NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Mike Rizzo has departed the Gaylord Opryland Convention Center and Resort, leaving first baseman Adam LaRoche to ponder the Nationals’ two-year contract offer.
LaRoche remains in his Kansas home, perhaps whiling away the Winter Meetings in a hunter’s blind and wondering why he can’t garner anything more substantial than a two-year deal after winning a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger for a team that won more games than any other in the major leagues.
But what looks suspiciously like an impasse could merely be a case of a general manager sticking to his guns with what he believes is a fair offer and a free agent hoping for better terms coming to grips with the fact that the market has shifted.
It’s easy to see both sides of the equation. Both Rizzo and LaRoche can make convincing arguments for their respective positions.
Two years ago, Rizzo waited out the first base market and watched Carlos Pena sign with the Rays and Derrek Lee ink a deal with the Orioles. The market fell to Rizzo, who favored LaRoche all along, figuring that his smooth left-handed stroke would play well in Nationals Park. Pena struggled to get to the Mendoza line last year, and his power has fallen off; Lee didn’t last a season with the Orioles, who peddled him to the Pirates at the trading deadline, and he’s now out of baseball. LaRoche settled for a two-year deal worth $16 million, though the Nationals only got a one-year payoff due to the shoulder injury LaRoche sustained in 2011.
But 2012 was a different story for LaRoche: a career-high 33 homers, 100 RBIs to match a career best and a sixth-place finish in the National League Most Valuable Player voting. LaRoche thought the performance and accolades would vault him into a financial stratosphere - or at least better bargaining position. He may have miscalculated, though a mercurial market hasn’t been particularly fair to him.
One by one, his suitors have dropped out at the Winter Meetings, either solving the first base openings through other moves or by spending their money on other needs, forcing them to change course. LaRoche is left with three potential destinations - Washington, Seattle and Texas. Which sounds like a scenario that a crafty agent could spin to his advantage until you realize that LaRoche has never expressed a desire to play in the American League.
But what looks like a staredown, with both sides hoping the other blinks first, really is more of a friendly negotiation rooted in mutual respect. LaRoche has enjoyed playing in Washington and wants to continue his career there, hoping that the Nats continue their march toward a World Series. Rizzo understands the 33-year-old wanted a bigger payday, but isn’t going to change his payroll parameters just to accommodate that wish. Manager Davey Johnson wants LaRoche back, realizing his veteran clubhouse presence is as important as the flashy glove that saves his infielders from errors, and has told Rizzo as much.
Rizzo and LaRoche had friendly talks last weekend at Johnson’s fundraising golf tournament in Orlando, and the Nationals camp has met with LaRoche’s representatives here during the Winter Meetings. There’s precious little contention, except for the fact that one side is holding firm at two years, while the other wants a third in any deal.
What will happen? LaRoche will be back in a Nationals uniform come spring training, because the Nats are a better team with him at first and in the middle of the batting order than they would be with Michael Morse or Tyler Moore manning the position. He’ll return because, though he desperately wants what he wants, he’s the kind of player to whom being a critical part of a winning team is also very important. The two sides will come to a mutually beneficial agreement because both want to, not because either wants to stick it to the other and win a negotiation. Winning ballgames is much more important.