Nate McLouth will undergo his physical later this week and, after he passes it, he will officially be added to the Nationals’ roster. Although McLouth is a Nationals player only in principle now, General Manager Mike Rizzo shared the team’s reasoning for pursuing the veteran left-handed outfielder. The driving motivation: the Nationals’ fourth outfielder over the past few seasons, according to Rizzo, averaged 80 games and between 380 and 425 at-bats a season. That is a significant amount of playing time and instead of relying on young, perhaps unproven players, the Nationals this year wanted an experienced and versatile outfielder — even if that meant spending more than before.
The Nationals agreed to terms with McLouth on a deal that calls for $10.75 million over the next two years with a club option for 2016.
Last season, Tyler Moore, a natural first baseman, made 30 starts in the outfield and posted a .607 OPS, while Roger Bernadina pitched in with 28 starts and had a measly .517 OPS before being cut. McLouth, a nine-year veteran, is a career .250 hitter with a .334 on-base percentage, 100 career home runs, is a strong base runner and can play all three outfield positions.
“We felt that it was a good time to really invest in a player that we felt could really help us off the bench, is multi-faceted,” Rizzo said. “This guy’s got some pop off the bench, he puts the bat on the ball. He can play above-average defense at three outfield positions and he can steal you a base. So he brings some speed and athleticism and some power off the bench. So that’s one aspect of it. And the other aspect of it is if one of your guys goes down, this guy has been an everyday player for [the] last year and with the combination of [Scott] Hairston from the right side and Nate from the left side, we feel that we’ve got ourselves a good platoon system if one of our main three guys goes down.”
That’s sound reasoning, and McLouth certainly could have made a difference with the combined 78 games missed between Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper. But if Werth, Harper and Denard Span all stay healthy, are the Nationals worried about getting McLouth enough at-bats? No, according to Rizzo. He and Manager Matt Williams have talked about the playing time and the Nationals have a plan to make sure the bench players see enough action. And there could be plenty of room to sneak in at least 300 at-bats for McLouth.
Werth, who will turn 34 next season, played 150 games in 2011 but has totaled just 210 games over past two seasons. Harper played hurt most of last season. Span’s 153 games played last season was the most he totaled in three years. So in the event of any injuries, McLouth — coupled with Hairston — is an obvious fill-in, especially for extended periods of time.
“In the National League, [McLouth will] have a lot of opportunities to pinch-hit, pinch-run,” Rizzo said. “And have some opportunities to rest one of the three outfielders to keep them fresh, to keep Jayson Werth fresh down the stretch. And I think that we will find ample at-bats. We keep saying if guys don’t get hurt, but over the course of the last three years we’ve had a guy out there 81 games that’s not one of your starting three outfielders.”
McLouth was Baltimore’s starting left fielder most of last season so, to sell him on the Nationals, Rizzo laid out the team’s plan for him. He explained the Nationals’ need for a proven fourth outfielder over the past few years and what they saw as his future role. Williams and Adam LaRoche, a former teammate in Pittsburgh, both talked with McLouth. Rizzo had an “extended conversation” with McLouth. Rizzo referred to McLouth’s role next season as “important,” even comparing it to other players on playoff teams.
“When you look at some of the better teams in baseball that have this type of role, the Jonny Gomeses, the [David] Murphys, the [David] DeJesuses, I think he fits in that group that maybe aren’t your everyday player, but have a vital role in the success of the team,” Rizzo said. “Like we said, especially in the National League, it’s a 25-man plus roster, I think that this guy really bolsters ourselves on the bench and really gives us insurance in case something happens to our other outfielders.”
With McLouth, the Nationals’ bench will likely include right-handed hitters Hairston and Moore; Danny Espinosa, who Rizzo wants to give a chance to win a spot on the team as a backup in spring training; and a backup catcher, perhaps Jhonatan Solano. Although the five-man bench appears nearly set, Rizzo didn’t close the door on exploring other minor additions.
The current composition of the Nationals’ bench may be missing the power left-handed bat that Chad Tracy was supposed to provide late in games as a pinch hitter last season, but Rizzo said the team views McLouth as a version of that. McLouth hit 12 home runs in 2013, and hit 46 between 2008 and 2009 when he played every day. McLouth is also a better base stealer and runner than the Nationals’ bench options last season.
Rizzo said the Nationals are comfortable with Solano and Sandy Leon as Wilson Ramos’s backups next season but could add another. If Ramos is hurt for an extended amount of time, the Nationals would be pressed to use them everyday. Two years ago, for example, after Ramos hurt his knee, the Nationals traded for Kurt Suzuki after Jesus Flores struggled with the everyday load.
“That would probably be the plan of attack going forward because we feel good about where Ramos is health-wise,” Rizzo said.
The free agent class of catchers this season isn’t particularly strong. John Buck, 33 and a veteran catcher, could be a fit, along with Yorvit Torrealba and others. After another season with injuries, Ramos finished the season strong, even catching 23 straight games. Ramos has been serving as a designated hitter for the Tigres de Aragua in the Venezuelan winter league. The Nationals are hopeful Ramos will remain healthy.
“I don’t think he needs any more regular time off than any other front line full-time catcher,” Rizzo said. “He can play regularly. I don’t know what the average everyday catcher caught, what about a 125, 128 games. I think he can take on that load. And if that’s the case, we feel good about what we’ve got as our backups.”