Intrigue surrounds McLouth's return to Pirates

Intrigue surrounds McLouth's return to Pirates

Intrigue surrounds McLouth's return to Pirates
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The irony of Nate McLouth's return is that he was traded away profitably in the middle of the 2009 season thanks to a three-year contract given him by the Pirates to delay his free agency -- and the minute he does become a free agent, the Bucs come calling.

The beauty of McLouth's return is that ... hey, what more do you need? He is back.

The two most oft-heard cries in the early going at Pirate City, devoted primarily to encouraging catchers catching pitchers' bullpen sessions: "Nice pitch!" and "Welcome back, Nate!"

"I've heard some nice things from fans. I'm happy to be back," McLouth said, "and it's nice to know other people feel the same way, too."

This is a very odd, but also very intriguing, U-turn. It happens so soon after the Pirates had dealt away their lone '08 All-Star, and it returns him to back up the player because of whom he was dealt.

Two months into a season that began as the duplicate of his .276-26-94 product of the year before, McLouth was shipped off to Atlanta and yanked out of his comfort zone.

It had to be jarring.

"It was," he said with a nod, bouncing his lengthy blond locks off his broad shoulders. "I understand that trades happen all the time but, a lot of times, before a trade happens you hear things about it, so you're semi-prepared fo it.

"For me, it came so out of the blue, it was shocking. I'd been really happy here. It was tough."

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen was in the middle of tearing up Triple-A pitching for the third consecutive season. McLouth was playing the same position, and was midway through the first year of a modest three-year contract that made him extremely attractive on the trade market.

Easy call for the general manager, Neal Huntington. And it's hard to argue he did not make it a good one: Coming from the Braves were right-hander Charlie Morton, a key part of the Pirates' starting rotation, and two other potential cogs of the 2012 club, left-hander Jeff Locke and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez.

For McLouth, however, it might have been transplant shock: His game was never again the same. With the Braves, he batted .229, with a total of 21 homers and 76 RBIs in 250 games.

Asked whether the trauma of leaving Pittsburgh contributed, McLouth said, "I don't know ... I would never blame that or use that as an excuse, but personally it was just a tough transition, I liked it here so much."

Returning under different circumstances does not bother him the least. The Pirates were able to sign him, for $1.75 million, because the Braves had declined the 2012 option for $10.65 million the Pirates had included in the three-year deal he'd agreed to on Feb. 17, 2009. And, obviously, McCutchen now is an All-Star center fielder in his own right.

"It doesn't really make a difference," McLouth said. "I'm an outfielder who just happened to play center. I can play all three outfield positions. I think we all can, and that's just a plus.

"I don't see myself as just a center fielder, and I think the staff is looking at it the same way."

Indeed, all four outfielders on the Pirates' roster with Major League experience have experienced playing center: Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, McCutchen and McLouth have combined to make 933 of their 1,221 career starts in center.

Foremost, though, the "staff" sees McLouth as a prime candidate to dust off old headlines and give the Bucs a dangerous left-handed bat and acrobatic glove in reserve.

The effect of giving McLouth back something he had taken away from him had to have occurred to Huntington.

"Neal came to me early in the process with [McLouth's] name," recalled manager Clint Hurdle, "and I thought it was a great name, one I would definitely get involved with.

"As discussions accelerated, it made more and more sense. With Nate's comfort zone ... he loves Pittsburgh, he loved what was put in place here and being a small part of it enabled him to develop as a player. He likes the park. Giving him an opportunity in a place like that could reignite his career.

"First," summed up Hurdle, "he had to get healthy."

Done deal: A series of injuries that cut McLouth's 2011 season in half concluded with Aug. 4 surgery for sports hernia; he also missed time with a strained left oblique.

Now?

"I feel great," said McLouth, meaning his healed body.

Or maybe he was talking about the whole package, body and soul.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.