Hungry? Eat Nate McLouth's Contract, It Might Be Rather Delicious

Evil Don here, on behalf of my better half. Today our guest-host is DFA, who serves up a scrumptious sampling of under-performing players A's should look into. With danmerqury taking a much-deserved break, Good Don will be here this afternoon in the role of pinch-threader as the A's begin a three-game series with the Cleveland Indians. 4:05 start time.  Until then, enjoy DFA's fine work. And speaking of work, well, yeah. Sigh.

There has been much hubbub about the A's inability to sign their premium free agent targets over the last two off-seasons. The Coli sucks blah blah blah, no one wants to play in front of 17 and 1/2 people blah blah blah, you'll get stabbed in Oakland blah blah blah.  I don't really believe any of it since information available to the public shows that the A's have offered all of 1 free agent the most money before he signed with another team (Scutaro) and Beane/Wolfe/Fisher have an incentive to put out when a free agent chooses somewhere else to further the San Jose is necessary meme (which I don't buy either). 

That being said, this post, the first in a series, operates under the idea that Carl Crawford and Jason Werth want absolutely nothing to do with the A's and even if you backed up a Brinkley or gave them the keys to the San Francisco Mint they wouldn't care (yes I know the SF Mint doesn't actually produce money anymore but you get the point).  Well what are the A's to do if that's the case?  Their rotation is potentially dominant next year if Anderson stays healthy, Cahill improves from average to above average, Gio does what hes been doing or breaks out into a true ace by lowering his walk/combustion rate, Braden pitches like a strong #3 starter, and Mazzaro becomes the best 5th starter in baseball as a league average innings eater.  The A's position players as a whole suck eggs so we are going to focus on players that can or should be acquired because their contracts suck and the A's rather than their current employer are in a superior position to pay for the vast sums they once convinced a unscrupulous GM to fork over.

I am going to start with a CFer that should be playing in the OF corners and who is probably the easiest to acquire.  Nate McLouth.  His contract, per Cots, is thus:

Nate McLouth of
3 years/$15.75M (2009-11), plus 2012 club option

  • 3 years/$15.75M (2009-11), plus 2012 club option
    • signed extension with Pittsburgh 2/17/09 (avoided arbitration, $3.8M-$2.75M)
    • $1.5M signing bonus
    • 09:$2M, 10:$4.5M, 11:$6.5M, 12:$10.65M club option ($1.25M buyout)
    • 2010 & 2011 salaries may increase by $0.5M ($0.2M each for Gold Glove or All Star selection in previous season, $0.1M for Silver Slugger)
    • 2012 salary may increase by $0.75M ($0.3M each for Gold Glove or All Star selection in previous season, $0.15M for Silver Slugger)
    • acquired by Atlanta in trade from Pittsburgh 6/3/09

I estimate that McLouth is the easiest to acquire for several reasons.  First the Braves already have $62m committed to their payroll for 2011 before arbitration awards.  Compare that number to the level of the A's payroll commitments, $11m for 2011 and you can see how the Braves will want to cut payroll.  This is especially true since the Brave have both a bunch or holes to fill in the lineup if they don't pick up options and retain their arbitration eligible players, which will add up to about $20M and take them to their payroll threshold this year.  

Without expanding past their current level of payroll the Braves would still have to fill their closer gig and 1b gig.  Now Freddy Freeman is one of the better 1b prospects in the upper minors, so he should be able to take the 1b job; but their bullpen could use another arm as they will be without the services of Billy Wagner, who insists that he is retiring and has been a third of their excellent bullpen's runs above average. Theoretically, the Braves would be significantly less need to cut payroll if Chipper retires rather than tries to comeback from his ACL injury but that would also leave the Braves with the need to look into a free agent third baseman, and getting a real replacement (Beltre) would cost more than Chipper.  If you are planning on cutting payroll wouldn't a player who is making $7.75m in the minor leagues be a good place to start?

Why would the A's want to take on such a commitment?  Well first it would come nearly freely.  McLouth is providing a lot less value than Juan Pierre was when he was traded to the White Sox from the Dodgers (3.1 WAR less to be exact).  While 2008 had Pierre posting 0 WAR, at the time of the traded Pierre had just come off of a resurgent year with the bat in 2009 with a wRC+ of 109 and hitting the tar out of the ball while MannyWood was doing SuspendedWood.   Pierre, while never likely to hold up to Coletti's contract sums had consistently be league averageish before his disaster of 2008.  For John Ely, who at the time was a AA starter with ok numbers who didn't look like had a third pitch, and Jon Link who had a ok year as a AAA reliever. The Dodgers were also footing a huge part of the bill, paying $10.5M of $18.5M left on Pierre's deal ($7M in 2010, $3.5M in 2011) and that financial package is far far more interesting than McLouth's who only gives one year of control at $7.75 for one year or $17m for two years.

I think another comparable deal would be the Chris Snyder deal between Pittsburgh and Arizona. The remaining commitment is similar. For Snyder the Pirates assumed the prorated portion of $4.75 million this season, plus $5.75 million for '11 and $750,000 buyout or a $6.75 million club option for '12.  Initially it looks like the Pirates acquired Snyder with about $8m.  However, the Diamondbacks not only sent $3 million in deal but they accepted the prorated portion of ~$3.5 in junk salary from Bobby Crosby, Ryan Church, and DJ Carasco.  Only Carasco, a ho hum blah reliever has any value to anyone (a side note it really is amazing how craptacular Crosby is).  To boot, Arizona also contributed a 24 year old AAA all glove no hit SS to the mix who has some upside in his own regard.  McLouth was better at his peak than Snyder was but also sucked more when he had his rough year this year.  Snyder also looked as if he had rebounded to a above league average backstop this year, rather than McLouth who has not had a rebound to date.

I could not find a comparably expensive player who was a 3 WAR player who just fell of the the face of the earth and then was traded so much of this is guess work but considering the level of commitment, I would expect that if McLouth was put on waivers and the A's claimed him the A's would not pull him back (a la Esteban Loiaza to the Dodgers in 2007).  I would expect the A's would need to give a token player a sacrificial Cedrick Bowers if you will to make the whole thing look better for Atlanta, but it absolutely should not take more than that if the A's are going to absorb all of McLouth's salary.  Furthermore this would still leave plenty of money to sign Brandon Webb and Orlando Hudson (at $8m a pop).  If it does take more than this the A's should absolutely not be giving up any talent to acquire a huge contractual risk.  If anything the A's should be on the receiving end of a insignificant prospect like Pittsburgh was in the Snyder deal.

Lets now look at McLouth's chances of recovery.  First,  the A's would move McLouth out of center field which would help his defense but those gains are likely to be lost in the positional adjustment for moving to the COF position.  McClouth isn't a good defender in center but Total Zone hates his defense less than UZR.  Chone's new projections see him as -4 FRAA (fielding runs above average) in CF which after the positional adjustment of +2.5 runs is -1.5 positional and fielding runs.  Putting McLouth in the corner will cost him 10 positional runs, however it is projected that he will gain 10 fielding runs so he will still be -1.5, though there should be some optimism that his range is better against his peers in a corner and will improve his fielding runs.

Its really his batting line that makes McLouth valuable so lets look at it.  Before the season McLouth was projected to have a wRC+ (a stat that shows park and league adjusted wOBA where 100 is average and each point above or below 100 is equal to 1% more or less than average)  between 114 and 125, which translates into between 10 and 15 batting runs above average.

Now things look a lot less rosy.  His line drive percentage has dropped 1.4% and is now 5% lower than league average.  The number of home runs McLouth hits on the balls he puts in the air have fallen in half.  His current level of performance over 600 PAs would cost his team 3.5 wins.  Its really ugly.

Then what is the upside?  Well if you regressed his batted ball rates to their expected values his wOBA jumps from horrific .260 to just bad at .300.  His BABIP is an unsustainable low .200. He still has a significantly higher than league average walk rate. Chone projects his true talent to be -1 BRAA (batting runs above average) moving forward.  Prorating ZIPs rest of the season projection for 600 PAs gives you 6 BRAA which is about a 2.5 WAR player. The final reason for optimism is that McLouth suffered from problems related to a concussion he sustained while fielding.  Sometimes it takes time to unring your bell and while the results haven't been outstanding if you don't neutralize for luck, but in his minor league stint since his concussion his LD% is much higher and his home run per balls in the air has more than doubled.   His ultimate upside is what he has done; he could potentially regain his 3.7 WAR form.

If McLouth succeeds he has an expensive option for 2012.  If he fails your out about $8m. I think this is one avenue that Beane should pursue McLouth provided that 1) McClouth is essentially free to acquire. 2) Taking on the money doesn't preclude any other better FA options (I don't think it does but if you can sign Crawford you do it) 3) In the next part of my series looking at Alfonso Soriano, I don't decide that that is a better option.

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