Even before Adam LaRoche knew he'd miss the rest of the season with surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, there was some question about who would man first base for the Nationals in the coming years. With all due to respect to LaRoche - who's a solid player and consummate professional - people with the team and industry felt there was a decent chance the Nationals would make a run at one of the top-end sluggers due to hit free agency this winter, even though LaRoche was signed for the 2012 season at $7.5 million.
Now, with LaRoche scheduled to have surgery on Thursday and miss the rest of the season, the Nationals' picture at first base gets even murkier. In his absence, they'll play Michael Morse, who's been on a tear since switching to first base full-time. He's hitting .347/.410/.674 with eight homers and 23 RBI in 25 games at the position, compared to .259/.276/.358 in 24 games in left field. Whether Morse's hot streak was caused by his switch or was just coincidence, he's put himself on the fringes of All-Star consideration and appears to be on his way to the breakout season the Nationals hoped he would have in left field.
And then there are the free agent options. Albert Pujols, if he gets to free agency, would do so as the best player in a generation, and would get paid as such. But his market could work in the Nationals' favor, since the Yankees and Red Sox appear to be set at first base, the Phillies are stuck with Ryan Howard's contract and the Dodgers' and Mets' ownership situations could prevent them from spending money on a free agent like Pujols. If he leaves the Cardinals, the Cubs and the Nationals could be among the top options for him, and in Washington, he'd find a team with the wherewithal to pay him what he wants. Prince Fielder is younger, and even if he's a less desirable option because of his weight (listed at 275 pounds) and concerns he could break down, he's a fearsome power threat who draws walks and hits for average. And he's a Scott Boras client.
Stuck in the background of this picture somewhere is Chris Marrero, the Nationals' first-round pick in 2006 who opened some eyes by showing up to spring training in great shape and playing solid defense at first base. Marrero is only 22, and the Nationals have always believed his swing will play in the majors. But if they have a chance to get Pujols or Fielder, they'd probably do it and worry about the rest later. If that meant LaRoche would get moved, it could also mean Marrero winds up somewhere else.
So what's to make of all this? Plenty can change between now and December; Morse could change the Nationals' minds with a 25-homer season heading into his second year of arbitration, or one of the big free agents could get traded to a team that gives them a new contract. But right now - and this is just me spitballing - I'd handicap the Nationals' 2012 first base job like this:
LaRoche, 4-1: He's still signed for 2012, and has an option for 2013. The Nationals like him in the field and in the clubhouse, and he's got an established record of 25-homer seasons when he's healthy. But with only one guaranteed year left on his deal, he might be movable, and in a season where the Nationals expect they might be able to make a move, do they want to go in with a first baseman (and possible cleanup hitter) coming off shoulder surgery? We'll have to see. They've run into a similar situation before, albeit with a different GM and different players, but they went into the 2008 season with Dmitri Young on the bench after Nick Johnson came back from his broken leg. They could wind up in a similar situation here.
Morse, 6-1: He's played well at first, doing enough defensively and looking comfortable enough at the plate to make it seem like that might be his permanent home. But absent any outside additions, I expect LaRoche to be the first baseman in 2012. Morse could go back to the outfield, but that's about to get crowded, too, with Bryce Harper quickly moving through the minors. If the Nationals do sign a free agent, Morse would be an attractive trade piece - a cheap bat who can play several positions. How he performs the rest of the season could change the calculus here.
Fielder or Pujols, 8-1: It remains to be seen whether either player hits free agency, but if one does, expect the Nationals to be an active participant in the sweepstakes. Fielder's body is a legitimate concern for the organization, but he's also a game-changing left-handed bat, and the prospect of him and Harper hitting in the middle of the Nationals' lineup could be tantalizing. And Boras has a history of setting up camp with a few particular teams (the Red Sox and Tigers, to name two). Both of those teams have been to World Series with a slew of Boras players, and the Nationals seem to be coming one of the agent's destination teams. And Pujols is so good that if he hits free agency, the Nationals would have to take a shot. I still expect him to stay in St. Louis, but players like that simply aren't available very often. I've only got the odds this long because it's unknown if either player will hit the open market. But if one of them is, I'd put the odds at least the same as Morse, if not higher.
Marrero, 20-1: He's having a solid year at Triple-A Syracuse, hitting .290/.351/.450 with eight homers and 34 RBI, and he'll likely get a September call-up. But the Nationals aren't rushing him to the majors before then, and he's still blocked by too many players to be considered a legitimate option for 2012.
Who do you think plays first base for the Nationals in 2012? Let me know.