Adam LaRoche’s offensive numbers are better than a league average hitter, and only the second-worst among Nats regulars, but he ranks 22nd in the league among qualified first basemen in OPS.
The problem isn’t that the Nationals are locked into one more year of LaRoche. They faced the same issue in the 2012 offseason when they went after Prince Fielder. It is that there isn’t a Fielder on the free agent market this offseason. The best available free-agent first baseman is Mike Napoli, who took a one-year, $5 million deal from the Red Sox due to health concerns and with his play this season is going to want something in the neighborhood of three years and $35 million.
Are the Nats willing to pay most of LaRoche’s salary in order to trade him and to then give out a multi-year contract to a 32-year-old converted catcher with bad hips?
After Napoli, the dropoff is rather large in talent, but that also means a dropoff in cost. The other issue with that is that while players like Justin Morneau have histories of production, his season OPS of .736 is only marginally better than LaRoche’s .733. Then there are players like Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse, who have never shown either the ability to stay healthy or play defense. At the right price, either one makes sense but the Nats better be ready to see a lot of Tyler Moore at first if they sign either of those two. After that, the free agent list is done. It is full of players like Carlos Pena, Lance Berkman, and James Loney.
LaRoche has a career .813 OPS and just as when he played above that last season, his play below it means that in 2014, he is a regression candidate. Regression to the mean isn’t always a negative term and just as players can have career years in a positive direction, they can also do so in the negative direction. This doesn’t mean that nothing should be done about LaRoche for 2014. The Nats should make an offer to Napoli, and then work to trade LaRoche when the free agent market gets to the dregs of available first basemen. The best solution for the Nationals though may be in house.
While it is unlikely that Moore is an everyday player at the major league level, and he has shown he struggles when not getting regular at-bats, he could be a good platoon partner for LaRoche. For his career, LaRoche has a batting line of .272/.347/.491 against right-handed pitchers and .244/.299/.433 against left-handed pitching. It has been even more extreme in 2013 with LaRoche hitting .253/.342/.454 against right-handed pitching and .184/.236/.316 against left-handed pitching. If LaRoche were only facing right handers, his .796 OPS would acceptable, but as one-third of his plate appearances this season have been against left-handed pitching, it has dragged his season totals to an unacceptable level.
The answer to this isn’t to go out and spend money and years on a free agent first baseman that isn’t anything more than marginally better than LaRoche. It is to stick with LaRoche, at least against right-handed pitching, and to find out what Moore can do in the majors as LaRoche’s platoon partner over the last month and a half of the season. Since being sent back down to the minors, Moore has hit a torrid .372/.461/.640 and looks more than deserving of a call back to the majors.
Both Moore and LaRoche are assets the Nats currently hold. It doesn’t cost anything to experiment with a platoon in the last month and a half of the season. If it works, the Nationals have one solution to their first base issue for 2014 and if it doesn’t, they know that they have to either go hard after Napoli, hope LaRoche will regress to the mean, or find another outside-the-box solution like signing Brian McCann and finding out if either he or Wilson Ramos can play first. The best solution might be to look at 2013, realize it wasn’t the Nats’ or LaRoche’s year, and wait for him to be better in 2014.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.