Where Adam LaRoche fits in Nationals’ lineup

Now that the Nationals have their first baseman, having agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal with Adam LaRoche, we can start making some reasonable projections about how the team’s 2011 lineup will look. If the season started tomorrow, here’s my guess at the team manager Jim Riggleman would field:

CF Nyjer Morgan
SS Ian Desmond
3B Ryan Zimmerman
RF Jayson Werth
1B Adam LaRoche
LF Roger Bernadina/Michael Morse
2B Danny Espinosa
C Ivan Rodriguez/Wilson Ramos

You could flip LaRoche and Werth to get a better righty-lefty balance, but save for a spot or two of shuffling, the lineup will likely look something like that. It’s questionable whether it’s any better than last year’s team - Werth will hit for a better average, but less power, than Adam Dunn, and LaRoche’s numbers have historically been in the same wheelhouse as Josh Willingham’s, with fewer walks and more strikeouts. If the Nationals are going to improve, it’s going to have to come from the same place it needed to come from last year: everywhere but the 3-4-5 spots in the order.

The Nationals need better production from the top of their order, first and foremost. If Morgan rebounds, even somewhat, from a rough 2010 season, the team will be more productive. Desmond looked good in the No. 2 spot last year; the Nationals need him to continue that and to draw more walks. They also need the Bernadina/Morse platoon to match its 26 homers from last year while developing more consistency, and Espinosa to develop better plate discipline in his first full year in the majors. Right now, the Nationals would have six players in their lineup who got on base at less than a .350 clip last year (Morgan, Desmond, LaRoche, Bernadina/Morse, Espinosa and Rodriguez/Ramos). That number needs to go down if the team’s production is going to go up.

The big hope in swapping Dunn and Willingham for LaRoche and Werth, though, is the team gets better defensively. With Werth in right and Bernadina in left (on many days), the Nationals should be significantly improved in the outfield this year, and LaRoche is a more natural first baseman than Dunn. If Desmond cuts down on his error total and Espinosa can play a full season of the impressive second base he played in September, this could be a solid defensive team. They’ll have to hope for that, and a strong bullpen, to bail out a mediocre pitching staff, while pushing for a higher on-base percentage, particularly at the top of the lineup.

I’ll have more later this morning on how LaRoche affects the long-term outlook at first base.