When the Nats built a bench on the cheap in 2012 it worked. Steve Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina, Chad Tracy, and Tyler Moore all had outstanding seasons, and the four of them combined cost less than half of what the Nationals will be paying Nate McLouth in 2014, but when they tried to do the same thing in 2013 it was a disaster. The only back-up outfielder to have a higher than .700 OPS was Corey Brown and that was in 15 plate appearances. Hardly enough of a sample size to be trusted.
Nate McLouth gives the Nationals bench something it severely lacked in 2013, a reliable veteran. McLouth’s numbers aren’t great. He is a career .250/.334/.418 hitter, and while that isn’t great it could have been good enough to earn McLouth a role on a team looking for a stop gap type to get them to the next prospect. Combine that with a contract that isn’t out of line for what a 1.0 WAR player can deliver and McLouth not only could have bridged the gap for a team like the Cubs but they also could have traded him at the deadline for an additional prospect. It is unknown if the Nationals had talked to Garrett Jones but he was another in the same boat as McLouth. Not good enough to start on a good team but could land a starting job for the right team, and when the Marlins gave Jones a two year $7.75 million deal he took that to be their starting first baseman.
Figure a similar contract may have been on the table for McLouth and that $3 million extra doesn’t sound so bad. To many baseball players it is better to start on a losing team than to serve on a winning one. Call it the Paradise Lost theorem. McLouth was the starting left fielder for the Orioles last season and it is certain that there was a team out there that could have used him as a starter. What the Nats wanted was what they didn’t have last season. A bench player good enough to start on a bad team. Look at the Oakland A’s last season where they had Chris Young as their fourth outfielder and now Young is making $7.5 million to start for the Mets. The A’s had four outfielders that could start and so when Josh Reddick went out with a wrist injury or Coco Crisp missed time it didn’t affect them as much. When Harper and Werth were out for the Nationals they were replacing .800+ OPS bats with outfielders that had a lower than .600 OPS and were negatively defensively.
McLouth gives the Nationals more of a cushion in case of injury and can serve as a reliable pinch hitter. The Nationals could still sign an additionally left handed pinch hitter to fill that role on the bench or let McLouth and his career .786 OPS against right handed pitchers fill it and use the final bench spot for something else. Matt Williams wants to be more aggressive on the bases and McLouth fills that need as well. He himself has an 84.9% stolen base success rate for his career which makes him an elite base stealer, but his ability to hit right handed pitching could open up the final bench spot for a pinch runner type like Eury Perez.
Overall the McLouth signing gives the Nationals an important piece they were missing last season as well as someone that can play all three outfield spots, hit right handed pitching, and is good on the bases. All of the above were weaknesses demonstrated by the Nats bench in 2013 and one of the reasons it went from a 4 WAR bench in 2012 to -4 WAR bench in 2013. McLouth isn’t the last bench piece needed but it is a step in the right direction and shows that Mike Rizzo learned the correct lesson from his biggest failing in 2013. AAAA players and non-roster invitees can be good for a season, but trying to capture that lightening in a bottle a second year in a row is a fool’s errand.