Monday, July 15, 2013

One Frank Would Like to Forget

On June 3rd, 2009, Frank Wren was in a panic.  The Braves were finishing a rough opening 52 games that saw them end the day at 26-26.  Jordan Schafer, who opened the season with a tremendous series against the Phillies, was hurt and his level of performance was reaching new lows.  He had just been placed on the DL and Gregor Blanco had been called up.  An offensive boost was needed for a team that regularly started Garrett Anderson and Jeff Francoeur in the corner outfield slots.

Knowing this, Wren struck a deal to bring Nate McLouth over from the Pittsburgh Pirates.  McLouth, a 2008 All-Star and Gold Glover (in name only), seemed like he was entering his prime.  However, his value was overstated because his defense was over matched in center.  Despite a career season, he put up a slightly above-average 3.5 WAR season during 2008.

Still, he was in his upper 20's, team-controlled, and provided a great power/speed threat to settle things in the order.  Despite missing some action after the trade, McLouth seemed instrumental in the Braves finishing 60-50 after June 3rd, though trades for Adam LaRoche and Ryan Church seemed to help as well.  McLouth hit for a little less power after the trade, but ended the season with a solid follow-up campaign and a 3.3 WAR.

Everything went to pieces in 2010.  After his third game, his OPS fell under .700.  He ended April with a .175/.304/.316 slash.  You would like to believe he would only improve upon that, but his numbers were worse after May.  He hit the DL in mid-June with a .577 OPS.  When he returned, he got a week with the Braves, but showed little and his struggles forced Wren to acquire Rick Ankiel to replace McLouth, who went to the minors.  He returned and a "good" final month raised his OPS about 80 points to .620, but McLouth had clearly played his way out of the Braves' good graces.

With Ankiel gone and McLouth signed through the 2011 season, McLouth had one last chance to return to his former self in Atlanta.  He started the season as the everyday center fielder, but again, could not find his 2008 All-Star form.  He got a little hot early and on May 4th, he was hitting .287/.384/.417 after starring during a double-hitter sweep of the Brewers.  He would go 8 for his next 56 before leaving with an injury on May 22nd.  He returned almost a month later, but had lost his spot in center to Schafer, who wasn't hitting much better.  McLouth still played pretty regularly for the Braves, getting time in left, but never got going.  He ended the year just before the deadline with a hernia injury and a .677 OPS.  Michael Bourn was acquired and took over in center for the next year-and-a-half.

After 2011, McLouth was let go.  He struggled with the Pirates early last season, but found himself a little with the Orioles, hitting .268 with a .777 OPS in 55 games and becoming a regular contributor for a contender down the stretch.  He added seven hits in the NLDS against the Yankees with a homer.  He has continued this season, posting a 1.8 WAR and .353 OBP as the everyday left fielder for the O's.

If McLouth's struggles in Atlanta weren't enough to cause Wren to lose sleep, in 2013, the package he surrendered is helping another team contend for the playoffs.  While Gorkys Hernandez has yet to establish himself, the two pitchers sent to Pittsburgh, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, are part of a rotation that has held up well so far.  Morton has struggled to stay healthy, but when healthy, Morton has shown that he can pitch effectively at this level, putting up a 1.2 WAR in 97 innings during 2009 and a 1.6 WAR in 2011 while tossing a career-high 171.2 innings.  Locke, of course, has pitched his way onto the All-Star roster with a 2.12 ERA.  Despite an xFIP that suggests a decline in the second half, every game that Locke pitches well must be another dagger through Wren's heart.

In addition, McLouth's failures prompted a pair of trades.  The first sent Tim Collins, among others, to the Royals.  The second sent Schafer and others to the Astros.  Two trades that don't happen if McLouth doesn't fall on his face in 2010.

Wren has won a lot of trades since being named General Manager of the Braves.

But there is little doubt he would happy to never again hear the name Nate McLouth.

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