The one big off-season issue that the Washington Nationals continue to face is what to do with Adam LaRoche. It has been made very clear during the off-season that LaRoche is seeking a three year deal while the Nationals are unwilling to give it, and the 2013 free agent market has made it clear that if Marco Scutaro is worth a three year deal then Adam LaRoche should be as well. The real issue facing Adam LaRoche is that aren’t that many places that want him. LaRoche wants to be a National and the Nationals would like him back on their terms. No other team has really jumped into the LaRoche market and the Nationals are leaning on the option of playing Michael Morse at first if LaRoche walks.
There are those that look at Morse and LaRoche and the fact that if you remove the partial year LaRoche played and 2011 in which he missed almost the entire season then LaRoche has averaged 2.5 fWAR a season while as a National, Morse has averaged 1.6. That is the difference of roughly one win and to be fair to Morse he did have a 3.3 fWAR season in the one year he managed to be fully healthy, but that is the issue with Morse. In eight major league seasons he has had over 500 plate appearances once while Adam LaRoche has done it in all but the season he was first called up and 2011.
For most of his career Adam LaRoche has been one of the most consistent players in baseball, and even though many consider the .271/.343/.510 batting line of 2012 to be a career high it is not that far off of his career line of .268/.338/.482. There is a very high probability that if the Nationals were to bring back LaRoche he would give the solid and steady production he has given at the plate for his entire career, and that doesn’t even mention what he does defensively at first when compared to Morse. In his last two full seasons at first LaRoche has averaged a UZR/150 of 5.25 while Morse for his career is a -3.6 UZR/150 first baseman and was -8.2 in 2011 when he played most of his innings at first.
None of this changes the fact that the difference between LaRoche and Morse is nothing more than 1 or 2 WAR, but that shouldn’t be marginalized. Consider the position the Nationals are in and what they face in 2013. The Braves have gotten no worse this off-season and could be better with full seasons from Simmons and Medlen. The Phillies will also be back in the race if they can stay healthy and no team with a front three of Halladay, Hamels, and Lee should ever be counted out. The old platitude that people learned of 1 or 2 wins not making a big difference is over. The Nats were in a tight division race last season and it could be even tighter in 2013. While 1 or 2 WAR isn’t going to make much of a difference for a 70 or 80 win team for a 90-100 win team it is the difference.
The fact remains that LaRoche wants a three year deal, but what do the Nats lose by giving it to him. The rumored offer on the table is two years at $25 mil or $12.5 mil a season. Reduce that number down to $10 or $11 mil a year in order to add on the extra year and the Nationals would be asking LaRoche to average 2 fWAR a season, which is what should be expected from Adam LaRoche. The other issue becomes blocking Anthony Rendon. Rendon has done nothing to prove that he can stay healthy for an entire season or that he is ready or will evem be ready in a year or two to play at the major league level. With Rendon’s injury coming so early last season the rules dictate that he be granted an extra option year meaning that he wouldn’t have to be on the 25 man roster until LaRoche’s three year deal runs out. An added benefits to not calling up Rendon until he is 25 is that the six years of service time the Nats are guaranteed would be all of Rendon’s prime years.
When considering all of these options as well as where free agent contracts are headed, a third year for LaRoche is starting to make more and more sense. LaRoche adds a sense of security to the Nationals over two players that may not be able to stay on the field at a cost that when compared to other deals being handed out isn’t bad, and because of the rapid escalation of contracts if the Nationals are ready to hand a starting job to Rendon the LaRoche contract should not be difficult to move. While there are reasons to avoid the third year with LaRoche there are just as many as to why it shouldn’t be the sticking point it is becoming between he and the Nationals.
The third year for Adam LaRoche is nowhere near as scary as it seems and the Nationals may in fact be wise to offer it. Those one or two wins over Morse that LaRoche adds could be the difference between a division title and a one game play-in in 2013, and LaRoche is not going to degrade at such a rapid rate that he won’t be close to the same player in 2014 and 2015, and if he isn’t the Blue Jays may still be looking for a first basemen then.