After resuscitating his career in Baltimore during the Orioles' magical 2012 run, Nate McLouth came back as the team's starting left fielder on a relatively inexpensive one-year deal. After McLouth turned in a productive 2013 campaign, the Orioles will have to grapple with whether to sign him once again, which will likely require a two-year deal this time, to turn to an in-house option like Steve Pearce, Nolan Reimold or Chris Dickerson, or to go shopping for a free agent left fielder.
Let's start with McLouth's 2013 campaign. He batted .258/.329/.399 with 12 home runs in 146 games and 593 plate appearances. He provided adequate defense in left field (good range, decent routes, poor arm), and was easily the team's top stolen base threat (30 steals), on a team without a huge running game, which made him the team's best leadoff option, at least again right-handed pitching. Oh, but wait, left-handed pitching. That part of Nate's game didn't improve in 2013, which saw him hit just .209/.283/.357 against southpaws, and just as often ride the bench against them. These drastic platoon splits are definitely a knock on McLouth's utility, especially with tough lefties like David Price, CC Sabathia and Jon Lester right in the AL East. But even with his lefty struggles, McLouth managed to accumulate 1.6 WAR (per Baseball Reference), his best mark in that regard since 2009.
But while we're talking about splits, another one rears its ugly head upon closer inspection. McLouth really put forward most of his value in the first few months of 2013. His play started to tail off in July, but you can pretty easily use the All-Star Break as a proxy for that, and see the full ugly truth here. Suffice it to say that Nate's batting and running games really hit a wall as the season wore on, leaving him looking more like a replacement-level platoon outfielder after those first few months. Some even theorized that Nate was playing through a nagging injury that was hampering him.
All of which leads to the Orioles' tough decision this offseason. Estimates around the internet are that McLouth will land a two-year deal in the $8-10 million range. With the Orioles' payroll already ballooning from arbitration-eligible players, and the team potentially needing to add a second baseman and starting pitcher via free agency, will Dan Duquette be willing -- or able -- to pony up that kind of cash for McLouth, who could be anything from a solid leadoff hitter to a platoon, replacement-level guy? Keep in mind, McLouth was nearly out of baseball just two years ago; but also keep in mind, the in-house options and free-agent options alike aren't particularly inspiring.
If I had to guess, I think McLouth will be back in an Orioles uniform in 2014 (and 2015) -- leaving fans to hope that his late 2012/early 2013 bounceback was the real deal. That's not an entirely unreasonable hope, even if there were a few red flags toward the end of this year, and even if he'll probably never be an everyday player. McLouth seems to be well-liked among fans and his Orioles rostermates alike, so as long as he doesn't become a total liability at some point, two more years on his Orioles tenure shouldn't be a bad thing at all.