The Braves, it appears, perpetually seek outfield help. Last year they struck early to address the issue, trading for Nate McLouth in early June. It seemed like a fairly safe bet. McLouth had produced a .364 wOBA in 2007, which he followed with a .369 mark, including an uptick in power, during his 2008 breakout season. In 2009 he had produced a .365 wOBA prior to the trade, so the Braves were fairly confident of his ability to maintain his output. Even if he dipped a little he’d provide an upgrade over the hodgepodge of washed-up and never-were outfielders.
The transition from Pittsburgh to Atlanta didn’t exactly go smoothly for McLouth, but it didn’t go poorly either. He produces a .342 wOBA for the Braves in his 396 PA, though his power fell off a bit. His strikeout rate rose a bit, but that wasn’t too much a surprise. It was really in 2008 that his strikeout rate fell, so perhaps that was the anomaly. But, all considered it wasn’t bad at all, especially considering his $2 million salary. The Braves didn’t make much noise, though they did go from .500 upon McLouth’s arrival to 10 above .500 by season’s end. Plus, they had Nate for two more seasons at a reasonable rate, plus a $10.65 million option for 2012.
Yet in 2010 the Braves haven’t realized any of McLouth’s potential value. He has been a net negative in every sense this year — except, maybe, that his walk rate has remained consistent with last year. His AVG is down to .168, and no matter how little you regard batting average that is not a number befitting an MLB starter. His power is way down, too, a .097 ISO that comprises a paltry dozen extra base hits in 220 PA. To date he has produced -1.3 WAR, which nearly offsets the value he provided the Braves last year.
These numbers obviously fall a long way from what the projection engines had in mind. CHONE pegged McLouth for a .355 wOBA, Marcel for .358, and ZiPS had him highest of all at .364. The best part about ZiPS is that it is a self-correcting machine. It has already placed lower expectations on the remainder of McLouth’s season, projecting a .339 wOBA the rest of the way, knocking his ISO down nearly 20 points from his preseason projection. Even that seems a bit optimistic. It would take a drastic and immediate turnaround for McLouth to realize anything close to his previous value.
A little more than a year after acquiring McLouth to help fill a void in the outfield, the Braves could be seeking more help. This time, however, it would be to replace McLouth. While they have solutions at the corners with Jason Heyward and an Eric Hinske – Matt Diaz platoon, center field remains an issue. Melky Cabrera and Gregor Blanco filled in while McLouth sat for a month and a half with a concussion, but neither is an ideal season-long solution. The Braves’ outfielders rank 13th in the NL in wOBA (.319) and are slightly below average, per UZR, defensively. They could certainly use an upgrade in center, especially it’s a rental. They do, after all, have McLouth under contract for one more year.
Despite the optimistic ZiPS rest of season forecast, we’re essentially at the point where we can write off McLouth’s 2010 as a lost cause. Though it’s never a positive for a player to miss that much time with a concussion, there was a chance that the break from baseball would help McLouth clear up anything that wasn’t working earlier in the season. Yet he’s collected just one hit in 15 PA since his return while grounding into two double plays and striking out twice. No, 15 PA doesn’t mean much when isolated, but considering McLouth’s failings earlier in the season it does not present a positive sign at all. I’m sure the Braves aren’t placing any expectations on him for the remainder of the season.
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