VIERA, Fla. - When Adam LaRoche walked into the Nationals clubhouse this morning, his 11-year-old son Drake was right behind him, as is often the case, and was wheeling a bag filled with baseball gear.
Nationals players and clubhouse staffers flocked from all around to welcome the LaRoches - both of them - with hugs and handshakes. This is a beloved duo around these parts.
The LaRoches unpacked their camouflage pants and t-shirts, dressed and answered numerous questions about what the heck happened to Drake's hair. The youngster was sporting a mullet with a buzz cut up top, a hairstyle that country music star Jason Aldean gave him on a whim at 1 a.m. one recent morning.
"We baited him out of his room," Adam LaRoche joked.
A couple months ago, LaRoche, a free agent this offseason, couldn't have been sure he'd be back in a Nationals clubhouse again. In fact, there was a stretch during which LaRoche admits that he thought he'd end up signing elsewhere because of an impasse in contract negotiations between the two sides.
Instead, he was able to agree with general manager Mike Rizzo and the Nationals on a two-year, $24 million deal with a mutual option for the 2015 season. It wasn't the deal LaRoche initially was searching for (he had hoped to obtain at least three guaranteed years), but it put him back in the place he wanted to be.
"All's said and done, I talked to Riz quite a bit about it, and no hard feelings," LaRoche said. "We got it done. It's a great deal, I'm not complaining about that at all. If anything, I wanted to stay longer. We've got the third year option, so it's still a possibility."
After a season in which he won a Gold Glove, hit 33 home runs and posted 100 RBIs, LaRoche should have had his pick of teams willing to offer a lucrative multi-year deal. Instead, largely because of the current free agent compensation system in which teams signing a player who was presented with a qualifying offer must surrender a high draft pick, LaRoche received few concrete multi-year offers.
LaRoche said his agent got calls from teams saying that they would love to offer him a contract, but couldn't afford to part with a first- or second-round draft pick.
"I think they're going to have to do something about (the system)," LaRoche said. "Because when it comes down to it, with a lot of guys in that draft pick (situation), if you would have actually had a less-productive year, it would have been easier to get a longer-term deal or have more competition in negotiations. So, again, it could have been really bad. Obviously, I got to where I wanted to go. I wanted to be back here and we worked it out, but the draft pick did not help things."
Last spring, LaRoche entered camp coming off a 2011 season that was almost completely shot due to a torn labrum in his left shoulder. As he was nursing the shoulder back to full strength, he also had to put up with a bone bruise in his left foot, an injury suffered while running the bases during the first day of spring training.
When you think about it, so much about LaRoche was uncertain last season. He and manager Davey Johnson are able to joke about it now, but Johnson discussed possibly platooning LaRoche last year and using Mark DeRosa at first base against left-handed starters.
This spring, LaRoche enters with a multi-year contract in place, a clean bill of health and the first base job all to himself. That said, he knows he should take it easy when jogging around the bags early this spring.
"I already talked to Lee (Kuntz, head trainer)," LaRoche said. "He said, 'Stay off the bases.' They don't trust me out there."
Thanks in large part to LaRoche, the Nationals were able to make an 18-win improvement from 2011 to 2012, and they enter the 2013 campaign as the favorites in the National League East. The expectations now will be higher than ever.
"It'll be disappointing if we were to repeat (what we did) last year, which was a really good year," LaRoche said. "If we came out and made the playoffs and got beat out early or whatever it was, I don't think everybody now will look at that as a successful year. And we did last year. We're turning the corner. I haven't been here through the bad years but I know guys that have been around here, it was an incredibly successful year last year and nobody, I don't think, saw it coming.
"I think guys thought we had a chance. We hung in there and thought we were pretty good. But this year will be different. And I think that's what comes along with winning. You get a taste of it and it's like my first few years in Atlanta, it was nothing to make the playoffs. We'd celebrate but the goal was the World Series. And that's where I see this team going."