The Washington Nationals would like to have Adam LaRoche back at first base in 2013, but if they bring the 33-year-old free agent back it might mean the end of Michael Morse's time in the nation's capital.
Adam LaRoche was still not 100% recovered following surgery to repair the torn labrum in his shoulder which limited him to 43 games and 177 plate appearances in the first year of his 2-year/$16M dollar deal with Washington in 2011 when the Nationals decided they'd pursue Prince Fielder last winter. The Nats noted throughout the process of courting the free agent first baseman that they had complete confidence in Adam LaRoche if they didn't land the offensive prize of the 2012 market. The pursuit ended when Fielder signed a 9-year/$214M dollar deal with the Detroit Tigers. "All along, we were satisfied and happy with the position of first base with what we've got," Nats' GM Mike Rizzo reiterated after the Nationals failed to land the big slugger.
"We have two very good players that can play first base for us and that's not even dipping into our minor league system," the Nationals' general manager explained, "We think Adam LaRoche is the player that we signed two years ago, that's 25 [HR's] and 85 [RBI's], Gold Glove-caliber first baseman, and if he's not 100% healthy, which we believe he is, he says he is, he's going to be ready for Spring Training, we certainly know that Michael Morse can handle the position offensively and defensively." Morse had filled in for LaRoche in 2011, putting together a .303/.360/.550, 36 double, 31 HR, +3.3 fWAR campaign. The 29-going-on-30-year-old Morse signed a 2-year/$10.5M dollar extension in January of 2012 after the best year of the seven-year veteran's career.
It was Morse who dealt with injuries in 2012. A strained (torn) lat delayed the start of his season until June 2nd and he dealt with a bone bruise and torn sheath in his wrist that sapped some of his power in 102 games and 430 PAs over which he was worth +0.3 fWAR and had a .291/.321/.470 line with 17 doubles and 18 HRs. LaRoche proved his GM right in 2012. The first baseman won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger playing for the NL East Champs, and hit 35 doubles and a career-high 33 HRs while posting a .271/.343/.510 line in 154 games and 547 PAs over which he was worth +3.8 fWAR.
LaRoche declined his end of the $10M dollar mutual option for 2013 including in the 2-year deal he signed with Washington, turned down the Nationals' 1-year/$13.3M dollar qualifying offer and opted for free agency looking for a multi-year deal after what was the best season of his nine-year major league career. The Nationals, led by skipper Davey Johnson, have been clear about their desire to bring LaRoche back all winter, making him their no.1 priority while maintaining that they'd go no longer than a two-year deal. LaRoche has said he's after a three-year deal, but has reportedly had difficulty finding something better than what the Nats are offering on the free agent market.
"If the numbers work for both of us I'd let to get [LaRoche] done," Rizzo explained in an MLB Network Radio interview in early November. "With that said," the GM continued, "We also have options at that position. That's the one spot that we're fairly deep. We can shift Michael Morse there to his most comfortable defensive position where he plays defense very well. Not Adam LaRoche-caliber, but very well. We also have a young kid that's primarily a first baseman in Tyler Moore. We've got a left-handed bat in the farm system named [Matt] Skole [who] probably profiles as a left-handed power bat at first base. So we're very deep there, but we would like to get Adam under contract."
While the Nationals are waiting for LaRoche to make a decision, they traded top pitching prospect Alex Meyer to Minnesota in return for center fielder Denard Span, forcing Bryce Harper to one corner or another in an outfield that will also feature Jayson Werth. If the Nationals bring LaRoche back, Morse is out of a starting role and he has therefore become the subject of rumors with talk of the slugger being traded continuing throughout this week's winter meetings.
As MLB.com's Bill Ladson (@washingnats) quoted the Nats' general manager explaining on Twitter, however, the Nationals aren't actively shopping Morse just yet with LaRoche still unsigned. "GM Mike Rizzo said he has received a lot of calls on Mike Morse. He has not called any one on Morse." Davey Johnson reiterated his desire to see LaRoche return in a press conference at the Winter Meetings Tuesday, saying he'll go to Kansas and LaRoche's ranch himself to get the first baseman if he has to and the manager told reporters that he didn't see the team keeping both players if LaRoche signed.
"If we don't sign Adam, we have other alternatives, which I'm comfortable with," NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman quoted Johnson explaining, but if LaRoche returns?:
"You know, it's tougher because once you have everyday players that have established their credentials in the major leagues and are pretty good, it's hard to start sharing roles. But that's part of the game of baseball. We might have to make a move if we get too heavy that way."
"If their own free agent LaRoche signs for two years, that is great," Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell wrote this morning, praising the work the Nats have done to put themselves in an enviable position heading into the 2013 season, "If not, the Nats have first basemen aplenty, with Michael Morse, Tyler Moore and more in the minors."
Two years for LaRoche with Moore likely on the bench as 2012 Nats' Minor League Player of the Year Matt Skole continues to develop or another year of Michael Morse at first before he too becomes a free agent after the 2013 campaign? LaRoche or Morse? Aside from finding a left-hander for the bullpen, it's probably the last big decision the defending NL East Champions have to make this winter.