For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that Prince Fielder doesn’t end up in D.C. in 2012. No majestic home runs reaching the second deck in right field. No snide comments about his weight the first time he goes into a slump. No spring training negotiations between Fielder and Jayson Werth - for cash, vintage automobiles, jewelry, etc. - over who gets to don jersey No. 28.
All things being equal, Fielder would be the clear choice in a head-to-head against LaRoche. But the 32-year-old LaRoche has a lot to prove in the final year of a two-year deal, and the Nationals have committed $9 million - an $8 millon salary and a $1 million buyout if they don’t exercise their half of a $10 million mutual option for 2013 - to the slick-fielding veteran.
LaRoche’s first season in Washington was an injury-shortened disaster. Yes, fans got to see the stellar defense that made him an immediate upgrade over the departed Adam Dunn, but the left shoulder injury LaRoche sustained in spring training wasn’t the kind of injury he could play through, despite claims to the contrary. A torn labrum and rotator cuff limited him to 43 games, during which he hit only .172 with three homers and 15 RBIs. No one remembers the 37 strikeouts, 25 walks or 1.000 fielding percentage, and LaRoche was such a quiet guy in the clubhouse that when he showed up during his rehab stage, he was barely noticed.
General manager Mike Rizzo insists LaRoche has fully recovered from shoulder surgery nad that he’s comfortable going into 2012 with LaRoche penciled in at first base. Now, in fairness, Rizzo has to say this - he wants to keep the chatter about his interest in Fielder in check to improve his leverage in contract talks, he’s got to keep LaRoche invested in being a key member of the Nationals and he doesn’t want to ruin LaRoche’s ability to prove he’s healthy and facilitate a trade in spring training should a Fielder signing come to pass.
But if Fielder signs elsewhere and LaRoche proves healthy and returns to his career norms offensively, well, Rizzo could certainly do worse as a backup plan. Chris Marrero is injured and not likely to be back from a torn hamstring until mid-season, slugger Tyler Moore is at least another year or more away from the majors and Michael Morse is slotted in left field. So first base could fall to LaRoche.
Over eight major league seasons, LaRoche’s career numbers extrapolate out to a .267 average, 26 home runs and 92 RBIs. He strikes out 141 times and could stand to improve on his 59 walks, totals that are often overlooked because of his defensive prowess (.995 career fielding percentage). He doesn’t complain about where he hits in the lineup and seems impervious to clubhouse controversy. About the worst that can be said about LaRoche is that he’s a slow starter - a career .208 hitter in March/April - and a strong finisher - .314 in August and .287 in September/October.
If LaRoche is the primary first baseman in 2012, the Nationals have to have a decent backup outfielder to allow for Morse to relieve LaRoche (or, if LaRoche breaks down, to play first base). That complicates Rizzo’s search to improve the Nationals’ bench, but makes the versatility that utility man Mark DeRosa brings even more valuable. A speedy recovery and continued development by Marrero further cushions any potential problems, and Moore could further force the issue by crushing Triple-A pitching.
Should Fielder not wind up in Washington, Rizzo still has other problems - a center fielder/leadoff man, bullpen arms, bench help - that must be addressed. A healthy LaRoche would allow him to focus on those improvements and leave first base in the capable hands of a heady, usually productive veteran.