At the current moment I’m writing this post while watching the Pirates and the Braves in extra innings at Turner Field. Of course this game holds a certain meaning because it’s the Bucs’ first game against their former mate, Nate McLouth. McLouth was traded to Atlanta last week in a move that surprised everybody from team president Frank Coonelly to the players in the clubhouse to the fans. Even McLouth himself was taken aback by the move.
Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington even wrote a letter to the fans explaining the move and how it benefits the team in the long run.
Consequently, the Pirates announced they were re-calling their top outfield prospect, Andrew McCutchen, the same day, and he would make his Major League debut the next day in center field at PNC Park.
McCutchen made quite a splash in his debut, going 2-for-4 with a walk, a stolen base, and three runs scored in an 11-6 win over the Mets. Of course, it wasn’t enough to silence the trade critics for McLouth’s departure, but it was at least something to be excited about.
My feelings on the trade are quite mixed. I was initially frustrated because McLouth was such a likeable player, as well as an All-Star and Gold Glove Award recipient last season. But after hearing about McCutchen’s promotion, I was excited because the Pirates now had a legitimate leadoff hitter. Granted, Nyjer Morgan has done a commendable job so far this season at the top of the order, with a .275 batting average and a .356 on-base percentage, but McCutchen creates an even more exciting option because of his tremendous bat speed and gap power, creating more opportunities for doubles and triples.
And then there’s the reason why McCutchen is actually an upgrade over McLouth: his defense.
While it’s true you can’t replace McLouth’s 26 home runs, 94 RBI’s and league-best 46 doubles from last season, one would wonder why you would replace a 99.7% fielding percentage. The answer is quite simple: McCutchen is faster than McLouth, which means he can cover more ground and make the plays McLouth might make, plus some more that he might not. Also, McCutchen’s arm is stronger. The kid threw a runner from center field early in Spring Training, and it wasn’t lost on anybody.
Pirates fans, I do empathize with you. I’m not more thrilled than the next man to lose such a rare beloved figure in the Pirates’ organization, even at the cost of three minor league prospects. But I am thrilled because McLouth’s exit has led to the beginning of an era for a player who can have a higher impact than the man he replaced.
Yes, the Pirates management has done the dubious deed of trading their entire starting outfield from last year’s Opening Day within the last 11 months, but the truth of the matter is that while Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Nate McLouth may have been Pittsburgh’s three best players, none of the three would have been among the top 10 in the Major Leagues at the time they were traded (granted Jason Bay has gone on to greener pastures with the Red Sox, hitting .285 with 25 homers, 92 RBI’s and a .951 OPS — on-base plus slugging percentage — in only 105 games).
If the Pirates’ best players aren’t among the best in the league, what does that say about the quality of talent in the rest of the organization? I think Huntington’s message is simple: while the team’s talent may be the best it has been in quite some time, it simply isn’t good enough.
With that in mind, this is my theory: Huntington and his staff have determined that this organization is in dire need of impact talent from top to bottom. In order to re-stock that needed talent at each level, they need to liquidate the talent on-hand. I expect to see more trades, players being released and designated for assignment, and moves made to replenish this team with the talent it needs to contend on a perpetual basis.
Yes, the fans are fed up with 16 consecutive seasons of sub par baseball, and rightfully so. Yes, the possibility of a record-setting 17th season appears imminent. But let’s be honest here: most of the fans, media, and so-called “experts” expected it to happen anyway, before this trade took place. So who are we really fooling by being so up in arms about this trade?
The Pirates were expected to lose 81-plus games with McLouth. Losing a few more without him isn’t going to change anything.
And to further illustrate just how much of an impact McCutchen can have: McLouth is 3-for-7 in tonight’s game with a solo home run in the 3rd inning. McCutchen is 4-for-7 with a double and two triples. Both have an RBI and two runs scored, but McCutchen has nine total bases while McLouth only has six. And the game is still tied in the top of the 15th inning.
And I know what some of you are thinking: if they’re willing to part with Bay, Nady and McLouth when they have the best seasons of their careers, how do we know McCutchen won’t be next?
Well, we don’t, just like we don’t know how the Pirates fortunes will change in the future.
For now, it appears they remain about the same. The Braves just scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the 15th inning.