If this is any indication as to how Fredi Gonzalez will construct his lineup, we have some issues. According to the tweet by Bill Shanks, quoting Gonzalez from his media time at the Winter Meetings, Gonzalez is expected to have Nate McLouth hitting second in the lineup.
Gonzalez is quoted as saying McLouth will get every chance to start in center field for the Braves in 2011, and by all means that is the correct decision. It was not long ago McLouth hit .276/.356/.497, good for a .853 OPS, and 46 doubles, 26 home runs and 94 RBI for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008. Even his walk rates hovered around 10% during the time, and while that is not fantastic by any means, it is consistent with McLouth's game, and it was not a fluke. His batting average balls in play remained low that season at .287, showing he was capable of repeating such a season. McLouth was good for 3.7 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs, and he carried that over into 2009 with a 3.4 fWAR. As a center fielder with decent enough defense to get by, McLouth was a valuable player at the time of his trade to the Braves.
However, despite the solid fWAR, McLouth's 2009 season was a sign of things to come. His walk rate remained there at 11.5%, and his defense seemed to rate better (take what you want from that). But his SLG dropped to .436, and his isolated power dropped from .221 in '08 to .179 in '09. McLouth's power, which makes up a large chunk of his value as a center fielder, was seemingly zapped. Nagging injuries could be attributed to some of it, but it was a major concern at the time.
For McLouth, 2010 was a lost season. From the first game of spring, he was lost at the plate and could not find his swing. His upper cut seemed to worsen over the winter, and he could not level his upper body better, causing head movement and a terrible plane. As a result, he could not stay above .200, and his power was completely lost. His line drive rate dipped to 15%, compared to 18% in '08, and his strikeout rate increased to 23%. His walks remained at 11.5% for the second straight season, but it was the only reason his OBP was as high as it was (.298). To make things worse, McLouth collided with Jason Heyward and suffered a concussion, ending any hope of working his way out of the slump. He returned from the injury and played at AAA, hitting .234/.338/.383 with six home runs and 18 RBI in 151 plate appearances. I refuse to take anything from those numbers, however, due to the concussion.
Despite the downward spiral, I continue to have faith in McLouth. The reason is because he has two 20-homer/.350 OBP seasons under his belt, and as a center fielder that is very valuable. You do not throw away a player capable of this without being absolutely certain those days are over. McLouth just turned 29 years old, so there is plenty reason to believe he can return to those numbers. I have no issue with Gonzalez giving him every chance to do so.
The problem I have is placing McLouth in the second spot in the lineup. Despite his value as a 20-homer/.350 OBP player, he does not belong in the second spot. Managers continue to underestimate the number two spot, giving it to batters who are capable of sacrificing and having bat control, when in fact the second spot is perhaps the second or third most important spot in the order. It requires high on-base ability, and just as much ability to hit in important situations as the third and fourth spots. Why, then, would you place perhaps the worst hitter in the lineup in such a position? Even if McLouth returns to his '08 numbers and is not the worst hitter in the lineup, he still does not fit the role as a high OBP guy capable of hitting in high-leverage situations.
Bobby Cox had it right when he placed Heyward in the second spot last season. If all goes as Gonzalez has planned, Heyward will be moved further down the lineup, or third when Chipper Jones does not play. I have no problem with Heyward hitting in the middle of the order because he is capable of the role, but it should not come with the placement of McLouth in his former spot. Heyward will not have a runner to drive in, and neither will Jones, Brian McCann or the new guy. Putting Heyward's on-base ability ahead of bats like these is a recipe for runs scored. I can only hope Gonzalez takes advantage of what he has.