LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Though his starting outfield is set - with Bryce Harper in left field, Denard Span in center field and Jayson Werth in right field - Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo placed a high priority this offseason in adding a dependable left-handed bat off the bench.
Rizzo wanted someone versatile enough to play all three positions well, a hitter with enough pop to hit the occasional home run and a guy who could add an element of speed to the aggressive style new manager Matt Williams expects to employ.
Rizzo and the Nationals settled on veteran outfielder Nate McLouth who agreed Friday to a two-year, $10.75 million deal with a team option for a third season. The deal is contingent on the 32-year-old McLouth, a former All-Star and Gold Glove winner with the Pirates who played the last two seasons with the Orioles, passing a physical scheduled for this week.
Speaking Monday for the first time about McLouth’s pending addition to the 40-man roster, Rizzo said he didn’t foresee any issue in finding playing time for a guy who brings so much to the table. Especially not with recent history, which shows the Nats’ primary fourth outfielder has logged significant time in each of the past three seasons.
“Over the last couple of years, our fourth outfielders averaged about 80 games in the outfield,” Rizzo explained while briefing reporters in his suite on the first day of the Winter Meetings. “You’ve got a guy (in McLouth) - not talking about your main three outfielders, who are getting upwards of 380 to 425 at-bats a season - and we felt that it was a good time to really invest in a player that, one, could help us off the bench, is multifaceted. 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. The other aspect of it is, if one of your guys go down, this guy has been an everyday player ... 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 go down. That was the rationale.”
In other words, Werth has spent time on the disabled list in each of the past two seasons with wrist and hamstring injuries, Harper still plays a daredevil style that sees him crash into walls and Span is prone to deep slumps a couple of times a season. All of that adds up to the fourth - and even fifth - outfielders on Washington’s 25-man roster being critically important.
For most of the past three seasons, the now-departed Roger Bernadina filled the role of the primary fourth outfielder. Bernadina played in 91 games in 2011, 129 games in 2012 and 85 games last year before he was released in mid-August. In those seasons, Bernadina totaled 337, 261 and 167 plate appearances. But only during his breakout 2012 - when he batted .291 with five homers, 25 RBIs and 15 stolen bases - did he contribute significantly on offense.
“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 (for) 81 games that’s not one of your starting three outfielders,” Rizzo explained. “As we do, we mapped out the opportunity for (McLouth) - no uncertain terms, black and white, here’s what we’ve had in the past and here’s what we see as your role in the future - and he liked the fit here. Matt Williams talked to him, I talked to him (and) had extended conversations, Adam LaRoche talked to him because they played together in Pittsburgh. And he felt comfortable that his role on the team would be a very important role, and we think it is.”
The addition of McLouth also drives home the point that Williams wants his lineup and bench to be peppered with guys who can force the action - steal a base, take an extra base, go in motion with a hit-and-run. Where Davey Johnson preferred a couple of power hitters in reserve, Williams seems to want guys who can both fill in for an extended period if called upon and players who aren’t so one-dimensional.
“Talking to Matt Williams about it, we’re going to make sure that our bench guys play,” Rizzo said. “I think we’re going to utilize them in the right way. In the National League I think he’ll have a lot of opportunities to hit and pinch-run and have some opportunities to rest one of the three outfielders and keep them fresh. ... We’ll find ample at-bats.”
McLouth hit rock bottom after the 2011 campaign, when he was released by the Braves after failing to hit better than .257 in three years after being traded to Atlanta by the Pirates. McLouth also lost his power stroke, with only 21 homers in three seasons with the Braves after successive 20-homer seasons in Pittsburgh. He re-signed with the Pirates in December 2011 and lasted only 34 games before being released in May 2012. The Orioles snapped him up on a minor league deal and he became a reclamation project, spending a productive season and a half in Baltimore and helping the Orioles to the postseason in 2012. Signed to a one-year deal last winter, McLouth played regularly in left field but his numbers tailed off in the second half.
Still, he hit 12 homers (his most since 2009) and stole a career-high 30 bases in 37 tries. Rizzo looked at those numbers and sees a promising upgrade over Bernadina on a team being constructed for a deep playoff run.
“He fit the criteria we were looking for in a player,” Rizzo said. “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 the fits in that group. Guys who maybe aren’t everyday players but who have a vital role in the success of the team.”