Friday, April 17, 2015

Random Ex-Brave: Nate McLouth

One of the strange things to hurt Frank Wren as general manager was the inexplicable fall from grace by several players that he either traded for or signed as a free agent. Melvin Upton Jr. and Dan Uggla might stand out the most, but Nate McLouth can't be overlooked. He was supposed to be the guy who brought stability to center field - where there was none. He was supposed to provide some production at the top of the lineup, which was lacking in the wake of Kelly Johnson struggling. McLouth, at worst, was supposed to be decent. And he was...in 2009 right after the trade. The two years that followed, though? Woof.

Hey, look! The Ineptitude
Otto Gruele Jr | Getty Images
McLouth was a 25th rounder by the Pirates out of Whitehall High School in Michigan. Born three days before Halloween in 1981, McLouth was a late signee. One thing I find interesting is that McLouth, who did sign late and missed all of the 2000's minor league season, never played rookie ball. He went straight to Hickory in the SALLY League in 2001 as a 19 year-old and posted an .836 OPS with 12 HR and 21 steals. Not surprisingly, he moved up the next year to Lynchburg and this is where I remind people that Lynchburg was once a Pirates farmhand for over ten years. It took two years for McLouth to produce with the 'Cats, but he made up for a lack of power with his best stolen base season of his career in '03. In 44 stolen base attempts, he was caught four times. McLouth moved up to AA in 2004 and was very solid before another good year in 2005, though he never approached the 12 homers he hit in his first year. However, 2005's minor league season was cut short by a promotion to the majors.

Never a big prospect, McLouth was originally a fourth outfielder with enough speed and pop to be interesting. He started to break out in 2007 when he posted a .351 OBP, 13 homers, and 22 steals in less than 400 PA. Finally, the Pirates felt he was ready to assume a full season's worth of starting and when the Braves acquired him, they were looking at these 2008 stats as a hint of what was to come. He slashed .276/.356/.497. Those are good numbers for a corner outfielder - stellar for a center fielder. He added his first and only 20/20 season of his career with 26 HR and 23 steals. McLouth also led the league with 46 doubles, which helped him come three total bases short of 300. For you baseball card people, he filled out the counting stats with 113 runs scored and 94 RBI. Naturally, he was an All-Star and despite average defense in center, he was awarded the Gold Glove (largely because hitting stats nonsensically affect who is named the Gold Glove winner).

After the season, McLouth was arbitration-eligible for the first time, but the Pirates and McLouth agreed on a three year, $15.75M extension that looked like a smart deal for a front office that was often criticized for its poor ones. The deal included an option year for $10.65M, which was a reasonable sum for a CF with McLouth's profile. At the time. Possibly trying to live up to his contract, McLouth hit .219 in the first three series of the years, but found himself a bit against the Braves with a big home series. That may have helped endear him to Wren, who by June, had grown sick of watching Jordan Schafer in center. In a pre-deadline deal, the Braves sent a trio of players to the Pirates to get McLouth. Gone were Charlie Morton, who was a borderline prospect at the time, and Gorkys Hernandez, who notably joined the Braves as part of Wren's first move as the Braves GM. Also going to the Pirates was Jeff Locke, who would help the 2009 Lynchburg Hillcats win the Carolina League. Oh, did I mention I am a big 'Cats fan?

Because of how awful McLouth would play over his final two seasons in Atlanta, we forget that he was pretty good after the trade. Not great - not by any means great - but when a center fielder slashes .257/.354/.419 with 11 HR and 12 steals, you don't really complain even if McLouth probably should have been playing left field to hide his range issues. Still, heading into 2010, there was a lot to like about McLouth. His three-year sample was a solid .265/.353/.467 with an average of 20 HR and 25 steals. If anyone tells you Wren should have known McLouth would fail, they're lying. If they tell you THEY KNEW McLouth would fail, they think you're very gullible.

It started in spring. McLouth had always been a pretty good spring training hitter, but with the Braves in March of 2010, he simply looked like a guy who forgot how to hit. In 51 AB's that spring, he reached base via a hit just six times. He had ten total bases. He struck out 16 times. He was a miserable player whose OPS of .413 made Braves pitchers sympathize with him. Everyone wrote it up as a terrible spring and he'll be alright. He'll shake it off.

He didn't. Not even a little. In Jason Heyward's debut game, McLouth batted 8th and did contribute a single and two walks as part of the 16-5 win. A single two days later kept his average over .200. On April 10, it fell under. It would take over a month to climb back over and after three games, it fell back under - this time for good. It's not that McLouth didn't have any positive moments in 2010. On April 20, with an OPS under .500, he led off the tenth inning of a 3-3 tie with a walk-off homer off Jose Contreras, which led to a notable home-run non-celebration. Between May 14 and May 17, he had a four game hit streak. So, there was that. But by June 6, the Braves had began to finally get the hint. This was not the season that everyone expected McLouth capable of. Four days later, he collided with Heyward and the Melky Cabrera Plays Center Field Experiment was on. It was as awful as you can imagine. McLouth briefly returned a little more than a month later, but was demoted shortly there after and the Braves added Rick Ankiel to fill the void (and spare us the miserable sight of Melky in center).

To McLouth's credit, he never stopped working and when he returned right before rosters expanded, he seemed to find himself a bit. Over his final 68 PA, he slashed .263/.358/.509 with 3 HR and 3 steals. He increased his .168 average to .190 by season's end and added about 80 points to his OPS. This led to him making the postseason roster and appearing in the NLDS with the Braves. While Ankiel had the biggest hit of the series for Atlanta, McLouth added a base hit in one of his two total PA. Either way, with Ankiel a free agent - plus the release of Melky - things looked up for McLouth. The Braves only threat to his playing time was the disgraced Schafer and minor league free agent Jose Constanza. It looked inevitable that McLouth would reclaim his spot.

A torrid spring training where McLouth hit .290 with 10 walks to just three strikeouts certainly helped cement McLouth as a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. The scene was set. But McLouth started slowly and by April 26, he was down to a slash of .233/.313/.302. Hits in six of his next seven games, including four multi hit games, briefly got his OPS over .801, but the return to form was brief. His numbers continued to nosedive and even as Fredi Gonzalez bounced him around the order, it didn't appear McLouth would ever be the guy the Braves thought he would be. An oblique strain that cost McLouth three weeks between May and mid-June also didn't help McLouth much, especially when the Braves were reminded that Schafer wasn't an option either. McLouth would return to finish off June and was the regular starter in July, but hit the DL on July 29 with a lower abdominal strain and was later diagnosed with a sports hernia. His last at-bat with the Braves came on July 28 against his former friends on the Pirates with his final at-bat being a popfly. A year to the date of acquiring Ankiel to replace McLouth, the Braves acquired Michael Bourn to do the same task.

Unsurprisingly, the Braves declined McLouth's option for 2012. He would return to Pittsburgh on a minor league deal and looked great in spring training, which helped him secure a spot on their roster. That lasted two months before the Pirates cut McLouth for hitting a buck-forty. Shortly thereafter, the Orioles would pick him up and he would experience a bit of a resurgence. In 55 games with the O's down the stretch, McLouth helped propel Baltimore to the playoffs with a .777 OPS and 12 steals. Both parties were happy to try their luck at a return in 2013 and McLouth slashed .258/.329/.399 while getting nearly 600 trips to the plate for the first time since 2009. He homered 12 times and stole a career-high 30 bases. But overall, it was a less than thrilling campaign.

Still, the Nats are going to Nat and they inked McLouth to a two-year, $11.5M contract to be their fourth outfielder. It was a confusing move for the organization and it has yet to pay off. In 162 PA in 2014, McLouth hit just .174 with one homer. He hurt his shoulder this spring and missed the start of the year. He was recently cleared to start throwing.

McLouth should have been, at worst, a good offensive player with overrated defensive ability that the Braves sacrificed little to acquire. But Wren had some awful luck with guys who simply forgot how to hit. McLouth's three-year stats with the Braves looks better than it ought to be considering how disastrous he was in his two "full" years. Ignoring his .773 OPS after the trade in 2009, McLouth slashed .210/.322/.328 in his final 609 PA as a Brave. He was bad in every facet of his game. McLouth is a pretty efficient basestealer with an 85% success rate. That rate would increase tremendously if he wasn't successful in just 70% of his stolen base attempts as a Brave.

As much as Wren probably regrets this deal, I wonder how much McLouth wishes he had stayed in Pittsburgh. Maybe things would have been different if the Pirates had kept him. Maybe things would have turned out better. Maybe. But they didn't and Wren was forced to make two more deals just to try to replace McLouth.

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