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On Nate McLouth

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There's some interesting Pirates news here. Dejan Kovacevic quotes Dave Littlefield on Jody Gerut:

He added that nothing that has happened since the trade has changed his mind about the deal.

"We understood when we were investigating before the trade that we were getting a player who was not 100 percent. But we're confident he'll be ready for spring training and that we got a good, productive player."

Gerut is placed on the DL, and Littlefield still feels the same? If Littlefield knew that Gerut was unable to play when he traded for him, then this trade was... amazingly, ridiculously bad, as opposed to merely bad.

In any case, the Pirates could view Gerut's injury problems as an opportunity to find out what Nate McLouth can do. I doubt they'll do that, however.

Let's look at two contrasting perspectives. Littlefield on McLouth:

"We feel good about giving him a chance... My sense is this guy's not going to be a home run hitter... You do see guys get stronger in their late 20s, but there's nothing in his history to indicate he's going to hit for power."

If you've followed the Pirates the last few years, you know how to read between the lines here. The first sentence is probably false; the second and third indicate that the Pirates are probably going to view McLouth's glass as half empty. (It is possible that Littlefield was responding to a direct question about whether McLouth will hit homers, but given his tendency to concentrate on what players like Craig Wilson and Chris Shelton don't do, I'll assume that's what he's doing here.)

The Pirates don't hit many homers, it's true. But the real problem with their offense is not that they don't hit enough homers, but that they don't score enough runs. Power is a particularly efficient way to score runs, but there are others. The Pirates simply don't have enough players who put runs on the board; if they had Ichiro in right field, they still wouldn't hit any homers, but they'd score a lot more runs. So the issue here isn't homers, but offensive production. (And, beyond that, production in general; if a shortstop can save 20 runs a year with his glove and be average on offense, he's just as valuable as a shortstop who's +20 on offense and average on defense.)

It shouldn't be a given that McLouth won't hit homers, however. It is a widely held view that if a player shows doubles power in the minors, he may develop home run power in the majors. I don't know of a study that proves this hypothesis, but there is lots of anecdotal evidence to support it.

So, in point-counterpoint fashion, here's McLouth on McLouth:

"Power hitters develop, I think," he said. "I could sacrifice 15-20 strikeouts and get a few more home runs, but that's not something I'm willing to do right now.

"If that's the player I'm going to be, it's going to happen over the next few years. You look at Brian Giles, Magglio Ordonez, Jim Edmonds, they all hit a lot of doubles before they were hitting home runs."

My sense is that McLouth is a lot closer than Littlefield to being right about this, and that McLouth has actually done some research here. His examples are on point:

GILES
Age 21 Kinston (A+)/ Akron (AA) 214 AB 9 2B 3 HR
Age 22 Akron 425 AB 17 2B 6 HR
Age 23 Charlotte (AAA) 434 AB 18 2B 16 HR

ORDONEZ
Age 21 Prince William (A+) 487 AB 24 2B 12 HR
Age 22 Birmingham (AA) 479 AB 41 2B 18 HR
Age 23 Nashville (AAA) 523 AB 25 2B 14 HR

EDMONDS
Age 21 Palm Springs (A+) 187 AB 15 2B 2 HR
Age 22 Midland (AA)/ Edmonton (AAA) 440 AB 30 2B 14 HR
Age 23 Vancouver (AAA) 356 AB 28 2B 9 HR

McLOUTH
Age 21 Lynchburg (A+) 440 AB 27 2B 6 HR
Age 22 Altoona (AA) 515 AB 40 2B 8 HR
Age 23 Indianapolis (AAA) 397 AB 20 2B 5 HR

These examples aren't perfect, especially since I don't know anything about the park and league factors for any of Giles', Ordonez', or Edmonds' teams. (McLouth hasn't played in terribly inflated offensive environments, however.)

Nonetheless, these examples are instructive, in that Giles, Ordonez and Edmonds are all fearsome big league power hitters who had lots of extra base hits without having amazing home run numbers in the minors. Also, all four players played at the same levels at the same ages.

Ordonez showed the most home run power of the bunch, but he hit many fewer homers than lots of minor league power hitters; Giles and Edmonds didn't hit many homers at all. McLouth compares favorably with them in extra base hits.

So why did Giles, Edmonds and Ordonez become fearsome power hitters? Again, I only have anecdotal evidence to support this conclusion, but my guess is that they had a solid base of skills that provided hospitable conditions in which home-run power could develop as they got stronger. In the minors, all three players showed patience, athleticism, some power, and the ability to hit for a high average.

McLouth has shown all four of those skills. He draws walks. He's a decent defender and is probably faster than Giles, Ordonez or Edmonds ever were. He's shown serious line drive power (other posters here have verified that he was hitting lots of doubles last year because he was hitting the ball hard, not because he's fast). And he hits for a high average.

This is not to say that McLouth will become the next Giles, Ordonez or Edmonds. I'm sure baseball history is filled with similar minor-league players whose power never developed.

However, I think it is way too early for the Pirates to decide that McLouth isn't a power hitter. It is, first, not really relevant if he can be a productive player anyway; and besides, he might turn out to be a power hitter after all.

In 1994 at age 24, Edmonds hit 5 home runs in 289 at bats for the Angels. In 1995, he hit 33 in 558 at bats. It certainly wouldn't be unprecedented, therefore, if McLouth suddenly started hitting homers. If he did, he'd still likely have his base of other skills intact, and he'd be a special player.