The Braves' desperation for an outfielder led them to Pittsburgh, where on Wednesday the two teams finalized a deal to send Pirates center fielder Nate McLouth to Atlanta for three prospects -- outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, right-handed starter Charlie Morton and left-handed starter Jeff Locke.
Much like the two deals Huntington worked last summer that sent outfielder Jason Bay, reliever Damaso Marte and outfielder Xavier Nady elsewhere for a plethora of prospects, Wednesday's trade was seen as an opportunity for the Pirates to infuse the organization with potential impact players.
"This is one of those decisions that is not an easy one, and that you spend a lot of time contemplating, because Nate McLouth is the type of person and the type of player that we would ideally try to build around," Huntington said. "We're going to have to make tough decisions. We've also talked that no one is untouchable. In this situation, despite our feelings for Nate, we felt like the quantity and the quality of prospects in return was enough that this was a deal we had to make, as tough as the decision was."
The immediate impact of this deal likely won't be seen in Pittsburgh right away, as the Pirates have lost a center fielder who, in 2008 -- his first year as a starter -- made the All-Star team and won a National League Gold Glove Award. Yes, McLouth will be replaced in the outfield by highly touted prospect Andrew McCutchen, but McLouth's production will be missed in the middle of Pittsburgh's lineup.
McLouth had signed a multiyear deal with the club back in February, and, at that time, been labeled as one of the prominent building blocks of this organization's future. At the time of the trade, he led the team in home runs (nine) and RBIs (34). He was hitting .256 with seven stolen bases and 27 runs scored hitting from the No. 3 spot in the order. McLouth was also tied for third in the NL with five outfield assists.
"That is a significant loss," Huntington said. "Our players in the clubhouse are probably going to have a difficult time understanding this. They're probably going to have a difficult time supporting this, but we expect them to come out and continue to play hard."
Huntington, aware, too, of the potential backlash from Pirates fans who feel as if they've seen this same trend of trading away top players year in and year out, also urged patience from the fan base.
"Our belief is that our fans are dying for a winner and that passion and that desire outweighs any attachment to any single player," Huntington said. "We are asking them to believe in our process. We are asking them to believe in us and that these moves we are making -- those last summer, those now and those in the future -- that they are to make this organization that consistent championship-caliber team.
"We are trying to build something here," he continued. "We aren't trying to blow things up. We didn't get guys in rookie ball who are seven years away from being established Major League players. No, this doesn't mean that we're going to look to trade everybody. The reality is if there is a good baseball trade out there, we as an organization have to be open-minded to that."
The trade had been in the works for days, according to Huntington, though somewhat surprisingly had been kept completely under wraps. It was no secret that the Braves were actively searching for outfield help, but there had been no public knowledge that the Pirates were emerging as the most likely trade match until Wednesday evening.
"It's hard to find guys that can run and throw and field and hit and hit for power," Braves general manager Frank Wren said after the trade was announced. "They're tough to find and tough to acquire. Neal and I have talked a lot over the years. They like a lot of our players. We gave up two young pitchers and a good young center fielder. But in the end, this is not a rent-a-guy-for-a-year situation. This is a guy who's going to be here for four years."
Those two young pitchers are Locke and Morton, both of whom Huntington described as potential above-average arms. Morton, who will join the rotation in Triple-A Indianapolis, is the closest to making an impact in the big leagues and could very well be in the Pirates' rotation before the end of the season.
The right-hander had been dominant at Triple-A Gwinnett (Ga.) this year, going 7-2 with a 2.51 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 10 starts. He made 16 appearances (15 starts) in the Majors last season and went 4-8 with a 6.15 ERA.
The left-handed Locke, ranked by Baseball America as the Braves' seventh-best prospect coming into the year, will be assigned to high Class A Lynchburg. A second-round Draft pick in 2006, Locke had gone 1-4 with a 5.52 ERA in 10 starts at the high Class A level before the deal.
Hernandez, a dynamic and speedy outfielder, was ranked as Atlanta's fourth-best prospect before the 2009 season. In 52 games before the trade, Hernandez had hit .316 with 11 doubles, 19 RBIs, 33 runs scored and 10 stolen bases in Double-A. He will be assigned to Double-A Altoona.
"We feel like we've gotten a package of prospects, all with the ceiling to be above-average Major League players," Huntington said. "Typically there is a marquee player to each trade. In our minds, these players each brought a certain amount of value and were an important component in the deal.
"We established a value of what we felt we needed to get in return, and when we get it, we feel like it's time to move," continued Huntington. "In this case, we feel like we've got the three prospects that we really liked and it was the right trade at the right time."
McLouth was not able to be reached on the phone for comment. He had already left PNC Park after Wednesday's game against the Mets had been postponed due to rain. Huntington, who also was not at PNC Park on Wednesday night, phoned McLouth to give him the news.
"I think he was disappointed in that he was leaving a situation in Pittsburgh that he wanted to be a part of the turnaround," Huntington said. "But I think at the same time, I think he's excited about the desire that Atlanta showed to come and get him and the opportunity he has down there. But he told me that he was shocked and that he didn't see this coming. I understand why."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.