Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Nate McLouth - Lowballed?

We know that Nate McLouth and the Bucs have miles to go before they agree on a contract. They just swapped arbitration figures, and McLouth asked for $3.8M; the team countered with $2.75M. Either way, it's a nice jump from the $425K he got in 2008, his first year as a starter and a breakout season by every matrix.

He proved durable, playing in 152 games and getting a team-leading 597 at bats. Mclouth's line was .276/26/94 with 113 runs scored and 23 stolen bases. He ran up a .356 OBP, .497 slugging %, and an OPS of .853. Oh, and was a gold glove CF. Pretty good stuff, no matter how you look at. And he wants the Benjamins those stats say that he deserves.

Whoa, say the suits. Can he repeat that performance on the field? Do those numbers, as swell as they are for a CF, hold up as well for a corner OF spot, his probable future position? And his power and RBI production do take a beating when he faces a lefty - .261 with a .710 OPS and only 3 of his 26 long balls.

The Pirates are apparently basing his contract on Ryan Doumit's recent deal. Doumit signed for a guaranteed three years, carrying him through arbitration, for $2.05M, $3.55M, and $5.1M, with a one-time option for $7.25M and $8.25M in 2012-13.

His line was .318/15/69 with 71 runs tallied, though he played a lot less - 116 games, and 465 at bats. Doumit plays a position that is harder to fill than McLouth's, and his production splits aren't as skewered, though he rakes lefties noticeably better than righties - but he still hits RHPs at a .314 clip with an .849 OPS, not too shabby.

Personally, GW thinks that the Bucs got a pretty sweet deal with Doumit. Then again, his history is that he's in the tub a lot, and our guess is both sides recognized that when striking the deal, balancing performance and injury backgrounds.

Instead of comparing apples and oranges, let's take a look at a couple of other players in the same boat as McLouth. The Dodgers are playing out the exact scenario with Andre Ethier, who wants $3.75M and is being offered $2.65M by LA.

His line was .305/20/77 with 90 runs scored. Ethier's OBP is .375, his slugging percentage is .510, combined for an OPS of .885, all a tick above McLouth. Ethier's splits are terrible - he mashes against righties, but hits .243 with a .692 OPS against portsiders. And he plays a corner position, RF. Comparable player, comparable demand.

Or would could look across state and see what the Phillies did to tie up RF Jatson Werth, a first-time arb eligible player. His line was .273/24/67 with 73 runs scored. Werth's OBP was .363, slugging % .498, and OPS .861. He struggles against RHP, hitting .255 with a .767 OPS.

That didn't bother the City of Brotherly Love's suits a bit - they signed him for the next two years, giving him a $1M signing bonus, $2M for 2009, and $7M in 2010. That's on the high side in 2010, we think, but hey - agents and players are looking at arbitration as a poor man's free agency in these economic times.

The battle in Pittsburgh is to set Nate McLouth's baseline salary through his arbitration years. The higher it is, the brighter McLouth's future earning power becomes, and the Bucs want to keep it down while they have him under control. Hey, someone else may want to cash in on a good season, too.

In the Pirate's defense, they generally want back-to-back performances before signing an arb-eligible guy on the dotted line. But they let that balloon get pricked when they inked Ryan Doumit, who never got more than 252 at bats before 2008.

Our take? McLouth has a good case. The midpoint between he and the Pirates is $3.275M. If they can get him anywhere near that figure, they should sign him. His number looks closer to the going rate than the suit's offer. After all, you eventually have to pay the guys that come through for you.

Unless, of course, the Yankees come courting...


WilliamJPellas said...

It's odd with McLouth, isn't it? On the one hand, he has always been---at least, publicly---the good soldier. He rarely if ever complained about getting screwed and passed over by Jim Tracy and Dave Littlefield in their never-ending fascination with high strikeout slap hitters like Chris Duffy and Rajai Davis (though Davis can REALLY run, I gotta say that). Now that he finally got his shot and thoroughly outplayed every single competitor, I guess I can't really blame him if he wants to play hardball in salary negotations.

Unfortunately this also likely means that Nate is on his way out of Pittsburgh sooner rather than later. If he has another All Star season in '09, the Pirates surely won't be able to afford him long term at the kind of dollars he will surely command. Even if he falls back to the pack and is merely better than average, his salary is still trending upward, and I don't think the current front office is likely to forget McLouth's refusal to be bought out of his arb years.

In short, I'd be surprised if he is with the Pirates after next season. I don't think he'll be traded in season, but he could well be elsewhere in 2010.

Ron Ieraci said...

I have to agree with you, Will. I think McLouth has a strong sense of self and his value, although it's possible that another good year, say .275/25/90, will net him the deal he wants.

I just hope these guys take arbitration for what it is, just TCB, and not personally.