Why Nate McLouth makes sense for the Nationals

December 6, 2013

The Nationals probably overpaid Nate McLouth, but not by much, and they were smart to do so. McLouth’s deal – which has not yet been finalized and will not be announced tonight – calls for him to make $10.75 million over the next two years and includes a club option for 2016. More than $5 million for a fourth outfielder sound heavy? Maybe. A better question: Who cares?

The Nationals are too good and have too much money to give substantial playing time to replacement-level players. That, as much as any single factor, is what ruined their season last year. (Ruined being a relative term; they did win 86 games.) McLouth protects them from outfield injuries that will likely arise and gives them a left-handed threat off the bench.

And, actually, hold on a second. Is the contract really an overpay? McLouth was worth 2.5 wins above replacement last year for the Orioles, per FanGraphs. He figures to see a sharp decrease in playing time – his 593 plate appearances may well be cut in half. Even if McLouth’s production and playing time fall, he’ll probably still be a one-win player. One executive said teams have been paying roughly $6 million per win on the free agent market this winter.

And so McLouth’s deal seems to make sense from a perspective of pure value. More so, it makes sense because of how he fits and what kind of insurance he provides. Benches, mostly, are filled with two kinds of players: guys on the verge of earning everyday jobs, and guys on the verge of the minor leagues. The Nationals had too much of the latter last year. McLouth gives them one of the former. He’s more of a fringy third outfielder than a fourth outfielder: 96 OPS+, 12 homers, 30 stolen bases in 2013 with a good glove. That’s exactly the kind of player the Nationals needed.

An addition like McLouth makes much less sense in the dead of winter than in the grind of midsummer. In December, it looks like the Nationals are paying $5 million for an overqualified pinch hitter. If injury strikes and he’s the Nationals’ everyday right/center/leftfielder for a month, it suddenly looks like a bargain.

As we all know – but seem to lose track of once winter arrives – players get injured. Jayson Werth has not played 130 games since 2011. Bryce Harper played 118 games last year. Denard Span missed nine games last season, but with the Twins Span played 128 games in 2012 and 70 in 2011.

Last year, the Nationals scrambled. Tyler Moore started 30 games in the outfield, and Roger Bernadina got 25 starts; they combined, with the Nationals, for -1.4 WAR. Steve Lombardozzi started 20 games in left field last season, and he accounted for -0.7 WAR. This is no knock on Lombardozzi, because he does a lot of stuff well. But he is an infielder who hits for no power, and should not be masquerading as an everyday corner outfielder. That kind of player should not – cannot – be playing one-eighth of a team’s games in a corner outfield spot if it considers itself a contender. Especially not one with the financial clout of the Nationals.

With McLouth in the fold, the Nationals have taken a major step to ensure that does not happen again. If an outfielder goes down, McLouth would be a capable fill-in. He and Scott Hairston, a right-handed hitter, would form a very nice platoon. The Nationals have options on  the bench now; last year, they had Band-Aids that wouldn’t stick.

McLouth would not be a bench player for every team, but for the Nationals he will be. That is the kind of bench player good teams need, the kind of bench player rich teams can afford. The Nationals are both, and now they’ve got one of those players.

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James Wagner · December 6, 2013