When the Washington Nationals introduced then-28-now-29-year-old Cuban-born right-hander Yunesky Maya to the nation's capital last July he was presented by D.C. GM Mike Rizzo as the first "major international signing" the Nats had made since Rizzo took over as general manager and restructured the Nats' front office. When Jayson Werth was introduced earlier this Winter, Mr. Rizzo said the 31-year-old outfielder was an example of the sort of, "... impact elite type of free agent that we would like to acquire that would help us not only in the short term but in the long-term, not only in the clubhouse but in the community." Werth, according to the Nationals' GM, "[exemplified] Phase 2 of the Washington Nationals' process," of building a team that would, "compete for Division titles and championships."
This afternoon, the Nats are set to introduce 31-year-old seven-year MLB vet Adam LaRoche to Nats fans and the D.C. press corps...
The one-time Atlanta Braves' Draft pick selected in the 29th Round of the 2000 Draft as part of the first class of picks overseen by then-Braves' Scouting Director Roy Clark, who's now the Nationals' Assistant GM and VP of Player Personnel, was not the Nationals' first choice as a replacement for Adam Dunn. Washington was reportedly interested in free agent first baseman Carlos Pena, once it was clear Dunn was going to move on. The Nats also expressed interest in former Cubs and Braves' first baseman Derrek Lee before he signed in Baltimore. LaRoche and the Nationals, it would seem, were drawn together more by circumstance, with the Nats desperate to replace Dunn with a first baseman with power and LaRoche left with few options after most teams in search of a first baseman had acquired or signed other options.
Whether or not LaRoche, who signed a 2-year/$16M dollar deal with Washington, is part of the Nationals' future, or a stopgap until they develop their own first baseman or find an alternative more in line with their plans to field a competitive team in year '12 or '13 as many have speculated and predicted is their goal, is unclear, and likely won't be discussed this afternoon. But the player the Nationals are getting, who played for the Arizona Diamonbacks in 2010 on a 1-year/$6 million dollar deal, compiling a .261/.320/.468 slash line with 37 doubles, a predictable 25 HR's and career-high 100 RBI's with a +1.2 (Baseball-Reference.com) or +2.1 (Fangraphs.com) WAR value and a +4.8 UZR/150 at first, is expected to provide stability for a young often error-prone infield. LaRoche, considered a strong defender, (and seen by most as a significant improvement defensively at first over Adam Dunn) made 11 errors last season and finished the year with a .991 fld%. Over the course of his seven-year major league career, LaRoche has put up a combined .271/.339/.488 slash line with 40 doubles, 26 HR's and 93 RBI's on average every 162 games games played, with a .995 career fld% and -2.6 UZR/150 as a first baseman at the major league level.
Before he made his major league debut in April '04, LaRoche, then 24, told MLB.com writer Mark Bowman, in an article entitled, "LaRoche had no doubts", that even though he refused to be drafted as a pitcher and defiantly waited for a team that would take him as a position player, he always knew he'd play major league ball:
"'I've never, ever had a doubt that I could play [in the Majors],' LaRoche said. 'In high school, I really didn't try [academically]. I just tried to get it over with and get by with my C's and D's. Not that I could have done a whole lot better. But I really never took school serious, because I knew I didn't need it for baseball.'"
Did we forget to say LaRoche is confident? (ed. note - "Though the whole I'm not going to study, I'm a future major leaguer act is not a Federal Baseball.com-approved approach to education.") Chipper Jones told the MLB.com writer that LaRoche had every reason to have been confident in that same article by Mr. Bowman, explaining that, ""If I had his swing," which Chipper said was the organization's best, two years running, "'I would hit .350 every year.'" Five years later, when the Braves reacquired LaRoche at the '09 Non-Waiver Trade Deadline, the face of the Braves' franchise praised LaRoche's defensive game, telling MLB.com's Mark Bowman in an article entitled, "Braves reacquire LaRoche from Sox", that LaRoche was a "slick fielding" first baseman:
"'He's as slick as they come. He's got great hands over there, and he's very fluid. He just looks like a great defender.'"
LaRoche doesn't have Adam Dunn's power. He doesn't have Nick Johnson's discerning eye or Carlos Pena's Gold Glove, but as Arizona Republic writer Nick Piecoro, who followed LaRoche with the D-Backs last year, told MASNSports.com's Byron Kerr recently in an article entitled, "Arizona writer: LaRoche 'so natural and so smooth' at first base", LaRoche could be a significant improvement at first for the Nats:
"'I don't think he is a Gold Glove first basemen. You mentioned scooping balls out of the dirt. I think he was a big reason why Mark Reynolds' errors decreased pretty significantly from 2009 to 2010. That is the thing I noticed first about his defense is how good he is at saving his fielders errors over there.'"
Less production than Dunn, but less errors from the infield? Give fans of Adam Dunn time, they may grow to accept this...What? I said, "may"....