Amidst the current happiness in NatsTown now that the Nationals have clinched their first playoff berth since returning to Washington, the impending contract situation of Adam LaRoche and whether or not he will remain a National in 2013 has been lost in the shuffle. In January of 2011, LaRoche signed a 2-year contract with the Nationals for $15 million dollars, which included a mutual option for a third year at $10 million dollars and a $1 million dollar buyout. After a tumultuous 2011 season that started poorly and resulted in being shut down due to injury in May, LaRoche entered spring training as a question mark for the Washington Nationals, but he has bounced back with a career year in 2012, batting .268/.339/.504 with 31 home runs and 96 runs batted in, while also playing gold glove level defense at first base.
Certainly the Nationals will agree to pick up their side of the contract option, as LaRoche’s left-handed power and defensive wizardry around first base would make the team much stronger in 2013 and for essentially $9 million dollars ($10 million salary minus the $1 million buyout), he is quite a bargain. However, LaRoche is expected to be the top free agent first baseman this winter in an unusually thin market, (Carlos Lee, Jamey Loney, and Casey Kotchman appear to be his main competition) and it would be stunning if he did not decline his side of the mutual contract option in search of a multi-year deal. Therefore, unless the unexpected occurs, LaRoche will enter free agency this winter.
LaRoche has been quoted recently that he wants to return to Washington next season, as he likes the city, the Nationals clubhouse, and the overall direction of the franchise. Nonetheless, with a number of teams looking for a first baseman this winter, namely Baltimore, Boston, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay, LaRoche would be foolish to accept a 1-year contract when he should expect numerous multi-year offers. This leaves the Nationals in an interesting scenario, as they would probably feel comfortable giving LaRoche a 2-year contract, as Morse, Harper, and Werth should be capable defensively in the outfield, in addition to Ryan Zimmerman at third base through 2014. On the other hand, factors such as Werth’s advancing age, Harper’s probability of outgrowing center field as he physically matures, Zimmerman’s throwing issues, the potential of infielder Anthony Rendon, not to mention LaRoche will be 33-years-old on Opening Day next season, will give the Nationals front office reason to hesitate signing him past two years.
All of this creates an interesting predicament for the Nationals, as LaRoche has been one of most critical reasons for the team’s success in 2012, but signing him past 2014 creates a roster logjam the team likely does not want. Conversely, LaRoche’s impressive and consistent track record of success as a hitter, his defensive prowess at first base, and his reputation as a clubhouse leader will have him entertaining multiple 3 and 4-year contract offers this offseason, long-term security difficult for any 33-year-old player to turn down. The Nationals do have the option of offering LaRoche salary arbitration, but the qualifying offer would likely be about $13 million for 2013, a healthy raise from his $8 million dollar salary this year, but could net the team a draft pick if he eventually signed elsewhere.
In the end, expect the Nationals to pick up their side of the option, LaRoche in turn, will decline his side of the option, making him a free agent. Although many are skeptical, I expect the Nationals to offer LaRoche salary arbitration, in hopes this will cool the market on him and give the team more time to negotiate, and at worst, give the team an always desired draft pick if they lose him to another organization. After the season is over, I think Mike Rizzo will go to LaRoche and his representatives and explain the Nationals thinking, sell him on the idea of remaining in Washington, and offer him a 2-year contract for $20-25 million dollars, with an option for a 3rd season tied to games played, and hope he gives them a hometown discount. As said earlier, other teams will guarantee LaRoche a third and possibly a fourth season as well, so it will come down to how badly Adam wants to remain in Washington.
I think there is a strong chance the Nationals offer LaRoche arbitration, a slim chance he accepts salary arbitration, and a 66%/33% chance he wears another uniform next season, as another team could offer him a 4-year deal worth $44-48 million. At that point, wisely the Nationals will decide to shift Mike Morse to first base in 2013 and redistribute LaRoche’s salary at other positions to upgrade the roster. I hope to be proven wrong this winter, but a weak free agent class coupled with a career season has Adam LaRoche set up to be overpaid this winter, both in salary and especially in contract years, and the Nationals should hold strong on 2-years with an option for a third, and if a team trumps that offer, as Hootie and the Blowfish would sing “Let him Go”.
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