After finishing seventh in the NL with 154 HRs as a team in 161 games last year, the Washington Nationals are second in the National League this year, behind only the Milwaukee Brewers with 168 HRs through 141 games. So far in September the Nats have hit 27 HRs in 399 PAs over 10 games, nine more home runs than the second place team this month. Adam LaRoche has hit six of his 29 HRs this season over the course of the last 10 games, over which he's gone 15 for 37 with two doubles, the six homers and a .405/.463/.946 line so far in September. LaRoche went 1 for 4 with a double in last night's win over the Mets and in discussing the Nats' offensive surge, Nationals' manager Davey Johnson pointed to the left-handed bat in the middle of their lineup as part of the reason Washington's turned it on.
"We've got a lot of guys that are very strong," Johnson told reporters after a game in which Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Kurt Suzuki hit home runs, "And they're learning to be good hitters. [Zimmerman] is already a great hitter, but I think he's fully over that shoulder injury, I mean, that ball tonight was crushed, one of the hardest hit balls I've seen, but look up and down our lineup there are a lot of guys that have a bunch homers." The Nats' skipper said it was a combination of some hitters improving at the plate and some getting back to 100% after dealing with injuries. "From last year, [Danny] Espinosa's having a much better year this year. He's a much better hitter this year. He handles more balls in the zone. Doesn't chase out of the zone. [Desmond] is the same way. The one guy that has not quite reached... is [Michael] Morse. Morse is, because of the injury and down time, he's not quite where he needs to be. But he'll get there."
But one big difference Johnson pointed to was the presence of Adam LaRoche in the middle of the Nats' lineup. "We've also got our cleanup hitter in there," the manager said, referring to the Nats' left-handed hitting first baseman, "And he takes a lot of heat off everybody. And he's having an unbelievable year. He should be in the MVP consideration." Following last night's win in New York, the 32-year-old veteran of nine MLB seasons had 29 doubles, 29 HRs, 92 RBIs and a .270/.342/.507 line in a year in which he's at a career-high +3.1 fWAR. Whether or not you consider LaRoche a viable MVP candidate, he's bounced back nicely from an injury-shortened 2011 campaign and made the Nationals think hard about picking up his option for the 2013 season according to several recent reports.
LaRoche signed for 2-years/$16M dollars back on January 4, 2011. The mutual option in the deal would pay LaRoche $10M dollars in 2013, but there's also a $1M dollar buyout. ESPN.com's Jayson Stark quoted sources last Friday in the most recent "Rumblings and Grumblings" column who said that the Nationals are considering their options:
"According to an official of one team that spoke with the Nationals, they've kicked around the idea of hanging on to LaRoche and keeping Bryce Harper in center, or signing Michael Bourn this winter, shifting Harper to a corner and trading Michael Morse."
The ESPN.com writer speculates that the decision could hinge on what the Nationals think of 2011 1st Round pick Anthony Rendon's development. But they'll have to make a decision on LaRoche before they see what the unproven and oft-injured former Rice third baseman does in the Arizona Fall League after an injury-shortened 2012 campaign. If they believe Rendon is a year away, Mr. Stark reasons, they could pick up the option and keep LaRoche around for another year, but it is a mutual option so LaRoche could opt out if he thinks his bounceback campaign could pay off on the FA market.
CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman spoke to D.C. GM Mike Rizzo about LaRoche last week and the general manager who signed him to replace Adam Dunn at first after he let Dunn walk and turned the compensation picks into highly-regarded prospects Alex Meyer and Brian Goodwin, told the reporter he's been impressed with LaRoche and a source said the team team would like to keep him around. "'He's a terrific player. He's probably been our most consistent player,'" Rizzo said. "'We love having him as a player on the club," Rizzo told the CBSSports' reporter, "'He's exactly the player we thought he was.'" Mr. Heyman says in the article that it will likely have to be longer than a one-year deal since he thinks LaRoche is, "... almost sure to decline after his brilliant season for the surprise first-place team."
FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal too is hearing from sources that the Nationals would like to keep LaRoche beyond the end of the 2012 campaign. If LaRoche declines the option, Mr. Rosenthal speculates that the first baseman could potentially, "... command a three-year deal in the $33 million to $36 million range," on the FA market. The bow-tied FOXSports' reporter says, however, that if LaRoche declines the option, the Nationals have alternatives to giving him a longer-term deal with Morse, Tyler Moore and potentially Ryan Zimmerman (w/ Rendon mentioned again) moving over to first in the future.
As ESPN.com's Mr. Stark notes, the Nationals have until 72 hours after the World Series ends to make a decision, but the season LaRoche has put together thus far is making it a tough one.