The Washington Nationals swung and missed at their attempt to woo Prince Fielder to the nation’s capital, signing with the Detroit Tigers instead. This means that unless something drastically changes over the next 2 1/2 months, Adam LaRoche will be the starting first baseman for the Nats on April 5th. Of all this talk that Fielder would make Washington a possible threat in the National League, let’s not forget that LaRoche is no pushover and is a solid option at the position.
The 31-year old had the worst season of his career in 2011 after signing a two-year contract with the club last offseason. LaRoche hit .172 with only 3 homers and 15 RBI before undergoing shoulder surgery and missing the remaining 100+ games. For a player that hit at least 20 home runs in six consecutive seasons prior to last year, it’s safe to say that his injury sapped his power and altered his swing. The veteran recently told the Washington Post, “I’ve been really excited swinging the bat. It feels a lot stronger than it has in a while.” In a batting order that’s dominated by right-handed hitters, it’s important that LaRoche (being a lefty) gets back into a groove and provides stability in the middle of the Nationals lineup. One positive from last year’s disaster is that his walk rate was very high, drawing 25 free passes in only 43 contests.
The biggest factor in LaRoche coming back this season is his outstanding defense, a focal point for general manager Mike Rizzo. LaRoche is able to move well in both directions and pick bad throws from the dirt, something that’s very important with two young middle infielders in Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond. Prince on the other hand, wouldn’t make half those plays, resulting in more errors, extended innings, and more losses. There is no designated hitter spot in the National League, which is where Fielder belongs. There’s a silver lining to not signing Fielder and multiple reasons to back it up.
It’s been well-documented here that I was never on the bandwagon for this club to sign Fielder in the first place and with good reason. Now that LaRoche is the starter at first, the Nats have a lot more flexibility for this year and beyond. Prince got a 9-year contract from the Tigers worth $214 million, money that can now be used to sign third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to a contract extension. Speaking of Zimmerman, whose contract expires after the 2013 season, there has been rumblings about the former Gold Glove winner eventually moving to first base. Although it does seem crazy, let’s think about it for a minute. Ryan is a fielder with excellent range, but because of his abdominal injury last season, he altered his throwing motion and had an alarming number of errors because of it. Zimmerman may be forced to move because there is a rising star on the way.
Anthony Rendon was the sixth overall pick in last year’s Entry Draft and was an All-American third baseman at Rice University. His bat, slick fielding ability, and plate discipline makes him a great fit for Washington down the road. Rendon committed only four errors during his sophomore year and would form a superb pair of corner infielders with Zimmerman at first. I’m sure Z-Pack would have no problem handling tough hops and bad throws at first base and that only adds to his value. With LaRoche virtually on a one-year contract and the Nats probably not a playoff team this year, he’s trade bait for a contending team seeking a power hitter. Washington would be able to get something for the impending free agent and then move Michael Morse to first base, saving us all from an adventure in the outfield.
If LaRoche is able to stay healthy, he’s very capable of returning to his 25 homer, 85 RBI form with a decent on-base percentage. Those aren’t even close to Prince Fielder numbers, but his defense makes up for it. Think of it this way: With Adam LaRoche returning to the Nats in 2012, it will affect a handful of players that will make this team a contender for years to come. In an odd way, LaRoche is one of the most important pieces to this team’s future, even though it’s likely he won’t be in Washington next season.