Did the success of 2012 NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper make Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche expendable? Despite having one of his best seasons, LaRoche has not been signed by the Nationals after becoming a free agent at the end of the year.
Last season, LaRoche batted .271 while leading the team in home runs with 33 and RBI with 100. On defense, he only committed seven errors while posting a .995 fielding percentage. These performances earned him the NL Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards.
In years past, a season like the one LaRoche had would have all but guaranteed him a new contract. Until 2011, Washington really had no first baseman and lacked depth along the entire roster. Then, the young players matured in 2012 and Harper proved that he could play in the majors. This changed the entire mindset of the Nationals brass and LaRoche’s value may have decreased in their eyes.
When Washington began the 2012 season, LaRoche was a question mark after coming back from a shoulder injury which sidelined him for almost all of 2011. The Nationals had given a contract extension to Michael Morse after he replaced LaRoche and had his best season as a pro. Washington hoped that LaRoche would be healthy enough to play in 2012, but were prepared to go with Morse if he was not. When Morse was injured and went on the disabled list, LaRoche took the starting job and ran with it.
Meanwhile, after spending spring training with the parent club, Harper began the year at Triple A Syracuse. Despite the fact that management thought he was ready for the big leagues, the Nationals knew that Harper was a slow starter. They did not want him to begin slowly under the scrutiny of local and national media. However, everyone, including Harper, knew that he would be called up before the all-star break.
When Harper arrived in April, he immediately took over the center field position and remained there for the rest of the season. The 19 year old finished 2012 by batting .270 with 22 home runs and 59 RBI. As the season progressed, Harper made the adjustments necessary to compete and showed Washington enough to make them believe he is every bit as good as advertised.
Harper’s ascent may be one of the reasons why the Nationals are in no hurry to budge off of their contract offer to LaRoche. Though they play different positions, both are left handed hitters who can hit for power and average. LaRoche is more experienced while Harper is younger and has the bigger upside. The Nationals may feel that LaRoche is nearing the end of his prime while Harper is not even close to his.
Washington may feel that having Harper’s bat and speed at the top of the lineup would make up for losing LaRoche. With Harper in the outfield joining Jayson Werth and recently acquired Denard Span, the Nationals could move Morse back to first as well.
Before Harper came along, one could make the case that Washington would have had no choice but to resign LaRoche. With Harper, the Nationals may be more inclined to believe that LaRoche is expendable.