The Nationals faced several pressing and roster-altering questions entering this offseason, but their outfield wasn’t one of them. Jayson Werth, Denard Span, and Bryce Harper are locks to start there, barring injury. The only real question was who would spend his evenings in front of the out-of-town scoreboard in right field. General Manager Mike Rizzo answered that last week, when he announced that Harper will move from left to right, switching places with Werth.
But the key clause in that paragraph is “barring injury.” Last season, the Nationals sent players to the disabled list 16 times last season, and that doesn’t account for players who stayed and played with knocks and nicks. Eight of those moves involved outfielders. Harper, Span and Werth all missed time at some point. With that in mind, the question of who will be the Nationals go-to fourth outfielder is relevant.
One of the most experienced options is Nate McLouth, who signed a two-year, $10.75 million dollar deal last offseason that gave the Nationals a veteran left-handed bat and plenty of speed proven in all three outfield spots.
When McLouth is right, he’s capable of solid defense, 100-plus hits, and 25-plus stolen bases: He hit .258 with 137 hits and 30 stolen bases over 146 games with Baltimore in 2013. But McLouth wasn’t right last season. He battled shoulder pain through many of the 79 games he played for the Nationals, hitting .173 in 193 at-bats as he adjusted to less consistent playing time.
McLouth, who had surgery in mid-August on the shoulder, wouldn’t say whether the injury contributed to his offensive struggles.
“That’s really tough to know,” he said Saturday at NatsFest. “But it was there.”
He was willing to admit that limited playing time precluded offensive rhythm.
“Hopefully I can get some sort of consistent scheduled playing time. I think there was a month there when I had 10 at-bats in a month,” McLouth said. “That’s tough for anybody. it’s tough to do anything with that, so hopefully I can get in there a little more and make the most of my opportunities.”
McLouth likely will compete with Kevin Frandsen and high-upside youngsters such as Steven Souza and Michael Taylor for the fourth outfielder slot, and he says he’ll be fully healthy and ready to compete by the time spring training arrives.
“It’s been a long process, I think it’s been like three and a half months since I’ve had the surgery, something like that, and like I said it’s definitely been monotonous, but I can definitely feel it getting stronger,” said McLouth, who said the past three months have spent engaged in the often-demoralizing grind of shoulder rehab.
“I saw a doctor [Friday] here, and he said it’s looking pretty good.”
McLouth said the torn labrum was the result of wear and tear, not a specific play. He says when the shoulder regains its full strength, he should have no more problems with it. For now, as McLouth looks out at that outfield stocked with star starters not soon budging, he hopes he can find a consistent role, whatever that might be.
“That’s the question. I don’t know,” said McLouth of his place in the team this season. “I guess it’s something that will kind of take care of itself in spring training.”