Why the Nationals won’t offer LaRoche a three-year deal

The Nationals won their division and the Redskins are tied for the lead in theirs in mid-December.

It’s a wild time to be a D.C. sports fan.

Last week, I discussed why Adam LaRoche has yet to make a decision on whether to return to D.C. and re-sign with the Nationals. The main reason is that LaRoche is still looking for a three-year contract, and the Nats are unwilling to offer anything beyond two years.

At first glance, the Nationals’ insistence on holding firm on their two-year offer seems a little silly.

If the Nats like LaRoche so much (they do), appreciate the offense he provides and the pop he brings from the left side (they do), love his defensive ability at first base (they do) and truly respect his clubhouse demeanor and the way he approaches the game (they do), then why won’t they just cave and give the guy his three-year deal?

The reasons are two-fold.

We’ve recently talked a little bit about the Nationals’ future infield dynamic, and that’s definitely a factor here. There’s a chance that Ryan Zimmerman will need to be moved across the diamond to play first base sometime down the road, Tyler Moore is a promising option at first base and Anthony Rendon, the Nats’ top position prospect, could be ready for a starting gig in the infield by spring training 2014.

adam-laroche-swinging-through-sidebar.jpgThere are only four infield spots, and the Nats don’t want to be locked in for three years with LaRoche when they might have better options at first base in the not-too-distant future.

In addition to that, however, there’s also the issue of LaRoche’s age.

Now 33, LaRoche is coming off a career year. He won a Gold Glove, and brought home a Silver Slugger as well, hitting 33 homers and driving in 100 runs.

LaRoche might very well be able to put up similar numbers again this upcoming season, and whichever team ends up signing him will certainly hope that will be the case. But what about beyond this season? What about 2014, when he’ll be 34? What about his age-35 season in 2015?

Joe Posnanski, formerly a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and an incredibly respected baseball scribe, did some really interesting research earlier this year on how players’ performance changes with age. He located all 1,084 times between 1901 and 2011 in which a player registered at least 6.0 wins above replacement (WAR) in a season. Then, he charted those seasons based on the player’s age at the time.

If you have 10-15 minutes, I suggest giving Posnanski’s full blog post a read, because it’s great stuff. But here’s the Cliffs Notes version: While many seem to believe that players peak offensively in their upper-20s or low-30s, that’s often not the case. Posnanski found that the most 6.0-WAR seasons occurred when players were 26, and the frequency of such seasons decreases each year from there.

Putting the numbers in the scope of the LaRoche situation, 115 players have topped 6.0 WAR at the age of 26, but only 44 did it at age 33. Taking this even further, only 31 players hit a 6.0 WAR when they were 34, and there are just 25 instances of a 35 year old reaching the given WAR mark.

That’s not to say that LaRoche won’t be an effective player when he’s 35 years old, or that he can’t still slug 25-plus homers, provide valuable offensive production and maintain an above-average glove.

(UPDATE: I had originally written that WAR would not include LaRoche’s defensive abilities, but being the dummy I am, I forgot WAR factors in UZR, a defensive metric which calculates runs saved.)

But Posnanski’s research does show that the chances of LaRoche being able to maintain this level of play when he’s 35 appear to be slim. Either because of injuries or declining ability, many players tend to see their numbers drop as they get into their mid-30s.

And that’s a large part of the reason why the Nationals don’t want to commit to a three-year contract for LaRoche, even when it’s clear they like a lot of what he currently brings to the table.

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