ATLANTA — Nate McLouth embraced his new opportunity with the Atlanta Braves on Thursday only after an emotional departure from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
McLouth said he was excited about the chance to win in Atlanta but was sad to be dealt from the Pirates, his only professional home before the trade. He said Wednesday’s trade for three minor league players — outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke — “was shocking.”
“It was the last thing on my mind, to be honest with you,” McLouth said Thursday before the Braves’ game against the Cubs was rained out. “To get a call from a GM on your cell phone is pretty rare, so I knew something was up when I got the call. He told me I was coming on over here.”
Wednesday’s call from Pirates general manager Neal Huntington led to an emotional send-off Thursday morning.
McLouth fought back tears, wiped his eyes, sniffled repeatedly and paused a few times when speaking with reporters while cleaning out his locker in Pittsburgh.
He said he was surprised because the trade deadline is still about eight weeks away and because he signed a three-year contract less than four months ago.
After his arrival in Atlanta, McLouth’s thoughts and emotions were still mixed.
“Pittsburgh’s the only organization I had ever been with; they drafted me out of high school almost 10 years ago,” he said. “I got to know a lot of great people. That’s going to be the hard part, the relationships and the people.”
But there was little time for looking back. McLouth was in Thursday night’s starting lineup as the No. 3 hitter and the starting center fielder.
He moved from a fifth-place team in the NL Central to a third-place team in the NL East.
McLouth said the opportunity to win “is what every player wants.”
“The people are going to be hard to leave, but I lost a lot of games there and that’s hard to do as an athlete,” he said. “When you talk about winning, the Atlanta Braves are one of the top organizations that come to mind. To be a part of it is something special.”
Chipper Jones has been a fixture as Atlanta’s No. 3 hitter, but after talking with manager Bobby Cox he agreed to hit fourth to accommodate McLouth.
“I talked to Bobby about it and told him I was open to whatever is best for the club,” Jones said. “I don’t know if this is permanent. We’ll see. If I get more RBI opportunities out of it, I’ll be happy with it. I make no bones about it, I’d prefer to hit third but I’ve always been willing to try to do what’s best for the club.”
Jones has hit .316 in 5,726 career at-bats as the No. 3 hitter and .297 in 1,643 at-bats hitting fourth.
Cox called the addition of McLouth “a big lift for the team.”
Cox said McLouth can hit “anywhere you want. He can hit anywhere in the top three.”
Brian McCann moved down one spot to hit fifth.
The 27-year-old McLouth set career highs last season with a .276 batting average, 26 homers and 94 RBIs. Atlanta outfielders have only 10 homers through 52 games. McLouth has nine homers and 34 RBIs and is hitting .256.
McLouth, who has seven stolen bases, also gives a lift to an offense that ranks last in the major leagues with 12 steals. Since the start of the ‘05 season, he has the best stolen base percentage (64 of 69) in the majors.
The Pirates signed McLouth to a three-year, $15.75 million deal in spring training. The contract includes a team option for a fourth year at $10.65 million, with a $1.25 million buyout.
Morton reported to Triple-A Indianapolis, Hernandez was assigned to Double-A Altoona and Locke was sent to Class-A Lynchburg.
“We got some of the impact-type players we’ve been looking for,” Pirates manager John Russell said. “We got a power arm — a starter — who’s had a very good run right now in Triple-A, a very dynamic center fielder that a lot of people have very big hopes for ... and a left-hander with tremendous upside. These are three very strong prospects, we feel.”
The trade cleared the way for top prospect Andrew McCutchen’s call-up to Pittsburgh. McCutchen had two hits, scored three runs and drove in a run as the leadoff hitter and starting center fielder in the Pirates’ 11-6 win over the New York Mets on Thursday.
“People realize that, I think, he’s a very special player,” Russell said of McCutchen. “It’s tough to replace Nate, and we’re not expecting Andrew to do that. We’re expecting Andrew to be Andrew. We’re excited about seeing what Andrew McCutchen can do. A lot of people have been asking, ‘When is he coming? When is he coming?’ It’s here. It’s a nice time, and we’re very excited about that.”