The Orioles came to an agreement with 31-year-old outfielder Nate McLouth on Wednesday. According to sources, the deal will be worth $2 million for one year, with additional bonuses totaling $500,000 for reaching 550 plate appearances.
McLouth’s return is a welcomed one, as both parties were interested in working out a deal and the outfielder became a fan favorite for his energetic and productive performance down the stretch and in the playoffs in 2012. Considering the free agent market for veteran outfielders — 32-year-old Shane Victorino and 31-year-old Angel Pagan recently agreed to multiyear deals worth $39 and $40 million respectively — the contract is clearly on team-friendly terms, despite McLouth’s rocky recent history. The 31-year-old outfielder would barely need to perform above replacement level to earn his keep.
But a free agent deal to a starting position player should be judged on more than just a cost vs. production perspective. Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette told reporters Wednesday night that, with the addition of McLouth, the club is no longer in the market for outfielders, meaning that McLouth is all but guaranteed one of nine precious slots in Baltimore’s lineup for 2013.
The question becomes not whether McLouth is likely to provide solid value, but how many wins his addition to the team provides. With left field being one of just two potential openings for improvement on the positional side for Baltimore – first base or DH being the other – the Orioles need to bank on production. $2 million worth of performance is simply not good enough.
So, what will McLouth need to do to provide average or better production as a starting leftfielder?
Average production is typically benchmarked at two wins above replacement. Despite McLouth’s reputation among Orioles fans as a plus defender, advanced fielding metrics see him as average to slightly below average in left. However, McLouth does tend to produce about 5 extra runs per season via base running.
All this means that the leftfielder would have to post about a .330 wOBA over a full season to meet two WAR. Interestingly, that production is nearly identical to McLouth’s career .331 mark, which spreads out something like a .250/.335/.420 triple slash line. Over two months in Baltimore, he hit to a tune of .268/.342/.435.
Essentially, McLouth will need to revert to career levels to be an average starter in left. The Orioles will hope for the player they saw late in 2012, but pay for the player McLouth has been over the last three years. The deal is good value but likely limited in upside. With McLouth in the fold, Baltimore now only has room for bat at first base or DH to upgrade the offense.