The Washington Nationals' Big Man At First: The Return Of Adam LaRoche.

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 20: Danny Espinosa #18 of the Washington Nationals celebrates with Adam LaRoche #25 after hitting a home run in the second inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 20, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Danny Espinosa wore no.8 on his jersey at Long Beach State. The Nats' SS@2B also wore the number 8 at some stops in the Nats' system. According to reports at the time, the infielder changed to 18 when he got called up to make his debut with Washington in September of 2010 because then-bench coach John McLaren already had the no.8. Espinosa will return to wearing the no.8 when he returns to the nation's capital this season.

Ian Desmond will be wearing the no.20 in 2012. I asked and looked around, no good explanation for why. He was born on 9/20/85? To honor the Nats' skipper and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson? Anyone? Those are the cosmetic changes you'll notice around the 2012 Nats' infield. No Prince Fielder at first, sorry. Ryan Zimmerman, who once wore no. 25, (I swear, he did), will be wearing no.11 and playing third, and standing at first will be the Nats' new (well, sort of) no.25, Adam LaRoche. Remember him?

When the Nationals signed LaRoche to a 2-year/$16M dollar deal last winter, the then-31-year-old first baseman was coming off a .261/.320/.468 season in Arizona in which he'd hit 37 doubles, a predictable 25 HR's (for the third straight season) and driven in a career-high 100 RBI's in a year he had a .991 fld% (down from his .995 career fld%), a +4.8 UZR/150 and was worth +1.2 fWAR. The 8-year MLB veteran has a .267/.337/.478 career line over 1,032 games and 4,022 career plate appearances and he has a 162-game average of 39 doubles, 26 HR's and 92 RBI's. To say his 2011 season was a disaster would be kind.

"Shoulder soreness" kept him off the field early in Spring Training, but just as a precaution as the Nationals said at the time. The "soreness" was later revealed to be a "slight tear" of the labrum in his left shoulder. Three ineffective weeks into May, and still trying to play with the injury, LaRoche was forced to concede that he couldn't continue. When the first year of his two-year deal ended on May 21st, LaRoche a .172/.288/.258 line, four doubles and three home runs in 43 games and 177 plate appearances. At that point, LaRoche was diagnosed with a significant tear of labrum and he had also sustained rotator cuff damage.

The Nationals had a hopefully-healthy LaRoche in their back pocket as they pursued Prince Fielder this winter, and they learned last year that Michael Morse could play a serviceable first and excel at the plate given the opportunity after he took over for the injured LaRoche. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo's expecting a return to form from LaRoche in 2012, however. After it was announced that LaRoche would have surgery last year, the Nats' general manager told MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Duquette and Kevin Kennedy that even in the limited time he played last year, the veteran first baseman, "changed the whole dynamic of that infield." When he's spoken about the now-32-year-old LaRoche this winter, Rizzo's maintained that he believes the Nats will get the player they signed last winter.

"We think Adam LaRoche is the player that we signed two years ago," Rizzo told reporters after introducing Gio Gonzalez to the D.C. press corps, "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." If LaRoche is not ready for Spring Training? If the power takes time to return? The Nationals have Morse as an option, but that opens up another outfield position with center field already a big question mark heading into the season. Mark DeRosa was mentioned as a backup option at first when he signed, but he too has battled injuries recently. Chris Marrero's hamstring tear will keep him out until for at least the first few months of the 2012 campaign.

With all the pitching they've added, the Nationals haven't really added much offense to a team that finished 12th in the NL in runs scored, tied for 1st in K% (21.7%), tied for 14th overall in AVG in the NL (.242), tied for 12th in OBP (.309), 10th overall in the NL in SLG (.383) and at the bottom of the league in wRC+ (w/ 89 wRC+ on the year to St. Louis' NL-leading 111 wRC+). The Nats, as Rizzo explained recently, are counting on, "... the maturation of our young core, of [Wilson] Ramos getting better, [Danny] Espinosa getting better, [Ian Desmond] getting better, just by maturing and playing another season. And with the continued success of Morse, LaRoche getting better, Zim playing a full season and Jayson coming back to his career norms," and with that all working out, the GM says, "I think we have addressed the offensive part and we do have a power left-handed bat by the name of Bryce Harper in the wings, waiting to be fully-developed and help us on the big league level."

Mike Rizzo thinks Adam LaRoche at his best will make a big difference. Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell was thinking along the same lines as the Nationals' GM when he wrote this winter in a chat with readers that he believes, "LaRoche will be the positive surprise of the season and the Nats will be glad they have a team option for '13." That option is a mutual one that would pay LaRoche $10M in 2013, or the Nats have a $1M dollar buyout. A lot is riding on the first baseman's surgically-repaired shoulder?

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