Early in the 2009 season former Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington made a trade that made his intentions obvious.
Entering the 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates season the team’s best player was center fielder Nate McLouth. He was coming off a 2008 season in which he was a National League All-Star, a Gold Glove Award winner and he led the NL with 46 doubles.
Following his breakout 2008 campaign, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed McLouth to a contract extension through the 2012 season in February 2009. This combined with McLouth’s strong 2008 season made it appear he would be a mainstay in the Pirate outfield for the foreseeable future.
Entering the 2009 season, McLouth had a fast rising prospect by the name of Andrew McCutchen breathing down his neck in center field. That said, many people believed the Pirates would simply move McLouth to a corner outfield position when McCutchen arrived at the MLB level. Well, this is not what happened.
To the surprise of jut about everyone, McLouth traded to the Atlanta Braves just 45 games into the 2009 season. On June 3, 2009, McLouth was traded to Atlanta and McCutchen became the team’s starting center fielder.
In return for McLouth, the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired a trio of prospects. These three prospects were outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, and pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke. This trade would go on to become one of the most impactful trades that Neal Huntington made during his tenure as general manager of the Pirates.
We will start with the player who made the smallest impact with the Pirates – Hernandez. Hernandez made his MLB debut with the Pirates in 2012, but was traded that summer to the Miami Marlins in exchange for first baseman Gaby Sanchez. Sanchez would go on to become a key bench player for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, both of which ended in a postseason berth. This included Sanchez starting the 2014 NL Wild Card Game for the Bucs.
Hernandez would return to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015. He appeared in eight games that season for the 98 win Pirates, before being designated for assignment ending his Pirate career for good.
The key cogs in the trade were Morton and Locke.
Starting with the 2011 season, Morton became one of the team’s best starting pitcher. While he battled his fair share of injuries, including Tommy John Surgery, Morton was a mainstay in the Pirate starting rotation from 2011 – 2015. This included taking the ball in Game 4 of the 2013 NLDS.
During this five year stretch Morton logged 624.1 innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 107 starts. He posted a 3.96 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 8.2% walk rate, 16.3% strikeout rate, and a 5.8 fWAR.
The only reason Morton’s fWAR was not higher was due to be limited due to injuries. He made 29 starts in 2011, but then made just a combined 29 starts the following two seasons due to Tommy John Surgery. He then made just 26 starts in 2014 and 23 in 2015. Overall, Morton played a huge role in the Pirates making the postseason in three consecutive seasons and he never received the credit he deserved from Pirate fans.
Morton’s Pirate career end when he was traded, while at Pirate Fest, to the Philadelphia Phillies in December 2015. Injuries limited him to just four starts with the Phillies before signing a contract with the Houston Astros where he began to morph into one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.
Locke, like Morton, often times did not receive the credit from Pirate fans that he should have. During the three consecutive postseason berth seasons, Locke started 81 games for the Pirates and posted a 3.91 ERA and a 4.10 FIP.
This three year stretch for Locke included being named a NL All-Star in 2013. In these three seasons, he posted a 2.6 fWAR. In both 2013 and 2015, he worth more than 1.0 fWAR. While Locke was often a punching bag for Pirate fans, he still played a major role in the team earning three consecutive postseason berths.
Locke remained with the Pirates in 2016 and posted 5.44 ERA and a 4.84 FIP in 30 games (19 starts). He was designated for assignment following the season and signed a one-year contract with the Marlins. Locke made seven starts with the Marlins in 2017, but has not pitched in the Major Leagues since.
The three players acquire for McLouth, as well as Sanchez who the team added by trading Hernandez, combined to contribute 9.3 fWAR to the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2013, 2014, and 2015 campaigns that all ended in a postseason berth. Morton and Locke combined to start 150 games for the Pirates during this three year stretch. With out acquiring the talent the team did in return for McLouth, odds are, they would not have made the postseason in each of those three seasons.
After he struggled in his three seasons in Atlanta, McLouth became a free agent following the 2011 seasons when the Braves declined his option for 2012. This led to McLouth returning to the Pittsburgh Pirates on a one-year contract. After struggling with the Pirates, McLouth was designated for assignment on May 25, 2012.
The unexpected trade of Nate McLouth on June 3, 2009, had long lasting ramifications on the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise. In addition to creating a spot in the every day lineup for Andrew McCutchen, it also added three players to the organization that in one way or another helped the team achieve three consecutive postseason berths. While Huntington made his fair share of mistakes during his tenure in Pittsburgh, the McLouth trade was one of his best.