Is comparing Adam LaRoche to Adam Dunn worthwhile?

A happy new year to all of you in NatsTown. Hope you enjoyed the final hours of 2010, and that 2011 is getting off to a good start for all of you. And, in the spirit of beginning the year on a good note, I thought I’d put together a little blog post that is bound to make many of you angry:

The lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne,” the Scottish carol sung by many (and understood by few) in the first minutes of a new year, is typically seen as a reminder not to forget old friendships or not to let go of the ones that have been close in the past. A lovely sentiment, sure. But does it apply to baseball? Not really.

The game, in 2011, is as much a calculated business as it is a nostalgic pastime, with tens of millions of dollars hinging on almost every decision. There’s certainly room for attachment, but most of it has to be tempered with the knowledge that players are commodities, sold at different price points and valued on an open market.

That brings us to the Nationals’ current first base situation. They let Adam Dunn walk in free agency, making a final offer of $35 million over three years to the slugger; he signed with the White Sox for $56 million over four years. Many in baseball have openly wondered whether Dunn would still be a National if the team had floated the three-year, $35 million offer earlier in the season, rather than arriving at that point late in the year. But Dunn is gone now, and the Nationals are left searching for his replacement.

The search, at the moment, has arrived at Adam LaRoche, who has reportedly been offered a two-year deal worth $16 to $18 million. LaRoche has few options left on the free agent market, so the high dollar figure is a bit puzzling, but that’s still nowhere near what Dunn would have cost.

I saw many of you comparing LaRoche to Dunn on Twitter yesterday, and by most measures, that comparison strongly favors Dunn. He’s one of the most consistent home run hitters in baseball, churning out at least 38 in each of the last seven seasons. He strikes out a ton, but also draws walks, and his durability is vastly underrated. He is a below-average fielder, though he improved last season, but his consistency as a power hitter is why he earned so much money this winter.

LaRoche, on the other hand, has never hit more than 32 homers in a season, and typically sits around 25. His career OBP is .339; Dunn’s is .381. He is a better fielder than Dunn; his UZR at first was 5.2 runs above replacement last year, while Dunn’s was 3.1 runs below replacement (And, as a side note, it’s not worth measuring Dunn’s UZR at first base any other year than 2010, because he didn’t play enough games at first to mete out the big swings that come from playing few games at a position. But I digress.). LaRoche isn’t the same kind of power threat, though, and that’s why he’s cheaper on the market. He also, though, would give the Nationals more financial flexibility than they got with Dunn, and if they see a different long-term solution at first, they could pursue one sooner with LaRoche as the current option.

The point in all this, though, is that LaRoche and Dunn aren’t really the same player; they’re two different commodities at different price points on the first base market. Consider LaRoche the first base equivalent of a Toyota Corolla, while Dunn is more like a Corvette; one gives you higher performance, while the other is built more for cost-efficient dependability. Other than the fact that both are cars, you’re not paying for many of the same things when you buy one over the other.

The Nationals’ decision to let Dunn go is certainly debatable, and it’s been questioned in many exchanges here. I’m sure it will continue to be. But Dunn is a member of the White Sox now, and he isn’t coming back. In the end, wishing for his return isn’t going to lead to much. Neither is trying to put LaRoche in the same category as Dunn. They’re different products at different price points, and in the end, the Nationals have chosen one price point over another. It’s not as though they’re offering LaRoche the same contract Dunn got, or even the same deal they were offering Dunn before he left.

If that were happening, it’d be a different conversation, and the Dunn-over-LaRoche arguments would hold a little more weight. But on this market, as on any others, you get what you pay for. If they give LaRoche a two-year deal, his performance should be measured as the rate of return on the particular investment the Nationals made. Dunn would have been a different investment, and would have brought back a different rate of return. Expecting LaRoche to have the same strengths and weaknesses as Dunn just isn’t worth the time.

And ultimately, these players are more commodities than old acquaintances.