Orioles expect to get the 'really good' version of Nate McLouth

SARASOTA, Fla. — When outfielder Nate McLouth joined the Orioles from Triple-A last August, he was just another one of executive vice president Dan Duquette's attempted reclamation projects.

His new teammates knew who he was, though. Heck, one even dabbled as McLouth a few years back.

"I don't think I ever told Nate this, but I used to play video baseball games and I always had him as my center fielder," said Orioles first baseman Chris Davis. "Because he's all the things I am not. He is fast; he's got a six-pack [sculpted abdomen]. And I always knew he was a really good player."

There's a lingering question as to whether McLouth is still a really good player — whether he can regain his past form for an entire season. The Orioles think he can and that he can provide more quiet leadership. That's why they made re-signing McLouth a top priority this offseason, even if he doesn't replicate his 2008 All Star season.

McLouth put up near video-game numbers that year with the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning a Gold Glove and hitting 26 homers with 23 stolen bases and a league-leading 46 doubles.

He signed an extension and expected to remain with the rebuilding Pirates for years, but they traded him to the Atlanta Braves in June 2009. He couldn't rebound from that transition and his career spiraled downward. Last year, he rejoined the Pirates, struggled in a reserve role and was released two months into the season.

The Orioles had no idea what he had left, but special assistant Lee Thomas recommended him and Orioles bench coach John Russell, who was McLouth's manager in Pittsburgh, praised the player's work ethic and athletic ability.

The Orioles signed him to a minor league deal in June, promoted him to the majors in August and by September McLouth became one of the club's most valuable players. He was thrust into the leadoff spot when right fielder Nick Markakis broke his thumb, and he seized the role — getting on base at a .342 clip and then batting .318 with a .348 on-base percentage against the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series.

"Once he came over here and you got to see it on a day-to-day basis, you realized what kind of player he really is," Davis said. "I think a lot of times in this game you struggle or you have injuries and you kind of put a bad taste in people's mouths and they move on. … [But] he was huge for us. Down the stretch and in the postseason he was one of the only guys who really hit the ball consistently."

When the season ended after a Game 5 loss in New York, there was uncertainty involving McLouth. He was a free agent, and he had done enough to garner interest from other clubs. By the winter meetings in December, McLouth hadn't re-signed and the Orioles were beginning to think he might go elsewhere. They made an offer to outfielder Nate Schierholtz, just in case. And then manager Buck Showalter called McLouth and told him how much the club valued his hustle and professionalism.

"What Nate brings, I think we get," Showalter said. "It may not play everywhere, but what Nate brings plays here."

McLouth signed a one-year, $2 million deal with $500,000 more available in performance bonuses. He's now in his first spring training with the Orioles, but he feels like he's been with this group for years.

"When I came in [August], the guys did a good job of making me feel at home and feel comfortable. And so coming into spring training, I really knew what to expect," he said. "Coming in last year, I didn't know what to expect. But the guys made it an easy transition, and I was excited to get back this spring."

McLouth is penciled in as the club's primary left fielder this season, though 2012 Opening Day left fielder Nolan Reimold has recovered from neck surgery (but has barely played the field this spring due to shoulder tightness). It's possible left field could end up as a platoon if Reimold isn't the regular designated hitter or McLouth isn't filling in for other outfielders.

"I control how much I am on the field. Just like last year," McLouth said. "I came in and did decent and was out there pretty much every day. It's not something I stress over, but I prepare myself in a way that I am going to be on the field every day."

McLouth's arrival in early August, coupled with the promotion of rookie Manny Machado to play third base, catapulted the club's defense from one of the worst in baseball to one of the best. Along with center fielder Adam Jones and Markakis, McLouth gives the Orioles a starting outfield of current or former Gold Glove winners.

Showalter said McLouth's ability to play a strong left field — and center field if Jones needs a breather — was paramount in wanting McLouth back.

"No. 1 [reason] defensively," Showalter said. "He's a plus defensively. He's a bird in the hand in the clubhouse and he is a winning player. Nate is a baseball player."

Offensively, the 31-year-old McLouth is 6-for-30 with two stolen bases in 11 games while playing sparingly this month, like most of Showalter's regulars. He has batted primarily first, second or third this spring and says he really has no preference. In fact, he knows who would be his leadoff hitter if he were Showalter.

"Brian Roberts has always been one of my favorite leadoff hitters. He just has a skill set and a comfort up there that not many people have. He has done it for a long time and he had done it well," McLouth said. "And I think that if he can kind of regain that spot in the lineup that will be huge for our team. But, again, I'm comfortable there and Nick obviously was really good there. So whoever is there will do a good job."

The real mystery surrounding McLouth is whether he can still be the guy who broke out with the Pirates in 2008 or if is he more like the player who stumbled in Atlanta. He provided a big boost for the Orioles in his two months with the club. But it was just two months. Can he once again be productive for a full season?

"It's a fair question, but for me, I've just learned to have fun and let go of those struggles and the self-imposed pressure and things like that. And just not worry about the results. Just focus on the process and the routine I have every day," McLouth said. "If things don't go well for a while, well, you don't panic, you don't change things, you stick with what you know how to do. I'm nothing but excited."

Davis said one of the things that's most impressive about McLouth — besides the blond, surfer hairdo that Davis calls "great hair, big league hair" — is the way he handles the day-to-day grind of baseball. And he thinks that will take McLouth far this year.

"I feel like he's always got it under control. I feel like he knows something we don't," Davis said of McLouth. "You watch him go about his work, and he obviously works very hard, but it just doesn't seem like anything fazes him. And that's huge in this game."