Dec 10, 2013, 8:41 AM EST
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After a strong bounce-back season in Baltimore, Nate McLouth figured to sign with a club this winter that would offer him the chance to win an everyday job.
The Nationals, of course, had no such opportunity with Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Denard Span all entrenched in the outfield. But they managed to convince McLouth to sign a two-year, $10.75 million contract by showing him the likelihood he’ll still get significant playing time off the bench.
In evaluating his team over the last three seasons, general manager Mike Rizzo realized the Nationals’ fourth outfielder made roughly 80 starts per year due to injuries to starters. Wanting to be better-equipped to deal with the inevitable this time, he made it a priority to sign a player of McLouth’s caliber.
“You’ve got a guy — not talking about your main three outfielders — that is getting 380-to-425 at-bats in a season,” Rizzo said Monday at the Winter Meetings. “And we felt that it was a good time to really invest in a player that we felt … could really help us off the bench.”
Looking back at the last three seasons, it’s easy to understand Rizzo’s perspective on the matter.
— The Nationals entered 2011 with a projected outfield of Michael Morse, Rick Ankiel and Werth. But when Adam LaRoche was lost to major shoulder surgery, Morse shifted to first base. That created a hole in left field, where Laynce Nix and Roger Bernadina each wound up starting 71 games.
— Two significant injuries foiled the Nationals’ original outfield plans in 2012: Morse missed more than two months with a torn lat muscle, Werth missed three months with a broken wrist. The domino effect: Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and Xavier Nady started a combined 130 games in the outfield.
— Werth once again missed time this season with a lingering hamstring strain, and Bryce Harper spent most of the year battling knee and hip injuries. That led to 90 total games started in the outfield by Bernadina, Moore, Lombardozzi and Scott Hairston.
The Nationals presented McLouth — who hit .258 with 12 homers, 31 doubles and 30 steals in 146 games with the Orioles this season — that information and sold the 32-year-old former Gold Glover on the idea of coming to D.C., even though he’d be on the bench if everyone else was healthy.
McLouth is scheduled to take his physical this week, at which point he’ll officially sign a contract that also includes a $6.5 million club option for 2016.
“We mapped out the opportunity for him,” Rizzo said. “No uncertain terms, just black and white: Here’s what we’ve had in the past, here’s what we see your role in the future. And he liked the fit here.”
What happens if Harper, Span and Werth all stay relatively healthy? New manager Matt Williams does plan to give his regulars more days off throughout the season than Davey Johnson did. He also plans to make more late-game switches, whether for defense or pinch-running, opening the door for McLouth to get significant playing time by season’s end.
And if one of the starters does get hurt — as has been the case in each of the last three seasons — the Nationals believe they’re well-stocked to deal with it this time.
“If one of your guys goes down, this guy has been an everyday player last year,” Rizzo said. “And with the combination of Hairston from the right side and Nate from the left side, we feel that we’ve got ourselves a good platoon system if one of our main three guys goes down. That was the rationale.”
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