Adam LaRoche, Mike Rizzo talk contract

(Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Adam LaRoche ambled toward his cart and clubs Saturday morning, ready to hit the driving range at Davey Johnson’s charity golf tournament. Sitting in his own cart, Johnson spotted LaRoche and saw a chance to continue his winter-long recruiting spiel. “Is your hand cramped up?” Johnson asked. He meant from signing a contract with the Nationals.

LaRoche had not reached that point. But he had spent the previous night at a pre-tournament party talking about his future with Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo. LaRoche and Rizzo shared an amicable, open conversation that lasted 30 or 40 minutes, LaRoche said, a meeting that allowed both parties to lay out their stances on LaRoche re-signing with the Nationals as a free agent.

The Nationals want LaRoche to come back, and LaRoche wants to stay in Washington. The sides did not necessarily move any closer to making that immediately happen, though. Rizzo explained to LaRoche why the Nationals want to re-sign to a two-year deal. LaRoche outlined why he believes his Silver Slugger and Gold Glove season should net him a three-year deal. Both LaRoche and Rizzo will move forward with a full understanding of where the other stands.

“To be honest, it’s a years thing now,” LaRoche said. “I think they’re really wanting to stick to two years. I’m trying to talk them into lengthening that. To be honest, probably just one year. I’m not looking for four or five. I understand I’m 33 years old.

“I can’t say it moved forward. We understand each other a lot more now. I think he understands where I’m coming from. He understands I want to be there, kind of my argument for three years not being unreasonable. So, I don’t know.”

Rizzo explained to LaRoche why he wanted to cap the Nationals’ offer at two years. The Nationals will have a clogged infield once top prospect Anthony Rendon arrives. They will also have to make significant financial commitments in upcoming years to Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and a bevy of other homegrown players.

LaRoche requested the meeting “to make sure nothing got lost in translation” between Rizzo and his agent, Mike Milchin of the SFX agency. LaRoche typically steers way clear of negotiation, preferring to spend his winter with his cell phone off and a hunting bow in his hands. But with Rizzo, he felt comfortable with a face-to-face meeting.

“It was great,” LaRoche said. “It’s cool with Rizz. I think we can both open up and be really honest and not have to play the game of keeping everything close to the vest. I think we’re both a little bit past that. I’ve got too much respect for him to try to B.S. him through this, and I think he’s the same way.”

They left the meeting, LaRoche said, with the understanding that nothing had to be settled quickly. “I don’t think they’re going anywhere,” LaRoche said. “He didn’t say, hey, you got a week to do this or you’re out of the equation. Which is good. We continue to plug away at it and see if anything changes.”

The Nationals gave themselves options in regard to LaRoche when they traded Thursday for center fielder Denard Span. If LaRoche signs elsewhere, the Nationals can shift Michael Morse from left field – now occupied by Bryce Harper or Jayson Werth – to first base. If the re-sign LaRoche, they can trade Morse. They could even trade Morse, anyway, and give first base to rookie Tyler Moore.

But LaRoche has options, too. He has heard from several teams, including the Red Sox, Rangers, Mariners and Rays. None of those talks have advanced past an early stage. But LaRoche is considered the best available free agent first baseman, and the crop behind him is thin.

“We’re listening,” LaRoche said. “I’m not making calls. But we’re definitely listening to calls from other teams. I don’t know if it’ll take a firm, hard offer from another team to get the Nationals to move. Talking to Rizz, he’s a pretty straight shooter, they’re pretty adamant on not flexing past two years.”

LaRoche made it clear, as he has since late in the regular season, that he still wants to stay in Washington. If he receives a three-year offer from another team, he would not automatically sign there.

“It would make it tough, depending on the team,” LaRoche said. “I spent some years in Pittsburgh where they were really struggling, and that was not a fun summer. I don’t want to get into a situation where we’ve got no chance. I don’t want three years where it’s rebuilding, and all of a sudden I’m out of the game and finished on three rough years.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that. I hope we come to the conclusion that both sides are happy with it, let’s go.”

After spending two years in Washington, LaRoche’s family loves the area, and he has become close to several players in the Nationals’ clubhouse. His demeanor fits the room as well as his quick hands fit at first base. Last year, when Bryce Harper needed company as other players went to over-21 establishments on road trips, LaRoche was one of the teammates who tagged along.

On Friday night at Johnson’s party, Harper greeted LaRoche with a bear hug. Harper joked with Johnson that if the Nationals don’t sign LaRoche, they need to at least bring back Drake, LaRoche’s 10-year-old son.

Perhaps most of all, LaRoche likes to play for Johnson. LaRoche sticks to his ranch in Kansas in the offseason, but he jumped at the chance to come to Orlando. Johnson hosted the First Annual Davey Johnson Celebrity Invitational to benefit Lighthouse Central Florida, a cause dear to him. Johnson and his wife, Susan, raised Jake Allen, Susan’s son from another marriage who was deaf and blind. Jake received constant support from Lighthouse. He died in 2011 from a virus in his lungs.

“This is straight for Davey,” LaRoche said. “When my wife got the invitation, I was like, ‘Well, whatever the date is, let’s go.’ There’s a lot of these that go on through the year. You can’t do all of them. This is one I said, ‘We need to show up and support what he’s into.’ I’m glad. This is a nice break from hunting for a couple days.”

Johnson was not shy about wanting LaRoche to come in order to see Rizzo. When he addressed the crowd at the Friday night party, he thanked LaRoche for coming. Then Johnson said, “Adam LaRoche, Mike Rizzo, get together!”

They did. They talk couldn’t get LaRoche to put to paper, as Johnson hoped. But they at least made progress.

“It was great,” LaRoche said. “There was nothing in that conversation that upset anyone of us. We were both just totally open about expectations. We realize that we still got a little bit of time here.”

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