It's hard to describe the season of Atlanta Braves center fielder Nate McLouth. He wasn't bad, he wasn't really that good, he was just average. Of course, after the last few seasons of below average center fielders, it is nice to finally have one who is at least average. None of this is to say that McLouth doesn't have a lot of positives, and that those positives didn't show up in 2009, because they did.
In Nate McLouth, the Braves have a very versatile hitter and outfielder on their hands. He's a player who can hit for power and bat third or behind the cleanup hitter. He's a player who can use his speed on the base paths to help the Braves in many ways, but is he a lead-off hitter? It's easy to think that he can be a successful lead-off hitter with his speed, but for some reason he hasn't had success at the top of order when leading off an inning, but that's not to say he's a bad hitter when batting 1st in the order.
Here's the Rubix Cube; McLouth hit .204 last year and he hits .245 for his career when leading off an inning, but he hit .260 last year and he hits .260 for his career when batting 1st in the lineup. The poor batting average and on-base percentage when leading off innings tells me that he's not the best lead-off hitter, if a lead-off hitter is someone you want to get on base and score runs. He doesn't have enough power to be a three-hole hitter, so what batting order position McLouth seems best suited for is right between those two in the second spot in the order. That's where he can utilize his speed and power while not making either one of them a liability.
But he's better than just about any other Braves player at getting on base above his batting average, so he's likely still our best option to hit lead-off (he just needs to work on hitting when nobody's on base). Which means that he'll enter next season as the Braves lead-off hitter. I'd like to see him work on hitting for a higher average, which would help that on-base percentage more, but I'm not sure I want a higher average at the expense of his power.
At just 28-years old next season, McLouth should be entering his prime years. While the Bill James 2010 projection for McLouth (.263/.348/.449) doesn't see much deviation from his career norms (.260/.342/.454), he seems primed for a little more of a breakout from those career norms. We may have seen that this year if not for the injuries that slowed McLouth late in the season. I say, expect big things from Nate McLouth in 2010.