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January 9, 2013

Transaction Analysis

The Nationals (Finally) Bring Back LaRoche

by Ben Lindbergh

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WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed 1B-L Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $24 million contract. [1/8]

Shortly after Adam LaRoche rejected the Nationals’ qualifying offer on November 9th, GM Mike Rizzo offered him a two-year contract. LaRoche liked playing for the Nats, and he wanted to be back. But he also wanted a three-year deal, and Washington wouldn’t budge. For the next two months, in Rizzo’s words, the two parties had “a lot of conversations back and forth.” Those conversations, distilled down to their essence, went a little like this:

LaRoche: Three
Rizzo: Two
LaRoche: Three
Rizzo: Two
LaRoche: Three
Rizzo: Two
LaRoche: Four
Rizzo: Three
LaRoche: Ha!
Rizzo: Two
LaRoche: OK fine

If you frame the negotiations in the simplest possible terms, with the only victory condition for LaRoche being a three-year contract, then Washington won, bringing him back without having to promise to pay the 33-year-old through age 35. LaRoche lost, but he lost in a way that we would all like to lose, getting a raise to $10 million this season and $12 million for 2014, plus a $2 million buyout of a $15 million mutual option for 2015 that brings the Nats’ total commitment to $24 million.

It’s not surprising that LaRoche lost, to the extent that he did, since he had very little leverage. Because of the qualifying offer, LaRoche would have cost any other team that signed him a high draft pick, and the Nats were confident that no one else would give him the longer contract he craved. And even if LaRoche had left, the Nats had Mike Morse—a younger, cheaper player who's projected to be better offensively—ready to replace him. (As Daniel Rathman notes today, it now looks like it’s Morse who’s on the way out.) The Nationals had no reason not to wait LaRoche out all winter until he realized the offer already on the table was the best he was going to get.

So now that the Nats have succeeded in re-signing LaRoche, let’s tell them what they’ve won. From 2006, LaRoche’s second-best season, to 2012, his best season, NL first basemen posted a collective .285 TAv. LaRoche’s TAv over the same span was .282. He’s an above-average fielder and a below-average baserunner who’s averaged 134 games per season, with most of the missed time attributable to a labrum tear and partial rotator cuff tear that ended his 2011 early. An average player accumulates about 2.0 WARP in a typical season; LaRoche, per the 134 games that have represented his typical season, has averaged 2.1. Over the last six seasons, LaRoche has been about as close to an average first baseman as it’s possible to be.

Of course, we know he can be better than that, because he was in 2012, when he posted career highs in games (154), TAv (.303), and FRAA (10.8) and was rewarded with his first Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards. Both Davey Johnson and the Nationals players reportedly believed that LaRoche was the most valuable member of a team that won 98 games and also had Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann. The BBWAA agreed, giving LaRoche a tied-for-sixth-place finish in the first NL MVP race in which he’d ever received a vote. (WARP, which doesn’t know that LaRoche’s team finished in first place or that he’s reputed to be a killer clubhouse presence, had him tied for 22nd, behind three of his teammates.)

But that’s the production the Nats have already received, not the production they’re paying for. And as valuable as LaRoche was last season, there’s no reason to expect him to be any better than good old average Adam LaRoche going forward. It’s not that there was anything deceptive about his 2012: he just walked a little more often, struck out a little less often, hit for a little more power, and stayed in the lineup a little more regularly, and all of that added up to being a bit better than he ever had been before. Nonetheless, hitters who have career years at age 32 tend not to improve even further at age 33. If they did, the aging curve would look a lot different than it does. So LaRoche will likely go back to being the player he was before 2012, with a little taken off the top as he heads into the steepest part of the decline phase.

PECOTA projects LaRoche for a .271 TAv in 2013, the same mark he managed for Arizona in 2010, when he was worth—What else?—exactly 2.0 WARP. If he can be around average for the next two seasons, he’ll be paid roughly $6 million per win, which seems reasonable for both sides given what other free agents have gone for. LaRoche and his agent Mike Milchin didn’t win the battle, but they did fine for themselves in the war, even with the CBA working against them. LaRoche has either already come to terms with how much he’ll be making or is talking himself into accepting it soon. “In no way do I consider this a bad deal,” he told Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post. “To be honest, we all make way more than we should, anyway.” I’m sure the Players Association appreciates his honesty.

In November, Ken Rosenthal quoted this rave review of LaRoche by an official for the Red Sox, a team that traded for LaRoche in 2009* and was rumored to be in the running for his services again this offseason: “Like him. Don’t love him.”

*And then traded him to Atlanta—straight up for Casey Kotchman, whose fortunes have fallen considerably since—nine days later.

That’s really the only way one can feel about Adam LaRoche, who’s good enough to help half the teams in baseball but not the sort of player who makes one of them want to pull his pigtails. The Nationals would have been one of the best teams without him had their tactics led to his leaving, but they’ll be an even better team with him plus whatever Morse brings back.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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