Poor Pirates fans, we all thought. How can their team do this? Pittsburgh Pirates fans, once again, depressed because a staple, someone considered the heart and soul of the franchise, had been shipped out of town. He was so key to the team's past that it was difficult to imagine the present and future without him. Fans were angry and upset, and the players were devastated by the trade, too, so much so that teammates actually lit candles in the clubhouse around his uniform. "There ain't a guy in here who ain't [ticked] off about it," one teammate said.
I'm talking, of course, about the trade nearly nine years ago where the Pirates sent All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth to the Braves for three Minor League prospects. What were the Pirates if they didn't have McLouth? The team was still supposedly a playoff contender: How could they do this?
Those three Minor Leaguers turned out to be Jeff Locke, Gorkys Hernandez (the top prospect, the biggest "get" in the deal) and Charlie Morton (last seen closing out the World Series, alas, for a team other than the Pirates). And more to the point: The trade cleared a spot for an up-and-coming player in the Pirates system, one they wanted to make room for: Andrew McCutchen. Meanwhile: McLouth never hit above .258 the rest of his career and was out of baseball within five years.
In the wake of Monday's trade of McCutchen to the Giants for right-handed reliever Kyle Crick, Minor Leaguer Bryan Reynolds and $500,000 in international signing money, it is important to remember how history often views these trades. The McCutchen of the past nine years is not the McCutchen moving forward, even before you consider the fact that the Pirates had him under contract for only one more season. When the Pirates made the McLouth trade, it felt to some of their fans (and players) like they were waving the white flag, that they were no longer trying to contend. It turned out to be as valuable a move as any as they had made in a decade. That move helped load up their team for its first playoff appearances in more than two decades. These trades, as it turns out, reverberate for much longer than just one day.
It is still quite understandable why Pirates fans would lament losing McCutchen, who is probably the team's biggest star since Barry Bonds or Willie Stargell. Remember, McCutchen was being positioned as the Pirates' savior long before he ever reached the Majors. He embraced the challenge of turning the team around. "The Pirates showed the most interest in me out of all the teams and they made the best impression," McCutchen said back then. "They really stood out in my mind. They made me feel like they were the right organization for me. When it got to the 11th pick and I hadn't been drafted, I was hoping they would take me." This is what all Pirates fans, burned by Bonds' exodus, had wanted: Someone who wanted them as badly as they wanted him. They wanted someone who would stay and turn it around.
That's precisely what McCutchen did, playing for some subpar Pirates team before the talent filtered in around him, culminating in a 2013 season in which McCutchen won the National League MVP Award and helped give the Pirates their first postseason victories in 21 seasons. He was a hero in Pittsburgh, and for good reason. It seemed possible, even likely, that he'd end up with a statue someday, like Roberto Clemente, like Stargell, like Terry Bradshaw, like Mario Lemieux.
But then, as we detailed Monday , it all went a little sideways on Pittsburgh. The Pirates' rebuild culminated in … well, mostly that 2013 playoff run. There were two postseason appearances after that, both NL Wild Card Game losses. McCutchen started to falter a bit, and there was Austin Meadows in the Minors waiting in the wings. The Pirates needed to retool again. They needed to make a similar move to what they did with McLouth. They had to build for the future.
There are obvious differences in the trades, starting with the fact that McCutchen is better than McLouth was, even in the latter stages of his career. (And McCutchen had a bounce-back year in 2017.) If the prospects the Pirates received in return give them the careers of Locke, Morton and Hernandez, they'd have to be elated. In truth, it's unlikely, but after the Cole trade, the Pirates have to keep moving. There's no reason to go halfway at this point.
It's a challenge for Pirates fans to have to go through this cycle again, particularly because they never did end up getting a World Series title out of it, let alone an NL Championship Series appearance. But the time to trade McCutchen had clearly come; it arguably could have been done a year ago.
It always hurts to lose a franchise icon. It particularly hurts to lose one who could have been a civic legend, if just a couple of things had gone slightly different. But these trades sometimes work out better than you might think. Time has a way of washing all the emotion away. Pirates fans are sad to see McCutchen go, and frankly, it's sad for an outside observer to see him with a team other than the one he helped lead to new heights. We'd all like to have seen a statue of him outside PNC Park, but that wasn't going to happen, with or without this trade. The Pirates had to move. The trade nine years ago worked out perfectly. The Pirates can hope to be half as fortunate this time.
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