22. How good is Nate McLouth?

What do the Braves have in outfielder Nate McLouth?

The Braves offense was struggling mightily for the first two months of the 2009 season. Then on June 3 Atlanta acquired center fielder Nate McLouth from Pittsburgh for Charlie Morton, Gorkys Hernandez, and Jeff Locke.

McLouth's presence allowed the Braves to move Kelly Johnson out of the leadoff role, which also enabled Martin Prado to take over at second base and hit second. Then Yunel Escobar could also move lower in the order. Those changes resulted in Atlanta's offense to improve considerably for the final half of the season.

McLouth was nothing spectacular, but he is what he is: a very good defensive outfielder with the ability to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases.

The 28-year-old played in 84 games with Atlanta, just over half a season. He hit .257 with 11 home runs and 36 RBI, with 12 stolen bases. McLouth had hit .256 in 45 games with Pittsburgh, with 9 home runs and 34 RBI. Overall for 2009, McLouth hit .256 with 20 home runs, 70 RBI, 19 stolen bases, and a .352 on base percentage.

The biggest advantage to McLouth is his affordable (and tradeable) contract. He just signed the extension a few months before the Pirates traded him to Atlanta. It pays him $4.5 million in 2010, $6.5 million in 2011, and there is a $10.65 million club option for 2012, with a $1.25 million buyout.

For what McLouth produces, that's good value. And if something happens that the Braves need to trade him, his deal is not going to scare off many teams.

But now the Braves are happy to have McLouth in the outfield. He doesn't have a very good arm, but McLouth is pretty good in center field.

The need for a center fielder was created when Jordan Schafer struggled in the first two months of the season. We now know Schafer battled a wrist injury in the first two months, which hurt his production.

Schafer had surgery on his left wrist on August 31, and the Braves expect him to be back at full-strength next spring. But do not expect the Braves to just hand Schafer his job back. He will have to fight in spring training for a job on the Atlanta roster.

It is possible Schafer does show he is ready for the big leagues and the Braves slide McLouth over to left field. But right now the Braves think it is possible Schafer will need a little time in the minors before he's back in the big leagues.

Schafer could see time in right field, especially if Jason Heyward needs more time in the minor leagues before he takes over the position.

The Braves are on the hunt for another right-handed hitter this winter, and that player will likely be an outfielder. It's possible the Braves find a center fielder who matches that description, forcing a move to left for McLouth.

The Braves are convinced McLouth can be very effective in the lineup, providing around 20 home runs and stealing around 20 bases. There is hope he can be more consistent next season with a full year in an Atlanta uniform.

McLouth is not a spectacular player, but he's a solid veteran with a very good contract. He hustles, and the Braves, particularly manager Bobby Cox, love the way he plays the game. He fit in well in the clubhouse, and his teammates seem to really like him.

McLouth is not a typical leadoff man. His on base percentage could be better. But there is no doubt his speed, compared to other players on the roster, makes him the best candidate to hit leadoff.

The Braves made a good deal for McLouth. The team did not have room for Morton in its rotation. Hernandez had fallen off a bit in the Braves' eyes, and Locke was a decent prospect that had been passed by several others in the system.

And now we'll see how McLouth does in a full season for the Braves. He can be a very important part of the lineup, especially if the pieces around him are improved just a bit.



Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.


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