|LaRoche is coming off a career year. (US Presswire)|
The latest, via Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post, is that LaRoche seems to be growing frustrated with the Nationals' unwillingness to give him a three-year deal.
“We're talking to a few other teams,” LaRoche said Friday evening in a voicemail. “Got to keep things open in case Washington doesn't work out. I'm still hopeful that it will, but as you know it takes two sides cooperating to make that happen. I'm doing everything I can.”
Reports during the offseason have indicated the Nats are only willing to go to two years on LaRoche, and that he's insistent on getting three. He's now been connected in rumors to the Red Sox, who have yet to finalize their reported three-year deal with Mike Napoli.
From where I sit, not only do I not blame the Nationals for refusing to go to three years, but I'd be content to let LaRoche walk regardless.
Yes, LaRoche had a great season in 2012. But in giving him a three-year deal, the Nationals are paying for 2013-15, not 2012, which was LaRoche's career year. Paying based only on a career year is never a good idea, and this specific case is no different.
Let's ignore 2012. We can also ignore 2011, because LaRoche was playing hurt before finally going under the knife.
Here is LaRoche's average season from 2007-10: .270/.340/.478 with 24 homers, 89 RBI, 72 runs and 37 doubles. That's good for a 114 OPS-plus. That's a fine offensive line -- certainly not bad. But LaRoche is a first baseman, which is expected to be a position with big offensive output. I don't think this is a line deserving of a three-year contract paying him eight figures per season by any stretch.
If LaRoche was guaranteed to hit 33 homers and drive home 100 runs in each of the next three seasons, like he did in 2012, I might be willing to give him the three-year deal he wants, but I just don't see that happening.
Not only was LaRoche's 2012 season a career year, but he's due a regression in power. At 44.1 percent, he had the highest fly ball rate of his career, which nicely fits with his 17 percent rate of home runs per fly ball -- his highest mark since 2006. Assuming those rates return to his career norms, we can expect around 25 homers from LaRoche again, the exact number he hit in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
The other matter at hand is Michael Morse. Now that Denard Span is in house to play center field, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth will man the corner outfield spots. If LaRoche is re-signed, Morse is left without a position and would likely be trade bait. But why not just let LaRoche leave, spend money on bullpen help and use Morse as the primary first baseman? Tyler Moore can be the fourth outfielder and a back-up option at first.
Since joining the Nationals, Morse has hit .294/.343/.514. That's better than LaRoche is going to put up in the next three years. Morse is definitely a worse fielder at first than LaRoche, but he's not a complete butcher and -- let's face it -- it's first base. It's not an overly important defensive position; offense is what matters most.
Morse is set to make $6.75 million next year. He's more than two years younger than LaRoche. He's likely to be a slightly better hitter moving forward. The only real reason I can think for the Nationals to bring LaRoche back is that they love him as a person. Witness this answer given by Davey Johnson during the winter meetings about LaRoche coming back:
"Adam LaRoche is going to come back. I mean, if I have to go to Kansas and take him and all his cattle to Florida, I will. I told him -- you know what, he came to my golf tournament. I had a golf tournament to raise some money for Lighthouse For the Blind. It was a very successful tournament. But the primary concern -- there was two people there that I really wanted to see. One was Brooks Robinson, and he was outstanding, and he showed up. And the other guy was -- well, Bryce Harper was there too. But the main guy was Adam LaRoche. I tried to give him the best team, had him and Rizzo around each other a lot, and I told him bring a pen from Kansas. I think Harolyn Cardozo, one of our assistants to the GM, she doesn't even eat meat, and she bought half a cow. We're trying to make it easier for him to come back."
While there are some funny quotes in there -- seriously, how can you not love Davey? -- it perfectly illustrates why the GMs don't usually establish strong personal relationships with players. It reminds me of when Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in Moneyball says he doesn't travel with the team because he needs to be able to trade, cut or demote players without worrying about personal relationships. Letting them walk as free agents would be another arm to that argument.
And the Nationals need to be strong enough to put feelings aside and let LaRoche leave. It makes the most sense for the advancement of the ballclub -- one that appears to be baseball's best heading to 2013.