It looks like Nate McLouth’s return to the Pirates is all but a done deal, as Ken Rosenthal is reporting tonight that the two sides have agreed to terms and only a physical separates this deal from completion. If McLouth hadn’t once been a Pirate, I doubt this move would garner much interest. With Xavier Paul gone, the Pirates only have three big league outfielders and since Alex Presley is a bit of an unknown quantity and since Jose Tabata tends to get hurt a lot, they need someone else until they’re sure Gorkys Hernandez is ready. Nate McLouth is “someone else.” He had a couple good years a couple of years ago and he’s been awful lately, but PNC Park can be friendly to lefties and he only just turned 30 and it’s a one-year deal, so there’s not really anything to get worked up over.
Of course, McLouth is more than just some guy because he’s an ex-Pirate. He was sort of the face of the “This Front Office Has No Clue What They’re Doing” movement during the late Littlefield era when the Pirates couldn’t find him regularly playing time in 2006 or early 2007. He had a fantastic breakout year in 2008, when he lead the NL with 46 doubles, hit 26 homers, put up an .853 OPS, and won a Gold Glove that people are still debating in Pittsburgh. He started 2009 out looking like he was going to follow up 2008 with a strong year, then was dealt to the Braves in what was probably the most shocking move of the Neal Huntington era. Now, he’s back. This is very weird.
Let’s begin here: you cannot understate how bad Nate McLouth has been in his last two years in Atlanta. In 2009 and 2010, he’s hit a combined .210/.322/.328. He’s got just 10 homers and 24 doubles and three triples in 166 games/609 plate appearances. That line makes him pretty damn similar to Xavier Paul, though he certainly has more extra base power (his slugging percentage is lower because his batting average is so low) and he does draw more walks. Regardless, he’s been really, really terrible with the Braves.
So why bring him back? I think there are at least a few possible answers. One is that for all of his struggles, he wasn’t a terrible hitter against right-handed pitching last year. He hit .251/.372/.372 against righties, with all four of his homers and eight of his 12 doubles. Again, not great stuff, but if Tabata gets hurt again, a McLouth/Gorkys Hernandez platoon in right field might at least make a functional baseball player. That would be better than anything Xavier Paul or Matt Diaz offered last year. Presumably in a bench role, Clint Hurdle will be able to keep McLouth away from tough lefties the way he did with Garrett Jones last year and by simply doing that, McLouth’s numbers should improve a bit.
The second reason is that being back at PNC Park will probably be beneficial for him, too. If you check McLouth’s home run tracker from 2008, most of his homers were pulled straight down the right field line. PNC’s ten feet shorter in right than Turner Field, and Turner gets a lot deeper quicker in right center than PNC does. McLouth obviously doesn’t have the same power he did in 2008, but being in PNC should at least help him maximize what he’s got left.
Let’s not kid ourselves: McLouth isn’t ever going to be the player that he was in 2008 again. He shouldn’t be a regular starter for the Pirates under any circumstance that doesn’t involve an injury. When it comes to fourth outfielders, though, it’s a one year commitment, he should be very cheap, and there’s at least some reasons to think if he’s used properly he could see a bit of a bounce back in 2012. Really, I don’t hate this move as much as I thought I would when word of it first leaked out a couple of days ago.