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Offseason Plan: Deciding whether to pick up Adam LaRoche's contract option

Before we truly get down to the offseason wish list, the Nationals have decisions to make on two players that have contract options for next season. Let's start today by determining whether or not the Nationals should exercise Adam LaRoche's $15 million option for 2015.

As we look towards 2015, the Nationals have some decisions to make.  Is it worthwhile to exercise Adam LaRoche's 2015 option?
As we look towards 2015, the Nationals have some decisions to make. Is it worthwhile to exercise Adam LaRoche's 2015 option?
Patrick Smith

With the Nationals' season over, it's time to start looking ahead to 2015.  Several players from the 2014 roster will see their contracts expire shortly after the World Series.  This list of players includes:

  • Rafael Soriano (contract option would have vested with 120 GF in two years. He ended up with 106 GF)
  • Asdrubal Cabrera
  • Nate Schierholtz
  • Scott Hairston

I'll be putting up an overview with some ideas about what the Nats should try to do in the coming weeks, but first we're going to tackle two of the more questions that Mike Rizzo has to answer heading into the offseason.  The Nationals have contract options with two players from their 2014 squad:

  • Adam LaRoche
  • Denard Span

From a baseball and financial standpoint, these seem like fairly simple decisions.  Yesterday, Patrick asked the question of whether Denard Span will be back in a Nats uniform next season.  I'll spend more time dissecting that issue at some point in the next few days.  Today we're going to focus on whether or not the Nationals should keep Adam LaRoche.  First, some details about his option:

  • LaRoche has a mutual option for next season, which means that both parties must agree to exercise the option in order for it to kick in
  • His option is for $15 million
  • There is a $2 million buyout if the Nats choose not to exercise the option

When you factor in the buyout, Mike Rizzo has a $13 million decision to make about Adam LaRoche.  We're going to answer a few questions regarding that $13 million decision.

  1. Is Adam LaRoche worth $13 million for next season?
  2. Do the Nationals have internal options that could adequately (or better) replace LaRoche?
  3. Could the Nationals better allocate that $13 million if they choose not to exercise the option?
Is Adam LaRoche worth $13 million for 2015?

Let's start by saying that one of the problems with free agents is that they often expect to be paid based on what they have done rather than what they can reasonably be expected to do over the life of the contract.  With that said, let's take a look at what LaRoche has done in his four seasons since originally signing with the Nats.  We'll also look at what Steamer projects from him in 2015.

2011 31 177 .172 .288 .258 3 15 15 1 .258 58 -0.2 -8.9 0.6 -0.3 -0.2
2012 32 647 .271 .343 .510 33 76 100 1 .361 127 -4.2 16.2 -5.1 3.3 4.1
2013 33 590 .237 .332 .403 20 70 62 4 .321 102 -0.8 0.7 -13.3 0.5 0.9
2014 34 586 .259 .362 .455 26 73 92 3 .356 127 -5.5 12.5 -15.4 1.6 2.2
2015 (Steamer) 35 630 .249 .344 .437 25 76 83 2 .342 118 -3.5 9.1 -10.5 1.9

Before we take a look at what Steamer projects, let's point you to Beyond the Box Score for a look at some general aging curves.  We're going to use a graph that shows that all players don't follow the same typical rate of decline.

LaRoche never quite fit the "Young Old Guys" criteria, as he didn't reach the majors until age 25 and peaked at 27.  However, he's always been a player with an "Old Guy" skill-set.  He's not the dramatic three true outcomes type of player that Adam Dunn or Ryan Howard are, but he's always walked a lot (10.3% career), struck out a lot (21.8% caeer), and has hit 20+ homers in every healthy season he's had since 2005.  I could say that this is a skill-set that doesn't necessarily age as poorly as most average players, but Dunn (born just three days after LaRoche) is about to retire... Howard (born just thirteen days after LaRoche) has declined so rapidly that he'd probably consider retiring if the Phillies didn't still owe him $60 million (2 years at $25 million each plus a $10 million buyout on his 2017 option).  Maybe LaRoche's skills could erode more than the graph above would indicate.

Looking at what Steamer projects

First off, Steamer's projection system seems to be assuming some positive regression with the glove (-10.5 Def vs. -15.4 this season).  I don't think that can really be trusted.  By UZR/150, LaRoche's defense has declined three years running (+13.7, +5.8, -2.0, -5.2).  As he'll turn 35 next season, the reason that his defense is trending in the wrong direction is most likely due to some age-related decline.  Maybe that rebounds next season (as his bat did in 2014), but the likelihood is that his glovework isn't going to improve.

Steamer expects some minor regression with the bat (12.5 to 9.1).  While the average player with LaRoche's skill-set doesn't tend to see his skills erode as quickly as a typical MLB player that age, the best case scenario is probably that he repeats 2014.  He appeared to be showing signs of age-related decline with the bat in 2013, when both his batting average (.237) and ISO (.166) cratered to career lows (ignoring the injury-plagued month and a half in 2011).  He then bounced back in 2014 to have a fine year.  I don't know that I'd like to call 2014 LaRoche's last gasp, but it's hard to picture him having a better season than that for the rest of his career.

WAR isn't the only way to evaluate a player.  It may not even be the best way to evaluate a player.  It does take everything a player does and try to place a value on their total contributions on a baseball field.  The free agent value of 1 WAR figures to be somewhere between $6 and $7 million (I see $6.5 tossed around pretty frequently), so if the Nats were to attempt to sign a player for $13 million on the open market, they would probably be hoping to get at least a two win player.  Steamer's projection (which seems a tad optimistic) has LaRoche as a 1.9 WAR player for next season.  A one year, $13 million deal doesn't seem to be ridiculous, but it seems a tad high.

Internal Options

Depending upon how you feel about where Ryan Zimmerman can play (I know that some of the fanbase believes that he can still play third base.. I love the guy, but those days are gone), the Nats appear to have a surplus in the outfield.  We learned earlier this season that Ryan Zimmerman has an arthritic shoulder.  The throwing issues (and the pain that ensues when he has to make that throw from third) aren't going to magically go away.  Moving Ryan Zimmerman either to the outfield or first base on a permanent basis isn't just going to cut down on the Nationals' throwing errors at third base.. it's also the best chance to keep Zimmerman healthy and in the lineup.  If the Nats were to decide to move Zimmerman to the outfield, Jayson Werth could be a candidate to move to first base.

Internal options at first base:

  • Ryan Zimmerman
  • Jayson Werth
  • Steven Souza Jr.
  • Tyler Moore
  • Matt Skole

We can pretty much cross Skole (needs more seasoning, didn't have a great year at AA) off that list.  The same goes for Moore, who struggled (in the majors) in his second season in 2013 and didn't really impress either at AAA or in the majors in 2014.  Given Souza's lack of big league experience and the fact that he hasn't played the infield (first base) since 2011 in Potomac, he looks like either a trade chip or a backup outfielder on the 2015 roster.  Assuming that the Nats pick up Span's option (more on that in a few days), either Zimmerman or Werth are going to have to find a place to play.

The Nats are locked into paying Werth $63 million through 2017.  They're locked into paying Zimmerman $76 million through 2019 (that includes the $2 million buyout on his $18 million option for 2020).  Given the choice, I'd rather have an infielder (Zimmerman) stay on the infield rather than moving him to the outfield so that an outfielder (Werth) can play the infield.  Ryan Zimmerman will be the Nationals first baseman in 2015.  In terms of Offensive Runs Above Average, LaRoche's best season in his four years with the Nats was 2012 (16.2).  Zimmerman has had a higher Offensive RAA in four of the past six seasons (the only two where he didn't saw him spend multiple stints on the disabled list).

Could the Nationals better allocate that $13 million?

I don't believe that Zimmerman can play third base, which means that I think that the Nationals will either need to sign/trade for a second baseman or a third baseman.  Anthony Rendon's flexibility gives them the option of either choosing one of those positions to fill or going with an internal option (as hscer puts it, RSOD [Right Side Only Danny Espinosa]).  The second base class doesn't look all that interesting.  There are a few big name third basemen (Pablo Sandoval, Chase Headley, Aramis Ramirez) that will hit the market.

The Nationals will also be interested in trying to sign extensions with some of their players who will be eligible for free agency after next season (specifically Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann, and Tyler Clippard).  While it's going to take significantly more than $13 million to lock any of those players up long-term, not spending $13 million on LaRoche when they have other (better?) internal options to fill that position would seem to be prudent.

Exercise the option?

Not a chance.  He's on the fringe of being worth $13 million (if he were signing as a free agent) for next season, though the likelihood is that he'll be worth a bit less.  The Nats have comparable options to replace him; in fact, they have better ones.  They also have plenty of other areas where they could spend that $13 million.  Thanks for your time with the Nats Adam.  You were an important part of two NL East Champs.  Good luck in the future.

Do the Nats give him a Qualifying Offer if they don't pick up the option

No.  Again, this is a mutual option.  My feeling is that if the Nats were to agree to pick up the option, LaRoche would gladly stick around.  He's probably going to get a contract in the 2 year/$20 million range on the open market, so 1/$15 would be every bit as valuable.  Just as I think LaRoche would accept the option if the Nats did, I think that he would accept the Qualifying Offer if they extended one.  This season, Qualifying Offers have increased to $15.3 million, so for the Nats to extend a QO to LaRoche, they would have to spend $2 million on the buyout and then offer him $15.3 million on top of it.  He would be insane to turn that down.  They're going to lose him and they're not going to get a draft pick back.... Oh well.

Addressing the name change

In non-baseball news, I've decided to say goodbye to the bluelineswinger moniker.  I decided late in the year that if I was going to start writing more often, I was going to say goodbye to hiding behind a nickname.  Since most of you know me as bluelineswinger, I decided that I would wait until the end of the season to avoid confusion when I commented during game threads, etc.  If you're too used to calling me bluelineswinger, blue, or BLS, that's fine... I'll still answer to it.

In order to say goodbye to the bluelineswinger nickname properly, I've decided to post the video for the song which made me choose that nickname so many years ago.  It's off of the indie rock band Yo La Tengo's album Electr-O-Pura.  It won't be for everyone and (much like my posts sometimes) it's long.  It starts off slowly and I love the way that the momentum builds throughout the song.  Ira Kaplan's guitar solo blows me away while Georgia Hubley's vocals are lovely and ethereal.

There's some hockey love to the moniker as well, though the FBB regulars who also frequent Japers' Rink won't see me there very often.  You'd be more likely to find me here.  As division rivals, the Devils and Caps will play five times. Maybe I'll drop over at Japers' Rink for one or two of them.