Nate McLouth may have hit only .118 in spring training. Maybe he only hit .176 until June 2nd, when he ran into Jason Heyward, injuring himself for six full weeks. So what if he had only gone 1-for-15 since his return to the Braves lineup last week?
None of that mattered as he came up to bat Sunday afternoon in a tie game with the bases loaded and only one out in the 11th inning. McLouth would not get a better shot than this at showing he still had some worth, on a team determined to win it all before Bobby Cox’s retirement.
McLouth hit a sharp grounder straight at the shortstop, who turned a double play to end the inning and eventually win the game for the Marlins. McLouth stood with the first base coach with a grimace on his face, knowing that his short stint with the Braves would soon end.
It’s a very open secret that the Braves are looking for a new outfielder to replace McLouth. The three top candidates named so far are Cody Ross, Corey Hart, and Josh Willingham. Coming from the Marlins, Brewers, and Nationals respectively, the outfielders all have salaries between four and five million dollars like McLouth, but with obvious hitting upgrades. The Braves’ system is full of pitching prospects to offer in trades, so which outfielder should they choose?
Nate McLouth’s OPS of .544 so far this year isn’t hard to beat, but the three choices presented here are very different hitters. Willingham has been consistently above average over his career, with good but not great power and a decent on-base percentage. You can be certain you’ll get an OPS of over .800 with him on the team.
Hart, like a lot of the Brewers squad, puts a serious focus on power. He already has 22 homers on the season, with a .568 slugging percentage. Ross, on the other hand, has been a barely above replacement-level hitter, and his .732 OPS so far this year isn’t a significant improvement over the Braves’ backup center fielder Melky Cabrera or the next backup recently demoted back to AAA, Gregor Blanco.
As far as fielding goes, however, Cody Ross is the only one out of the three that can really replace McLouth at center field. Willingham is a left fielder and Hart has played right field exclusively for a few years now. The Braves can certainly play Melky Cabrera at center to accommodate Hart or Willingham, but the successful Eric Hinske/Matt Diaz platoon in left and Rookie of the Year frontrunner Heyward in right are both more valuable than Cabrera in terms of offensive production.
None of the Braves’ three options offer a serious upgrade worth giving away pitching prospects, because the two corner outfielders aren’t worth replacing Hinske/Diaz or Jason Heyward, and the center fielder is only a slightly better hitter than Cabrera. The cost to get any new outfielder won’t be worth the small upgrade the Braves may get, so their best option is simply to get rid of McLouth but play Melky Cabrera (or Gregor Blanco, who has impressed this year) at center field and stay silent at the trade deadline.
Fans will have to see if the Braves front office can let cooler heads prevail and stick with what they have. But that’s undoubtedly the correct choice if Ross, Hart, and Willingham are their only choices this week.