The Washington Nationals and the Value of Adam LaRoche
At some point it will be said to be wary of paying a player big money when coming off a career year. The fact is that LaRoche isn't coming off of a career year. He is coming off a very good year, but not a career year. In 2006 LaRoche hit .285/.354/.561 compared to .271/.343/.510 in 2012. Both are very good years, but the career year is 2006. Regardless of the falseness of 2012 being LaRoche's career year he still shouldn't be paid like a player that can continently put up those types of numbers. That isn't Adam LaRoche.
There is little mystery to Adam LaRoche and that is why he is valuable. In five out of ten seasons LaRoche has played at least 145 games and in seven out of ten of them at least 130. LaRoche does miss some time, but in only 2011 was it major time. LaRoche for his career has hit .268/.338/.482 and in most seasons is somewhere around that mark. Then it would stand to reason that what the Nationals would be paying for is a decent offensive player that can play excellent defense at first.
Comparing LaRoche's career numbers to the average NL 1B in 2012 one finds that LaRoche is slightly above the average mark of .266/.336/.442, and will be 33 next season. LaRoche won't suffer much decline right away, but LaRoche's numbers in 2013 will be closer to his career numbers than his 2012 numbers. Adam LaRoche should be paid like a slightly above average offensive first baseman with a great glove. Which is to say that Adam LaRoche's next contract should look very much like his current contract.
From the other side of things LaRoche very much should be trying to cash in on his 2012 season. He should want to turn this into a three or four year deal. The problem is the Nationals are not in a good position to give him much more than a two year deal. LaRoche is a fine player, but he will never be a super star. Sitting and waiting in the Nationals minor league system is Anthony Rendon who has the ceiling of a super star. Rendon is projected to hit for a high average, get on base at a well above average clip, and have 25-30 homer power.
The problem here is that Rendon hasn't played a professional inning at first base and has only played 43 overall games in the minors. The most optimistic projections would have Rendon ready sometime around the All-Star Break, and a team trying to contend has to get good production out of a power position like first base.
The Nationals current roster does contain both Morse and Moore who can play first base and if Moore's slash line of .263/.327/.513 is to be believed then he is the one that should be the first baseman if LaRoche is not retained. Morse has a bat that can play anywhere and his power is much better than LaRoche's, but he lacks the on base skills and defense. Morse would be much more natural as a DH for an American League than at first for the 2013 Nationals. If LaRoche is not re-signed then the best plan may be to go with Tyler Moore until Rendon is ready.
The LaRoche negotiations are a delicate balancing act of giving him enough years and money to make him happy, but limiting the years and money to not block Rendon and to make him tradable in case Rendon is ready earlier than projected. This also depends somewhat on Rizzo's belief in Tyler Moore. If the Nationals believe that Moore can continue to hit with the power he displayed this season then he should be the first baseman no questions asked. 6% of Tyler Moore's at bats ended with a homer. If he could hit at that rate for 600 at bats that would make him a 36 homer bat.
There is no easy answer to this question for the Nationals. Adam LaRoche is the solid veteran force who is loved by his teammates and helps the Nationals both on offense and defense, Morse is the quirky guy that had a great 2011 and who fans love, and Tyler Moore is the up and coming cost controlled player. The question might very well come down to what other moves the Nationals have planned. If the LaRoche camps ends up wanting 3 years and $45 million and the Nationals feel that money would be better spent elsewhere they have the internal pieces to fill the gap LaRoche would leave, and the best move may ultimately be to let youth be served and spend the LaRoche money on a greater need like finally getting a true lead-off hitter and centerfielder.