Can Nationals' 1B Adam LaRoche Bounce Back From His 2013 Campaign?

USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals entered the 2013 season comfortable with Adam LaRoche at first backed up by Tyler Moore, but after rough seasons for each, first base is much more of a question mark as the Nats prepare for the 2014 campaign.

In addition to his well-documented issues keeping weight on throughout the 2013 campaign, Adam LaRoche missed the last few games of the season with what was described as a left bicep issue. When the season ended, the 34-year-old first baseman had surgery to remove loose bodies from his left elbow. How long was his elbow an issue?

In the first year of his second two-year deal in D.C., the Nationals' first baseman put up a .237/.332/.403 line with 19 doubles and 20 HRs in 152 games and 590 plate appearances over which he was worth +0.6 fWAR. In 2012, LaRoche helped the Nats to their first postseason berth and finished at a career-high +3.4 fWAR while posting a .271/.343/.510 line with 35 doubles and 33 HRs in 154 games and 647 PAs.

"You can look at their numbers consistently and you can more or less draw a conclusion of what [LaRoche] is going to bring offensively to the table." - Mike Rizzo on Adam LaRoche in January, 2011

In late September, Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo told reporters, including NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman, that there were flashes last season of the player they thought they were getting when they brought LaRoche back on a 2-year/$24M deal.

"'I think this year was an anomaly for him,'" Rizzo said. "'He showed streaks of being the Adam LaRoche that we all know.'"

A career .244/.300/.430 hitter against lefties, the 10-year veteran put up a .198/.254/.313 line vs left-handers in 2013 after posting a .268/.319/.506 vs left-handed pitchers in 2012. Though he's not quite the slow starter scouting reports still say he is after putting together strong starts in three of the past four seasons before last year (2009, 2010, 2012) including a .329/.415/.549 first month in 2012 in which he hit six doubles and four home runs in 21 games and 94 PAs, LaRoche did struggle in the month of April this past season. An 0 for 26 streak at the end of the month prompted manager Davey Johnson to consider sitting him, but LaRoche said that wouldn't help.

"It's just little things," the Nats' skipper explained. "His timing's a little off. Maybe his pitch selection is a little off, trying to make something happen. But he's a veteran hitter. He's a heck of a good player. He'll be fine. He'll come around."

Some help from his old friend Chipper Jones turned things around for LaRoche, who put together a .330/.416/.608 month of May, but it was up and down all season with a .287/.370/.437 line in June, a .159/.227/.284 line in July, a .233/.337/.400 line in August and finally a .265/.414/.397 line in the final month of the season.

"It's just one of those years," Johnson said. "You don't expect it. He's put the numbers up many times in the past. But... it's tough." - Davey Johnson on Adam LaRoche's 2013 campaign

LaRoche's .735 OPS was the lowest amongst qualified National League first basemen last season. His 103 wRC+ were next-to-last amongst qualified first basemen, ahead of only the Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo (102 wRC+) and down significantly from the 127 wRC+ LaRoche put up in 2012. LaRoche's .321 wOBA was the lowest he's put up in a full season in his MLB career down from a .361 wOBA the previous season. Defensively, LaRoche tied a career high in errors with 11, up from seven errors in 2012. His .991 fld% was down from .995 in 2012 and his Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR/150) fell from +3.5 and +5.8 in his two previous full seasons to -2.0 last season.

The Nationals traded Michael Morse after re-signing LaRoche last winter, with Rizzo telling reporters at the time that Tyler Moore presented a young, more controllable alternative to Morse. Moore struggled last season, however, starting slowly for the second straight year, but he returned from a minor league stint in mid-August to put together a strong stretch to end the season which saw him post a .344/.375/.429 line over the final 21 games and 65 plate appearances of his second major league season. Moore, 26, finished the season with a .222/.260/.347 line on the year, however, down from a .263/.327/.513 line in his rookie campaign.

Ryan Zimmerman is reportedly going to get some work in at first base this Spring with the goal to play 10-to-15 games there this season. Baseball America's Aaron Fitt had Matt Skole, 24, as the highest-ranked first baseman in the organization on the latest Top 10 Prospects list, but the 2011 5th Round pick played just two games at Double-A last season before suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left, non-throwing elbow.

The Nationals are counting on Adam LaRoche getting back to where he was in 2012 and being the consistent producer the Nats' GM said he was when he first signed the veteran infielder back in 2011. "Adam was a huge part of our success [in 2012]," Rizzo said last winter after bringing LaRoche back. "He does a lot of things for us. He balances our lineup. He's a middle of the lineup bat. He's a run producer. He's a terrific defensive player, and beyond that he's a great clubhouse presence and a quiet leader that's very, very well-respected in the clubhouse."

Can a healthy, 34-year-old LaRoche put together another season more in line with what he's done over the course of his 10-year career (.264/.337/.474)? Can Tyler Moore or Ryan Zimmerman spell LaRoche if he continues to struggle against tough lefties? Comfortable as the Nationals were with the situation at first heading into the season last winter, it's become one of the biggest questions for the Nats in 2014.

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