The Adam LaRoche dilemma

Think about it for a second.

So far this season, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond have all spent time on the disabled list and have battled an injury for a fairly lengthy period of time.

That’s nearly every member of the middle of the Nationals’ projected batting order.

While his cohorts have been dinged up and out of the lineup, Adam LaRoche has quietly plugged away. He’s consistently raked at the plate, hitting big home runs, plating baserunners and providing clutch offense through points in the season when offensive production was hard to come by. He’s played near-Gold Glove caliber defense at first base, serving as a human vacuum cleaner and helping allow the rest of the Nationals’ infielders freedom to play loose and attempt tough throws.

“He’s been a constant all year long,” manager Davey Johnson said. “He goes a lot of times unnoticed, but not by me.”

Making his strong 2012 seem even sweeter is that it comes after a 2011 season which was, professionally, a year to forget.

adam-laroche-swinging-through-sidebar.jpgLaRoche suffered a torn labrum early last season which completely zapped his power and made it nearly impossible for him to play at the level he knew he could. In the first year of his two-year contract with the Nats, LaRoche hit just .172, slugged .258 and played in only 43 games before needing to shut it down and undergo season-ending shoulder surgery.

“It feels like last year is a distant memory now,” LaRoche said. “Again, to sit out last year and miss all that was a little bit humbling. It’s easy to take it for granted what we get to do. (There was) a little incentive this offseason to get back out here. And it’s working out.”

After smacking his 20th homer of the season last night and driving in two more runs to boost his RBI total to 64, LaRoche is now on pace to top the 30-home run mark and drive in 100 runs.

Throughout his nine-year career, LaRoche has - when healthy - consistently been a 20-25 home run, 80-100 RBI guy, but should he continue on his current pace, this would mark the first season since 2006 he’s topped 30 homers and just the second time he’s reached triple-digit RBIs.

Right now, both the Nationals’ players and the guys in the team’s front office are focused on this season. With the Nats attempting to make the playoffs for the first time in team history, no one is thinking about 2013 and how LaRoche might factor in.

But for the fun of it, let’s discuss just that right now.

LaRoche’s two-year deal with the Nationals expires after this season. He has a $10 million mutual option for the 2013 season, and if both the Nats and LaRoche don’t choose to pick up the option, LaRoche will be owed a $1 million buyout.

Coming into this season, it was just assumed by the vast majority of Nationals fans that the team and LaRoche would part ways after this season, allowing either Morse to move to first base or a young prospect (Tyler Moore has been the one to emerge) to occupy first in 2013.

But now, that’s not a given. Given how well LaRoche has performed offensively and how big of an impact he’s made on the team’s overall defense, it’s certainly possible that option is picked up for next season. After all, 25-homer, 90-RBI guys with a great glove don’t exactly grow on trees.

The Nationals’ decision on LaRoche largely hinges on whether the team plans to go acquire a center fielder this offseason. If they do, that would move Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth to the corner outfield positions and pretty much force Morse to move to first base. In such a scenario, LaRoche gets boxed out of a spot.

Then there’s Moore, a guy who this season has shown the ability to hit at the major league level and would cost the Nats a fraction of what it would take to pick up LaRoche’s option.

There are plenty of moving parts here, and yes, these decisions are still a long ways away. But given how well LaRoche has played this season, it’s fair to wonder if the guy who has at times carried the Nationals’ offense will be around in 2013.

What’s your take? Do you want to see LaRoche back manning first base in the District next season, or should the Nats go another direction?

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