Adam LaRoche had a career year for the Washington Nationals N.L. East title-winning team last season, this much is certain. He was an integral part of their offense, especially early in the season when then were missing so many key pieces. His 33 home runs were a career high, his 100 RBIs tied his career best. The .271/.343/.510 were all above career averages. He earned his first Gold Glove. He produced –when healthy — just as GM Mike Rizzo said he would.
The news Thursday that LaRoche declined his option for 2013 and elected free agency is no surprise. Neither is the fact that the two sides didn’t work out a long-term extension before that happened. LaRoche should test the free agent market. He should find out what the contract parameters for a 33-year old first baseman with his pedigree would earn on the open market, especially considering he should be the most sought-after free agent first basemen in a weak crop this off-season.
Then, he should re-sign with the Nats anyway.
LaRoche owes it to himself to gather all available offers out there. At this point, you’d have to imagine at least Boston and Baltimore (having allowed Mark Reynolds to depart) would be extremely interested in filling the holes they have at first base with LaRoche’s production and steady glove. LaRoche might not be a sexy free agent — MLB Trade Rumors has him at No. 15 of their “Top 50 Free Agents of 2013“. But he will be sought after and garner a contract of at least three years — and maybe north of $36M when all is said and done.
Why then should he re-sign with the Nats anyway? First, I think the Nationals are willing to give him a three-year deal. They don’t really have any long-term prospects pushing for playing time at first base. Sure, Tyler Moore provided some pop off the bench last season. But Moore profiles more as a fourth outfielder/fill-in 1B. Davey Johnson did a masterful job getting Moore quality at bats where he could while Michael Morse was out, but the Nats would prefer a big left-handed bat in the middle of the order and slick glove at first base. After Moore, failed first round draft pick Chris Marrero is still in the organization, but he’ll be 24 next year after another lost season in the minors.
Second, I think the Nats are willing to dish out the money it will take to bring him back. The Nationals already have roughly $87 million committed to their 2013 payroll, according to the calculator work Adam Kilgore did Wednesday. His conclusion:
Some way or another, the Nationals seem likely to push past a $100 million payroll this winter for the first time.
If the market dictates a three-year, $36M contract, I think the Nats would be willing to accept that. In fact, I think the Nats have enough financial flexibility to absorb two $13M contracts (give or take) this off-season. They will get a bump attendance-wise next season, and at some point will reap the benefits of a new MASN contract. Also, I expect the team to shed some payroll burdens, like John Lannan’s $5M, and perhaps even Michael Morse or Tyler Clippard — who will be due a huge raise through arbitration.
Third, the Nats are comfortable with LaRoche in the middle of the order and in the field and feel like he will remain productive throughout a three-year deal, though he will be 33 when he signs the deal. They’ve shown with Jayson Werth — for the right athlete — they’re willing to lock players up until their mid-30s. LaRoche has been a dependable player throughout his career, despite losing much of 2011 to a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Finally, the player and his family are comfortable in D.C. Why fix something that isn’t broken over what might amount to not much difference in money, if anything? The Nats and LaRoche’s representation have already been working on the parameters of a deal leading up to his free agency filing, so once all the cards are on the table it should be a relatively easy negotiation. Either it’s yes or no.
The Nats are expected to be players for center fielder Michael Bourn as well. Bourn would give the Nats more speed and adequate OBP at the top of the order to allow Bryce Harper to slide down the order a bit into a more natural run-producing slot. It’s enticing to think about a batting order featuring Jayson Werth and Bourn in the first two slots (either way), with some combination of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond filling out the middle of the order.
Notice a name missing out of that scenario? If the Nats re-sign LaRoche and land Bourn, it spells the end of Michael Morse in a Nats uniform. There’s just no place to put him. Frankly, that’s fine. Morse is a productive bat when healthy, but his problem last season, much like most of his career, is that he just can’t stay healthy. When he was on the field in 2012, all of his numbers dipped from his career year the previous season. His extra base hit percentage fell from 11.7 percent to just barely above MLB average (7.8 % including all positions) at 8.4 percent. His K/BB rate was an astronomical 6.06, due to his K% ticking higher and BB% plummeting 3.7 percent — well below MLB average of 8.4 percent.
On top of all that, his fielding in left field is Adam Dunn-esque – a heavy liability that was really exposed in the playoffs. He’s just not an MLB caliber outfielder. He played passable defense at first base in 2011 when LaRoche was injured. If the Nats don’t sign LaRoche, Morse could go back there and hope he stays healthy and his numbers rebound in what will be a walk year for him. But if the Nats re-sign LaRoche, look for them to move Morse and a relatively friendly contract to one of the A.L. teams looking for a first baseman — or designated hitter.
Bottom line: coming off the best season in franchise history and their first playoff appearance since the relocation, it makes sense for all parties to maintain the status quo and bring Adam LaRoche back on a three-year deal. If someone on the free agent market blows that away, LaRoche would be nuts to turn it down. But if it comes down to haggling over percentages of upwards of $36 million dollars, the Nats ought to win that bid.