Yankees free agent target: Nate McLouth

Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE

Might it be a more frugal option to bring a division rival aboard than retain Curtis Granderson?

The Yankees will soon enter the free agent market with several question marks in the outfield. Brett Gardner will likely be fine, but it would be too much to expect Alfonso Soriano to replicate his scorching second half in 2014. Curtis Granderson appears to be on the path to free agency unless he accepts a qualifying offer, and the duet of darkness known as Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki demonstrated last season that they were over the hill and should be pursuing new real estate ventures in outer space.

Given these uncertainties, the Yankees must turn to the outfield free agent market or pursue a trade if they have aspirations of returning to the playoffs in 2014. They will have plenty of difficulties doing so with one of Wells, Ichiro, or even the underwhelming Zoilo Almonte as a starting outfielder. Although he had more homers than anyone in baseball from 2011-12, it is debatable to re-sign the soon-to-be 33-year-old Granderson to a three or four-year contract in excess of $40 million, which he stands a decent chance of receiving in the off-season. (Hell, assessing Granderson's possible free agent value is another complex post in it of itself). He is not as talented as Granderson, but the Yankees might find more value in Orioles outfielder Nate McLouth, who returns to the free agent market for the third straight season.

The lefty-swinging McLouth was an All-Star at the old Yankee Stadium with the Pirates during his mid-twenties, and a couple of promising seasons in the late 2000s seemed to suggest that he would be a player to watch for years to come. After a decent half-season with the Braves in '09 though, his game went to hell, and he shockingly became one of the worst players in baseball for two and a half years. From the beginning of 2010 until May 2012, McLouth hit an appalling .203/.312/.313 with a 75 wRC+ and -1.9 fWAR, worse than any National Leaguer over those three years with at least 650 plate appearances except for good ol' Greg Dobbs. The Braves understandably let him walk as a free agent after 2011, and when the Pirates offered him another shot, he completely bombed and was cut by May. He was just 30, but his career appeared all but over.

Seeking some lefty pop, the Orioles decided to take a shot on McLouth, and they signed him to their Triple-A team about a week after the Pirates released him. He had a decent showing there for a couple months and eventually earned a spot on the big league roster at the beginning of August 2012. His return to relevance was just as surprising as his fall from All-Star status; he has stayed in the Orioles' lineup since then and hit .261/.333/.409 with 43 doubles, 19 homers, 42 stolen bases, and a 103 wRC+ in 201 games (849 plate appearances).

The Orioles brought McLouth back after his stellar two months to end the 2012 season supported their ride to the AL Wild Card, and they got him for a very team-friendly deal: one year, $2 million. After all, he was still only a few months removed from being one of the worst players in the game. However, he made that contract look smart in 2013 with a 2.5 fWAR season, easily exceeding $2 million in value.

With about a season and a half of revitalized baseball under McLouth's belt now though, he could reasonably seek a better deal in this coming off-season. If the Yankees are looking for a relatively low-cost outfielder with several attractive qualities, McLouth might be their man. He does have inauspicious platoon splits, hitting .276/.346/.430 with a 112 wRC+ against righties and .211/.292/.343 with a 75 wRC+ against lefties over the past year and a half. Like Granderson though, he would be another helpful lefty bat playing half his games at Yankee Stadium, which is of course always an advantage. His spray chart from 2013 reflects his reputation as mostly a pull hitter, something that could increase his homer total in the Bronx:

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via Texas Leaguers

McLouth also has fine plate discipline--out of 140 qualifying major leaguers, he ranked 55th in walk percentage and 44th in lowest strikeout percentage. When he reaches base, he is a somewhat surprisingly good baserunner; FanGraphs has never rated him negatively on the bases, and he has stolen 84% of bases since joining the Orioles, including 30 last year. McLouth has played all around the outfield in his career, and while he's a fairly mediocre defender who's played left field most often recently, it would certainly not be impossible for him to become a regular right fielder. He could even just swap positions with Soriano in left if the Yankees feel that is a better defensive alignment.

Obviously, McLouth is not going to be a "home run" improvement for this team, but the Yankees badly missed even league-average bats in the lineup last year. The outfield market is not particularly promising, and McLouth does not figure to command too much from teams. Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors reasoned that McLouth will likely end up with a contract similar to the ones Jonny Gomes and David DeJesus received last off-season at about two years and $10 million total. That's not bad at all for McLouth (who turns 32 on the 28th), and the contract's relatively low value in comparison to the other, bigger outfielder contracts likely to be received by the bigger names on the market acknowledges the risk that he might revert to his 2010-early 2012 form. While there's no denying that he's a bit of a gamble, his recent success and modest price inspires more hope than the alternatives.

The Yankees' management passed on an opportunity to bring aboard a similarly useful player last off-season in Nate Schierholtz, who really could really have helped their shaky outfield in 2013. They can make amends for their mistake by giving McLouth a shot in 2014.

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