The Importance of Adam LaRoche
The off-season can be a cold dark time with slow trickles of news as we inch closer and closer to pitchers and catchers reporting. With Thanksgiving having finished and the Winter Meetings approaching this is the biggest lull the off-season will feature. So it was last week I didn't write a single baseball blog post. It is tough to write when there is nothing to write about. I am a relatively un-creative writer and have been dealing with some modicum of writer's block since July.
If I were to describe my writing style it would be blogging still-lifes. I merely describe what is put in front of me and what I choose to put in front of myself is baseball. Without anything happening and therefore nothing to look at and examine I have nothing to write about. So there I was on Facebook looking at comments to a MASN post asking Nats fans if LaRoche should be back. It was a near universal yes with many going as far as calling him a key cog.
Adam LaRoche had a good season in 2012, but he is nowhere close to being a key cog. There were four position players (Desmond, Harper, Zimmerman, Espinosa) with fWAR equal to or greater than the 3.8 that LaRoche put up in 2012. Then when factoring in the two pitchers (Gio, Strasburg) with fWAR higher than LaRoche. That is a total of six players whose importance to the 2012 was equal to or greater than Adam LaRoche's.
This isn't to say that LaRoche didn't have a good season, but it is to point out that he isn't a key cog. If they Nationals did have a key cog on the position player side of the ball it was Ian Desmond or Bryce Harper, but it is much easier to make the argument that Gio or Strasburg was the key cog in the Nationals success. It is even better to argue that the Nationals worked like a fine watch with lots of cogs all moving and pulling as one to create a team that was able to win 98 game. The Nationals had no MVP candidates for a good reason, but they had a lot of good players playing well throughout the season.
Without LaRoche and his 3.8 fWAR there is a chance that the Nationals don't win the NL East, but only a chance. If Morse didn't have to play the outfield his inability to throw wouldn't have been as big an issue and perhaps he only misses a month and while the Nats lose some defense. Morse had a 0.0 UZR/150 in 2011 at first while LaRoche had a 2012 UZR/150 of 5.7. Those five runs consitute about half a win, but here is something else to consider. Michael Morse had a 2012 UZR/150 -23.3 in left field and a career UZR/150 of -20.4 as a left fielder.
Without Morse in left field it is likely that the Nationals would have gone with a platoon of Bernadina and Tyler Moore or simply have used Bernadina full time. If they had stuck with Bernadina his career UZR/150 in left field is 12.1. That 30 run swing from Morse to Bernadina nearly makes up for the loss of Adam LaRoche on its own. Bernadina wouldn't even have to be an average hitter to make up for the loss of LaRoche's bat because of the massive improvement in defense.
LaRoche was a good player for the 2012 Nats, but he wasn't a key cog. He wasn't the man that made everything go. The Nationals don't have that type of player offensively and if they do it is either Desmond, Harper, or post-cortisone Zim. LaRoche was good hitting .271/.343/.510, but that is the best that LaRoche has been since 2006 and it could be the best he is as a National.
Like everything in the off-season the contract will matter. If LaRoche is signed to a moderate two year deal then it will be a good deal, but if he is signed for three or more years it could be a bad deal depending on the money. The Nationals are trying to balance winning now with winning in the future and with Anthony Rendon on the horizon and perhaps MLB ready by mid to late 2013 the Nationals are going to need a spot open for him. LaRoche blocks that and consider that LaRoche's career batting line of .268/.338/.482 is not far off from that average 2012 NL first baseman of .266/.336/.442. That Nats would be better off to let Morse play first, sign an outfielder, and let Rendon take over first in 2014.
LaRoche was good for the 2012 Nats, but he wasn't great, and he definitely wasn't a key cog. Furthermore nothing that LaRoche did in 2012 means he will be as good or as important to the 2013 or 2014 Nats. Judging from his career statistics LaRoche is the type of player that can be replaced easier than it is being made out, and the most important issue the Nats face is finding a way to get Michael Morse out of the outfield. Moving him to first base and signing an outfielder is the easiest way to do that, and if that is what happens then LaRoche's 2012 3.8 fWAR is close to replaced by the improvement in outfield defense alone.