This last season was the final year of a three-year extension that McLouth signed just months before the Pirates dealt him for Charlie Morton, Gorkys Hernandez and Jeff Locke. He earned $6.5 million in 2011.
When the free-agency period began, the Pirates were the first team to call.
"I was a little surprised, but I was happy," McLouth said. "Winding down, when I knew I wasn't going to be with the Braves anymore, it was a thought that went through my head, maybe coming back at some point."
McLouth can only hope that a return to Pittsburgh will spark a return to form. Though he was an All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner for the Pirates in 2008, McLouth never came close to having that type of success with the Braves.
In parts of three seasons in Atlanta, McLouth hit .229 with 44 doubles, 21 homers and 76 RBIs in 250 games. He lost his job as the club's starting center fielder, endured various stints on the disabled list and was even sent back to the Minors at one point. McLouth was limited to 85 games in 2010 and 81 in '11.
"Other than certain family tragedies, it was the most difficult time in my life," McLouth said. "To struggle performance-wise as much as I did and to have the injuries that I did was tough. I really am looking forward to getting back to a place where I played [most of] my career, where I had a little success and really felt comfortable. The past couple of years were very, very difficult."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who has spent much of his career as a hitting coach, already has his ideas on ways to help. Not only has Hurdle watched tape of McLouth's more recent struggles, but he also hasn't forgotten what he once saw of McLouth in a Pirates uniform.
It was Hurdle who selected and then managed McLouth in the 2008 All-Star Game.
"I've been fortunate in the past as a hitting coach, I've been able to help some young guys rekindle their careers," Hurdle said. "Todd Walker and Todd Hollandsworth are two guys that I've mentioned to Nate. I believe at his age this is definitely doable. To bring him in as another guy in the outfield, to have four guys in the outfield, the ability to play all three [positions], that gives us the opportunity to rest, to match up, to maximize skills and hopefully to leverage some situations better than we were able to do last year out there."
The Pirates' current plans are to begin the season with a starting outfield of Alex Presley, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata. While McLouth is expected to get fairly extensive playing time, he will still have to earn it.
It is also a plus that McLouth can play any of the three outfield spots, even though his previous stint in Pittsburgh was spent mostly as a center fielder.
"It's hard not to remember Nate McLouth in 2007, 2008 and the first part of 2009," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He's battled injuries, battled expectations. Our guys still saw the athlete. They still saw the raw power. They still saw the guy that loves to play the game of baseball.
"As we looked at some numbers behind the numbers, we felt like he was a very good guy to add some outfield depth to us."
While McLouth has plenty of familiarity with Pittsburgh, he can't say the same about his new team. There are actually only three players (Evan Meek, Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf) currently on the 40-man roster who McLouth previously played with in Pittsburgh.
Unchanged, however, is the Pirates' quest to break a losing streak that is now nearly two decades in length. And for McLouth, that is unfinished business that he looks forward to taking care of this time around.
"My goal was to be part of helping the franchise turn around," McLouth said. "It was a task I looked forward to. To not be able to see that through was one of the most difficult parts of being traded. Now that I'm back, I welcome that challenge with the same enthusiasm as I had before, knowing that we're even closer than when I left."