One of the Nationals’ biggest weaknesses last season was the lack of production from their reserves. They took a step to address that Friday, agreeing to terms on a two-year deal with free agent outfielder Nate McLouth, according to a person familiar with the deal. McLouth, a left-handed hitter, was Baltimore’s primary left fielder last season. He is capable of playing all three outfield positions and filling in every day, a need the Nationals couldn’t fill when Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth each missed a month last season.
McLouth, 32, a nine-year veteran, played 146 games for the Orioles last season and posted a .258 average, .329 on-base percentage and .729 OPS. He has a career .334 on-base percentage and won a Gold Glove for his center field play for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008. The 5-foot-11 McLouth has some pop, too. He hit 12 home runs in 2013, and hit 46 between 2008 and 2009 when he played every day.
The deal hasn’t been officially announced by the team and is pending a physical. The agreement was first reported by Fox Sports. According to the Baltimore Sun, McLouth’s deal is worth $10.75 million for two years. There is a club option for 2016 worth $6.5 million, according to an ESPN report. That’s expensive for a fourth outfielder, but the Nationals suffered in 2013 when they didn’t have a proven backup outfielder. Werth missed 33 games last season and Harper missed 44. Werth will be 34 next season and the last time he played over 130 games was in 2011.
While the bench was a strength in 2012, the Nationals’ fill-ins were among the worst in baseball in 2013. As a whole, the Nationals bench hit .207 and posted a .606 OPS, in the bottom third of the majors. Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina and Tyler Moore all struggled. The Nationals traded for Scott Hairston during the season to address their woes against left-handed pitching and tried David DeJesus for four days before shipping him off to Tampa Bay. When the Nationals included Steve Lombardozzi, their best pinch-hitter last season, in the Doug Fister trade earlier this week, the need to upgrade the bench was magnified.
McLouth is a Michigan native and was selected in the 25th round of the 2000 draft by the Pirates. He debuted five years later at 23 and spent six seasons in Pittsburgh. McLouth’s best season was in the 2008 when he was named to his lone all-star game, earned a Gold Glove and posted a .276/.356/.497 triple slash line with 26 home runs and 94 RBI while mainly hitting leadoff.
McLouth is familiar with the National League East as he was dealt to the Atlanta Braves in June 2009 and spent parts of three seasons there. He played no more than 85 games in a season in Atlanta and had a .699 OPS during his time there. He re-signed with the Pirates in 2012, was released in late May and then joined the Orioles where he enjoyed a career resurgence. The Nationals organization has ties to Pittsburgh and McLouth, notably through assistant general manager Bryan Minniti, who spent nine years with the Pirates before coming to Washington in 2009.
Under new manager Matt Williams, the Nationals also hope to become a more aggressive base-running team and McLouth fits the mold. McLouth stole 30 bases and was caught just seven times last season; in 2012, he stole 12 bases and was caught once. According to FanGraphs.com, McLouth was one of the best runners in baseball last season. He registered 6.1 runs above average (BsR) in 2013, the 13th highest total in baseball, and far better than any of the Nationals’ current players. Desmond notched a 3.3 runs above average and stole 20 bases in 2013.
McLouth is expected to join a Nationals bench that likely will include right-handed-hitting players Hairston and Moore, switch-hitting Danny Espinosa and a backup catcher such as Jhonatan Solano. Jeff Kobernus, Corey Brown and Zach Walters could also compete for spots in spring training.
Advanced defensive metrics suggest McLouth is better suited to play the corner outfield spots. Should Werth suffer an injury, for example, the Nationals could platoon McLouth and Hairston at a position, alternating based on the left-handed or right-handed pitcher and match-up.
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.