If the people making the decisions in the Nationals' front office think like ESPN.com's Buster Olney and the people he talks to, it's easy to see why Washington has kept the option of bringing Adam LaRoche back in 2013 open in spite of the 33-year-old infielder's expressed desire for a three-year deal the Nats are reportedly unwilling to offer, preferring another two-year deal for significantly more ($25M?) than the $16M LaRoche signed for in 2011. In his recent rankings of the top infields, offenses, lineups, rotations and bullpens, the ESPN analyst ranked the Nationals as the 8th best defensive infield in the majors, while noting that if LaRoche returns to the nation's capital (as "industry speculation" Mr. Olney cites says he will) the Nats have a Top 5 defense with the Gold Glove-winning first baseman receiving throws from Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa around the infield.
The Nationals were ranked as the second-best team overall in the majors by Mr. Olney in another article in which he quoted scouts who expressed concerns about the makeup of Washington's bullpen and the lineup's lack of left-handed power, which could be easily solved by bringing LaRoche back. Michael Morse, the backup option at first, and a potential trade candidate if LaRoche signs, kills left-handed hitting, of course, with a .303/.357/.503 line against LHPs and a .292/.343/.487 line against RHPs to LaRoche's .274/.348/.495 career line against right-handers and his .250/.305/.455 line against lefties. LaRoche's numbers come over nine seasons, 1,186 games and 4,669 plate appearances, while Morse, due to injuries, circumstances and other issues has played just 485 games, making 1,690 plate appearances over eight major league seasons.
Morse is three years younger than LaRoche though, with a .294/.343/514 line with the Nationals over four seasons and 1,353 of his 1,690 career plate appearances, and he's hit 68 doubles and 67 HRs in 378 games over that stretch, though he's continued to struggle with injuries. LaRoche's consistency and predictability were cited by the Nats' GM as a major factor in their decision to sign him back in 2011, and finally healthy after an injury-shortened season of his own in the first year of his deal in D.C., LaRoche exceeded the general manager's expectations for what he might provide offensively with a career-high 33 HRs and a .271/.343/.510 line in a 2012 season which he finished at a career-best +3.8 fWAR.
Morse finished at +0.3 fWAR in a 2012 campaign which started late due to a lat issue and was interrupted by injuries to his wrist/hand, though he managed to hit 17 doubles and 18 HRs in 102 games over which he had a .292/.321/.470 line. With LaRoche out of the lineup for most of 2011, Morse had a +3.3 fWAR season in Washington, hitting 36 doubles and 31 HRs with a .303/.360/.550 line over a career-high 146 games and 575 PAs.
As ESPN.com's Mr. Olney notes in his article on the Top 10 lineups in the majors, whether it's Morse or LaRoche at first the Nationals are going to have a "complete" lineup which he ranks as the fifth-best in baseball and the third-best in the National League.
So neither side is in a rush to make a decision, with LaRoche unwilling to give in on his demands for a three-year deal and the Nationals refusing to offer more than two. What options does the 2012 Gold Glove and Silver Slugger-winning infielder have? Yahoo!Sports.com's Tim Brown wrote this week that LaRoche is the Boston Red Sox' "Plan B" should their deal with Mike Napoli fall apart and end with the free agent rumored to have a 3-year/$39M dollar deal pending with the Sox once again a free agent because of a hip issue that has held up an official agreement. The Sox would also forfeit their 2nd Round pick if they signed LaRoche but would lose no picks if the deal with Napoli was completed, another reason they're reportedly reluctant to go for LaRoche.
"The team's preference is Napoli over LaRoche, both for the preserved draft pick and the right-handed power bat," Yahoo!Sports.com's Mr. Brown writes, and if they don't get either of them they could always trade for Michael Morse he adds, "... assuming the Washington Nationals eventually come to agreement with LaRoche." Davey Johnson dismissed the idea of keeping both players on the roster earlier this winter, telling reporters, including NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman, that it's tough, "... 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."
Should the Nationals lose/allow LaRoche to sign elsewhere they'll receive a compensatory pick in this year's draft as a result of offering the free-agent-to-be a 1-year/$13.3M dollar qualifying offer which the infielder turned down. Michael Morse is signed at a reasonable $6.75M this year after which he too hits free agency and could bring another draft pick to an organization interested in rebuilding pitching depth. A trade of Morse, who was acquired in a straight-up deal for Ryan Langerhans could do the same for the Nationals.
Everyone's cards are on the table. In talking about the decision to shut Stephen Strasburg down, to beat another horse which if not dead is in mortal danger of expiring, Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo said that he thought he'd been honest throughout the process and he told reporters, including ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick, once Strasburg was shut down that he'd done it that way because, "'I was always taught, 'Be frank and forthright, and tell the truth and everything will be OK.' We told the truth going as far back as last winter. There was never any deception over what we were going to do and when we were going to do it." The Nationals have taken the same approach to this winter's drama.
In an early November article by MLB.com's Bill Ladson, the GM endorsed the free agent's decision to get a look at the market, suggesting that, "'... it will show him and I what his true value is in the market, and we'll see if there's a fit for us.'" When the two sides met at a charity golf event organized by Davey Johnson (who's openly campaigned for the team to sign the FA 1B), LaRoche told the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore that the Nationals' General Manager, "... explained to LaRoche why he wanted to cap the Nationals’ offer at two years," citing the potential for the arrival of Anthony Rendon creating a logjam in the infield and in other interviews noting the presence of Tyler Moore on the major league roster and 2012 Minor League Player of the Year Matt Skole in the organization as reasons not to commit to too long a deal with a 33-year-old infielder, especially when players like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are likely to command big dollars in the not-too-distant future.
Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell, after putting Morse's production in Washington in historical perspective, said in a chat with readers last week that it was time to give "... the Beast SOME RESPECT around here," while noting that should LaRoche sign, it would be nice to have everyone (LaRoche, Morse, Moore) on the roster as they were in 2012, but, "After what [Morse has] done for three years, you can't say, 'Go sit on the bench. And smile.'" Though Morse has expressed some discomfort with the chatter through social media platforms, in a chat earlier this winter, the WaPost reporter said Morse should take it as a compliment, "... that the Nats are so comfortable with him as their 1st baseman that they aren't moving off two years for LaRoche."
The Nats' GM has stated publicly, in an MLB Network Radio interview, that he's perfectly comfortable with Morse at first, which is probably, "... [Morse's] most comfortable defensive position where he plays defense very well. Not Adam LaRoche-caliber, but very well." It's a week into January and there's still no decision... there could be worse problems... Like where will the Nats get that left-handed reliever? If they feel they need one...