Now that the Nationals have Adam LaRoche in the fold, they've bought themselves another two years of relative certainty at first base. Since they came to Washington, the Nationals haven't been able to find any reliability at the position in anything more than two-year chunks.
They had Nick Johnson mostly healthy in 2005 and 2006, but turned to Dmitri Young in 2007 and pieced the position together in 2008 when both Johnson and Young were hurt. They had Adam Dunn in 2009 and 2010, and will now have LaRoche in 2011 and 2012 - and possibly for 2013, if his $10 million mutual option is exercised.
But part of the reason the Nationals continue to search for first basemen is because the ones they've tried to develop haven't panned out. And the LaRoche signing throws into question whether their current prospects will ever pan out.
Chris Marrero, the Nationals' first-round pick in 2006, was moved onto the 40-man roster this fall so the Nationals could protect him from the Rule 5 draft. But that means his option years will start this season, and he'll presumably be blocked at first for two of those years. By the end of the 2012 season, Marrero will be 24, and you have to wonder if he'll be part of a trade package at some point. The Nationals likely wouldn't have pursued a long-term solution if they felt like Marrero was close to the majors, and while LaRoche could always be traded if Marrero surges through the minors, the onus is on Marrero to force the situation. He's coming off a strong year at Double-A Harrisburg, and could be reunited at Triple-A Syracuse with manager Randy Knorr, who's got a long history with the prospect and has shown an ability to get the best out of him. This will be an important year for the right-handed hitter to keep himself in the Nationals' plans, since it doesn't seem like a guarantee he'll be there at this point.
Barring a trade or some other roster move, the LaRoche signing also takes the Nationals out of the 2012 first base market, where Prince Fielder and possibly Albert Pujols could be free agents. Baseball people thought the Nationals might prefer to sign Derrek Lee to a one-year contract so they could take a run at Fielder after this season. And because of the Nationals' strong relationship with Scott Boras, some believed the Nationals would have a decent shot at the Brewers slugger. But Lee went to the Orioles, LaRoche got a multi-year deal with the Nationals and they seem set at first for now.
Now, much of this can change in a year, either through injuries and player movement. But LaRoche looks like a better bet to be the Nationals' first baseman in 2012, and possibly 2013, than either Marrero or Fielder.
UPDATE AT 6:46 P.M.: A few of you have been asking about Tyler Moore and Derek Norris, two other possible options in the Nationals' farm system. General manager Mike Rizzo has said Moore could wind up skipping Double-A Harrisburg and going straight to Triple-A Syracuse, but with Marrero likely to be there, Moore would have to have a strong spring to skip Harrisburg. Norris, at this point, is still catching, and though there are some issues with his receiving skills, the Nationals haven't moved him to first base yet. If he and Moore are at the same level, it'd be hard for him to move, though he could play some games there.
Figuring out a solution for Marrero, though, is a more pressing matter because his option clock has started. The Nationals need to determine whether he's part of the long-term plan, and if he is, they're probably going to want some of those option years as a backup plan in case he struggles with big-league pitching in his first go-round. So the LaRoche move affects him more immediately than Moore or Norris.