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October 9, 2012 at 8:07 pm ET
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The six stages of Nate McLouth

Nate McLouth batting lead off for the Baltimore Orioles in a postseason series is among the more improbable and stunning developments of the 2012 baseball season. This is particularly true for Pirates fans, who have had McLouth keep popping in and out of their lives for the last 12 years. Through these dozen years, McLouth has taken on several different incarnations, each stage along the way embodying a different representation of what it’s meant to be a Pirate during that time.

Stage 1: Nate McLouth broke into the bigs for good with the Pirates in 2006, a top-five team prospect with noticeable skills, but his stature in the system was more a testament to then-GM Dave Littlefield’s inability to draft or develop consistent impact talent during his tenure. McLouth showed flashes of being a solid major-leaguer flashing speed and some pop during a semi-regular role in 2007.

Stage 2: McLouth’s breakout came in 2008, when in his first full year as a starter he hit .276/.356/.497 with 26 HRs, 23 SBs while somehow also managing to cop a Gold Glove. Along with Xavier Nady and Jason Bay, McLouth combined to form the top-hitting outfield in baseball during the first half of the season. An atrocious pitching staff kept the team out of contention though, and Nady and Bay were both traded away in mid-summer deals that hinted at a major re-building of the team’s roster.

Stage 3: Fittingly, it was a trade of McLouth the next season which signified the Pirates were going to blow things up. Hovering around .500 in early June, and with McLouth again leading the way on offense, the Pirates dealt him to the Braves for three prospects: pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. There was an astute shrewdness to the deal from new GM Neal Huntington. McLouth’s value was at its peak, and his contributions to a team that was no threat to compete for a championship were over-valued by the industry. Still, as has so often been the case, while Huntington’s process and reasoning for making the move were sound, the players he received back in the trade were lackluster.

Stage 4: On the Braves, McLouth fell off the table as a productive player.  From 2010-2011, he averaged just 83 games played, batting .210 with just ten home runs and an OPS of .650.  While he didn’t morph into a superstar like Jose Bautista upon leaving Pittsburgh, McLouth’s time in Atlanta did see him become a member of another prestigious Pirates alumni club: those who carried a slight grudge against their former team. Prior to the 2010 postseason, McLouth implied there was a suffocating culture of losing in Pittsburgh, and then questioned the efficacy of the Pirates medical staff. http://www.bucsdugout.com/2010/3/4/1356774/mclouth-speaks

Stage 5: Clearly, whatever ill feelings McLouth harbored towards the Pirates weren’t strong enough to keep him from coming back. Prior to this season, he signed a one-year contract to serve as a fourth outfielder and extra bat off the bench. The return was doomed from the start, as McLouth never adjusted to a part-time role, registering a paltry .385 OPS before being cut loose on May 25. By doing so, the Pirates made McLouth another in a long line of free agent signings (Ryan Church, Bobby Crosby, Erik Hinske, Lyle Overbay etc.) that failed to make it through one full season in Pittsburgh.

Stage 6: That part about McLouth not finding another gear once he left Pittsburgh? Well, this time around it did happen. Following his release, McLouth signed with the Baltimore Orioles.  Initially sent to AAA, McLouth joined the big club for the final third of the season, establishing himself as a starter following an injury to Nick Markakis and going on to hit .268/.342/.435 with seven home runs. Those were his best numbers for a protracted stretch in four years, during which he also helped lead a team that hadn’t had a winning record in more than a decade to an improbable and exciting playoff appearance.

Personally, I am still in the denial stage about the last one.

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