Making a Case for Nate McLouth

MLB: Braves vs Astros MAR 06

Welcome to the first installment of a reoccurring series here at Fantasy CPR. In “Making a Case” we’ll present our fantasy case for a maligned or underrated player and explain why he deserves a spot on your team going forward. This week we open up with one of the most maligned players in fantasy this spring, the Braves’ Nate McLouth.

After a brutally painful spring, Nate McLouth’s fantasy fortunes may appear to be as low as ever. While there are a number of factors working against McLouth’s value at the moment, there is also a case to be made that by the end of the season McLouth will have once again delivered a very nice stat line.

Detractors have plenty of ammunition to heap against the Braves outfielder right now. McLouth recently completed a dreadful spring,  even being demoted to a couple minor league spring games in hopes of getting his timing back. It took McLouth a whopping 36 at-bats to record his first spring hit. The spring numbers weren’t helped out by a hamstring injury suffered during camp or McLouth’s recent transition to wearing contact lenses over the offseason.

McLouth was slotted into the eighth spot in the Braves lineup on Opening Day, yielding the leadoff role to Melky Cabrera. All of this does add up to a less than stellar outlook, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

McLouth has been one of the most consistent power/speed contributors in each of the past two seasons. In his 2008 all-star campaign with the Pirates, McLouth hammered 26 longballs, swiped 23 bases, and scored 113 runs for the Bucs. McLouth has been one of the most efficient stolen base threats in the past five seasons, stealing 76 bases in 87 attempts, and six of the 11 times he has been caught came last year with the Braves while battling through a sore hamstring.
Last year McLouth’s average dipped to .256 in just 129 games split between Pittsburgh and Atlanta, but McLouth still managed to hit 20 homers and steal 19 bases. At just 28 years old at the start of this season, there’s no reason to doubt a healthy McLouth can’t turn in the same numbers or even better hitting in a solid Braves’ lineup for a full year.

The Braves aren’t going to give up on McLouth anytime soon. With phenom Jason Heyward getting the job in right field and Cabrera playing in left on Opening Day, McLouth got the call in center with only Matt Diaz the closest competitor behind him for outfield playing time. The Braves paid a hefty price to get McLouth from the Pirates, dealing away pitcher Charlie Morton and two other prospects, including Gorkys Hernandez. Atlanta is also paying McLouth a hefty tag of $4.5 million this season. With that kind of investment it will take a lot more than a prolonged (and injury-aided slump) to bump McLouth from playing time. Yet another reason McLouth has ensured playing time is his trusty glove, not to mention the Golden Glove he won in 2008. It’s hard to sit a fielder who can make the plays McLouth routinely does in the field. On Opening Day, McLouth’s hamstring seemed to be feeling fine as he made two stellar catches after tracking balls down in center.

McLouth is also a streaky player by nature. He has gone through down periods at the plate before, but he also can get scorching hot when he finds his groove. During McLouth’s breakout 2008 season in Pittsburgh, the center fielder had 13 homers, 37 RBIs, and was hitting over .300 when May came to a close. In June he hit just .214 with two homeruns, and after a solid July, he hit just one homer and 19 hits in 84 August at-bats. Streaky players can be terribly frustrating to put up with sometimes, but when their numbers average out to 20-20 seasons, fantasy owners need to show some patience and trust in the end product.

As McLouth fully heals from his hamstring problems his numbers will rise this year. As that happens I’m confident he’ll rise in the lineup as well. If McLouth can find himself in the order next to Chipper Jones, Brian McCann or Heyward, McLouth’s numbers will be due for an added boost. The average won’t be really high, expect no greater than .270, but the power, steals, and runs are bound to come. Take advantage of the negative McLouth sentiment now and see if you can get a good deal on him from a leaguemate looking to get rid of a perceived sinking ship.

Fantasy CPR Projection: 21 HRs, 76 RBI, 92 R, 20 SB, .267 AVG

So what is your take on Nate McLouth in 2010? Do you buy our case or does your thinking differ? Let us know in the comments.

Tags: Atlanta Braves Chipper Jones Fantasy Jason Heyward MLB Nate McLouth

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