Bucs' acquisitions have high ceilings

Bucs' acquisitions have high ceilings

PITTSBURGH -- Pirates fans know what they lost on Wednesday -- an All-Star center fielder with a Gold Glove Award and a middle-of-the-lineup presence. But who exactly did they get in return?

As with a number of the Pirates' recent deals, the return in Wednesday's trade, which sent center fielder Nate McLouth to the Braves for right-hander Charlie Morton, outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and left-hander Jeff Locke -- three of the Braves' top prospects -- is not as well identified as the loss, and any definitive winner or loser in this deal won't be determined for years. But initial reviews from outside the organization praised the courage displayed by general manager Neal Huntington to make the deal.

"I think it was a bold and intelligent move on the part of the Pirates and only time will tell, as with any trade, if they reaped the necessary return that a player such as Nate McLouth commands," one American League scout said shortly after the deal was announced. "But I give them all the credit in the world for doing it.

"The reason I say that is that, first of all, they moved Nate while he still has 'bloom on the rose' from last year's career year. I like him. I think he's a very good everyday big leaguer. But whether or not he can duplicate his Cinderella season he had last year? I doubt it."

While those in Atlanta already have begun to embrace McLouth, here's the skinny at what the Pirates now have in their system with the additions of Morton, Hernandez and Locke, according Major League scouts and front office personnel outside the Pirates organization:

Morton: Morton, 25, is likely to be in Pittsburgh before the year ends and could make his debut with the Pirates in the very near future. He's been assigned to Triple-A Indianapolis and sits as the first starter to be called up should the Pirates want to make a change in their big league rotation.

The right-hander possesses a fastball that runs up to 95 mph, with three quality secondary pitches -- a curveball, slider and changeup. Morton, a third-round Draft pick in 2002, started his professional climb slowly, but has been dominant in Triple-A each of the past two seasons.

At the time of the trade, he had made six straight quality starts, with his most recent outing being a shutout. He leads the International League with seven wins and his 2.51 ERA ranks eighth.

"We anticipate Charlie being in the big leagues with us before too long," Huntington said. "He's not far from being Major League ready."

Morton made his Major League debut with Atlanta in 2008, going 4-8 with a 6.15 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 16 games (15 starts).

Hernandez: The Braves acquired Hernandez, along with pitcher Jair Jurrjens, in the deal that sent shortstop Edgar Renteria to Detroit in October 2007. Scouts have pegged him as a rising big league leadoff hitter with the potential of stealing 40 bases a season.

Hernandez, 21, was hampered by a hamstring injury last season, but is said to be running well this year while playing for the Braves' Double-A affiliate. One baseball person who saw Hernandez play frequently this season referred to him as a Gold Glove Award caliber center fielder with plus range, a plus arm and game-changing speed.

In his first 52 games this season, Hernandez hit .316 with 19 RBIs, 33 runs scored, 11 doubles and 10 stolen bases. He was the Midwest League's Most Valuable Player in 2007 after hitting .293 with 54 stolen bases.

Hernandez, who has been assigned to Double-A Altoona, still needs to develop better plate discipline, and the hope is that he will learn to draw more walks than he has so far in his professional development. That would let his speed play out on the basepaths even more often.

"Gorkys Hernandez is a dynamic player who has the potential to become an above-average Major League outfielder," Huntington said. "He has bat speed and the upside to develop into a productive table-setter."

Locke: The 21-year-old lefty remains the furthest away from the big leagues of the three prospects, though his ceiling, too, is high. A second-round pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, Locke has an average fastball (89-91 mph), though those who have seen him say he might have more velocity in his arm than he has shown thus far.

His secondary pitches -- a changeup and curveball -- are potential plus pitches. One baseball talent evaluator who has watched Locke pitch reported his curveball to be much improved this season, to the point that it is now used as an out pitch. Locke's strikeout rate has also improved with the development of his curveball.

Locke, who was rated as the Braves' seventh-best prospect heading into the season, finished tied for second in the Appalachian League with seven wins and 74 strikeouts in 2007. He's always been known to have good control, though he has struggled with his command in the strike zone this season. Before the trade, Locke had gone 1-4 with a 5.52 ERA in 10 starts at the high Class A level, the same level he'll start at with the Pirates.

Still, the fact that Locke is just 21 years old and has moved up to the high Class A level this quickly is encouraging. He has no history of injuries and the belief is that his durability will only make him stronger.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.