this past offseason. At the time, Coonelly described those as "our commitment to build a strong core."
McLouth's three-year extension guaranteed $15.75 million, including $3.5 million this year. The Pirates will save almost all of that money, as the three players coming in the trade and McCutchen will not make much more than the major league minimum -- $400,000 this year -- for the first three years they play in Pittsburgh.
"It's not about money," Coonelly said. "If we had any design on trading Nate before this, we certainly wouldn't have structured his contract as we did."
That was a reference to $1.5 million of McLouth's pay this year coming in an upfront signing bonus.
"We don't need to move money. We're fine financially. This was about baseball."
Another perception or possible reality: The Pirates might run the risk of not being taken seriously in future talks about internal extensions, as some players already began discussing last night.
"We don't believe that's going to be an issue," Huntington said. "Look, we believe in our core. We still do. But I've been consistent in saying that nobody is untouchable, not Doumit, not Maholm, not anyone. We're not going to be -- and we can't be -- a team that ties our own hands. We have to be open to making moves."
Two other teams previously inquired about McLouth in recent months, but the Pirates never shopped him, Coonelly and Huntington insisted. Atlanta made its first serious approach two weeks ago.
The Pirates failed to get any of the Braves' top three prospects, as rated annually by Baseball America: Hernandez was ranked No. 4, Locke No. 7 and Morton not at all. But the Braves had made clear that they would not trade either of their top two prospects -- pitcher Tommy Hanson or outfielder Jason Heyward -- even if it was one-for-one for McLouth.
The Pirates came back quickly with the three-player package they sought and stayed with it.
"The Braves' initial reaction was, 'No, we'll never do that,' and they tried to substitute other players," one team source said. "We got the package we wanted."
Hernandez, 21, is the player the Pirates coveted most of that group. He is a lithe 6 feet 1, 175 pounds, and was batting .316 for Class AA Mississippi with 11 doubles, 19 RBIs and 10 steals. He twice represented the Braves in the All-Star Futures Game.
"Gorkys is a dynamic player," Huntington said. "He's a quality athlete with plus speed and above-average defense. He has bat speed and the upside to develop into a productive table-setter."
Morton, 25, is the only one with a chance to reach Pittsburgh this season, and that can be expected to happen, according to a team source, within a month. He is 6 feet 4, right-handed, has a mid-90s fastball and has dominated Class AAA this season with a 7-2 record, 2.51 ERA, 55 strikeouts and 16 walks in 10 starts for Gwinnett.
His history is less enticing: The career ERA in the minors was 4.53 before this season, he habitually displayed poor control, and his 15 starts for Atlanta last season -- 4-8, 6.15 ERA, 48 strikeouts, 41 walks -- match that profile.
"Right now, Charlie is dominating his level," Huntington said. "And that began last year, actually."
Huntington added that the Pirates have paid especially close attention to Atlanta's system because of trade talks those teams had last year, regarding Bay.
Locke, a 21-year-old left-hander, was 1-4 with a 5.52 ERA for Class A Myrtle Beach, with 43 strikeouts and 26 walks.
"He has the frame and the athleticism to become a quality major league starter," Huntington said.
Morton will be assigned to Indianapolis, Hernandez to Class AA Altoona, Locke to high Class A Lynchburg.
McCutchen will make his long-awaited debut for the Pirates this afternoon against the Mets.
To clear space on the 40-man roster for McCutchen and Morton, the team transferred injured reliever Craig Hansen from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .