I'm going to start this the right way- by eating crow. At the start of this season I would have been just as happy to see LaRoche benched for Morse at first, and thought that Morse's injury in spring training would only delay the inevitable. But LaRoche more than pleasantly surprised me- he humbled me totally. Through the start of the season LaRoche was by far the most productive batter in the lineup. But is he more useful to the Nationals, now, as a productive 1B, or as a potential trade chip?
Likely, more people than just myself were so humbled, and the Nats fans who stuck by LaRoche all the while have reason to feel proud. But despite LaRoche's success, it seems unlikely that Michael Morse will not be favored for the 1B job in 2013. So with LaRoche almost certain to hit Free Agency after this season, it's natural to entertain thoughts about what he might return on the trade market. It might be even more natural to actually hammer out a deal.
I'm sure a number of people are wailing now about the idiocy of trading the best offensive producer on an offensively-challenged team. But I'll get to that in a moment. Right now I'm going to remind everybody exactly why LaRoche's value is so high: Because when Votto was still in his early season slump, LaRoche was the arguable NL All-Star 1B. With all respect to LaRoche, his season is only considered All-Star worthy on account of the league being weak at the position. In the AL, LaRoche would be decidedly third-tier. In the NL, he is "better than good" without approaching lonely Votto in the elite category. On the Nationals, he was elite until the Bryce Harper show eclipsed him. This season, only the Cubs have truly resigned themselves to firesale- even the Pirates and Royals are looking to buy at the deadline. In this kind of market there could be a huge profit made in selling the first major piece to the highest bidder. The Nationals could set the tone of the 2013 trade market by dealing LaRoche early, and with high demands. If teams say they want to buy, the Nationals ought to be happy to sell. After exacting a steep price from another contender the Nationals could arguably replace LaRoche's production immediately by shifting Morse to 1B, where he seems to play better.
In fact, the Nationals could most efficiently improve offensive production not by dealing for another older, experienced bat like LaRoche to plug into one of the "holes" in the lineup, but rather by cutting ties with players in the current roster to provide space for youth prospects. While Harper commands a tremendous amount of attention and Lombardozzi has earned himself a share of playing time you have to go through Roger Bernadina, Xavier Nady, and even Mark DeRosa before you find a Nats rookie with as many plate appearances. Could Corey Brown not hit .150 or better? Was 38 PAs too long a wait for Tyler Moore to start hitting better than Bernadina's career averages? The players the Nats have teased in front of other teams in an effort to lure that one big bat could be that big bat themselves. The Nationals certainly have the pitching to support a team that is learning what it can get out of its young players.
Dealing LaRoche is absolutely the smart move for seasons 2013 and beyond- the Nationals have no expectations that LaRoche would be with the team, while the prospects nabbed this July could be sitting in the Major League dugout by next season. And though people are less likely to believe it, dealing one of the hottest-hitting 1B in the NL could be just the vote of confidence our young players need to truly ignite the Nationals Youth Movement.