Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Adam LaRoche gives Washington Nationals their best shot in 2013

Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON POST - Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, above, has the first baseman he wants in Adam LaRoche.

With the signing of Adam LaRoche this week, the Washington Nationals have probably made the last significant move of their offseason, aside from trading Michael Morse, who now has no position, for a prospect or reliever.

Have the Nationals, once they deal away the popular Beast, taken a step backward, lost part of their swagger and team chemistry? Or have the Nats actually tightened screws, smoothed the last edges of a juggernaut?

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The Post Sports Live crew discusses the Nationals’ signing of free agent starting pitcher Dan Haren.

The Post Sports Live crew discusses the Nationals’ signing of free agent starting pitcher Dan Haren.

Nationals Journal

Nationals Journal

Insight on the Nationals and all the latest news from Post reporters Adam Kilgore and James Wagner.

The first is possible; the latter tantalizing enough to fill all 32 days until pitchers and catchers report. First, let’s look at the likely loss of Morse.

“This whole Denard Span, Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse thing really doesn’t sit well with me,” Jack Berlien, a Nats fan, e-mailed me. “The Nats are now interested in trading Morse for a minor league pitcher; maybe Minnesota would trade Alex Meyer back to the Nats. That would be a net effect of trading Morse for Span. To me that is a net negative. And Span’s stats are no better than [Roger] Bernadina’s. I don’t get it.”

It’s not easy to get. At one level, the Nats’ whole offseason comes down to Morse for Span, plus replacing Edwin Jackson with Dan Haren. Does it make sense to swap a left fielder with a .295 career average and 30-homer power for a center fielder with a .284 career average and five-homer power?

Span is a fine defender, but he gets on base only occasionally more often than Morse (.357 to .347 career on-base percentage). He gives the Nats a conventional lefty leadoff man and a typical swift center fielder. But what’s so good about conventional? The Nats won 98 games with an atypical outfield of sluggers.

Why switch Bryce Harper’s bat out of center field, a spot he loves and where he was an all-star at 19? Why not find out if he’s Mickey Mantle? If you need a Span-type, isn’t Bernadina, also 28, close enough?

The Nats’ analysis may not be correct. It’s largely informed by advanced stats, plus eyeball valuations of Span’s defense. Lets keep it simple: We’ve got a WAR on our hands — as in, “wins above replacement.” It’s great theory. It’s also faddish. Depending on method, Span averages 3.2 or 3.3 WAR in his five years. Last year, he was 3.9 or 4.8 — a $15-million-plus player, if true.

Morse’s average WAR in three years as a Nat was 1.7 or 1.6, depending on method, but just 0.9 or 0.3 last season. If WAR is roughly right, and it gives Span lots of credit for both base running and defense while penalizing Morse for both, then Span is a fabulous three-win-a-year upgrade over Morse. And he’s under team control for three years, instead of Morse’s one. Besides, if you set out to manufacture a player who was a stat-and-function clone of Morse, but five years younger and $6 million cheaper, it would be Tyler Moore.

But if the WAR stats, and General Manager Mike Rizzo, are wrong, we may see Span as an uninspiring version of Bernadina and wonder why wacky clubhouse favorite “Mikey Mo” is hitting 30 homers (and playing DJ) for somebody else.

Worry if you want. But the Nats are happy, very happy. And it’s because LaRoche, who seemed almost certain to leave, has dropped back into their laps because a confluence of market factors that muted his free agent value.

Last October in St. Louis, I asked Davey Johnson what his club would lack if he just had Stephen Strasburg at full strength for the playoffs. “Nothing,” Johnson replied. “We’re pretty much a complete team.”

But he didn’t have Strasburg. Few players had postseason experience. And while his club was aesthetically pleasing, he didn’t have any proven Hall of Famers — his players were very good, but their true greatness remained potential.

For his final season as a manager, Johnson had one wish: Bring back all the key parts of last season’s team. Don’t lose the balance, the interlocking pieces or the chemistry. Just tweak a bit, let time add the experience and put Strasburg at the head of the rotation to carry the psychological load.

LaRoche was the key. He was the piece that, in Johnson’s mind, glued the infield defense, put veteran left-handed power in the middle of the order and brought second-generation big league calm to the dugout. It’s not that LaRoche, 33, was great or was worth $40 million to a team loaded with future first basemen. But, man, would he pull the room together for this season.

Now, Johnson has his wish. As has been amusingly reported, Johnson may have courted LaRoche more than any Cooperstown-level manager ever ingratiated himself to a zero-time all-star. Johnson even texted LaRoche recently that he would come work on his ranch “to offset a third contract year.”

To Johnson, Span is a bonus that helps finish that “pretty much” complete team. Johnson worried that Jayson Werth would wear down if he had to bat leadoff all year as he did late in 2012. Johnson also wanted the flexibility to figure out where Werth and Harper might fit best in the order. Also, in the playoffs, the importance of manufacturing runs with speed increases. Now, with Span leading off, all that falls in place.

Until Tuesday, when LaRoche signed, this was still a team with questions. How much of the infield’s glitter last season was confidence instilled by LaRoche’s Gold Glove? Would the team feel it hadn’t been supported if ownership couldn’t keep a 100-RBI man who wanted to stay in D.C. and of whom Johnson said, “We need LaRoche back more than we need me back.”

The last time the Nats played, they suffered one of the toughest, or perhaps most toughening, defeats any team will ever face. The last thing they needed was to rework their identity. If Johnson, 70 this month, was ready to ride the range and fix busted fences in Kansas in January to sign LaRoche, then the smooth first baseman probably mattered to that Nationals identity more than any outsider knew.

Johnson already has hung “World Series or Bust” around his neck for his last season. At least now he gets to take his shot with his “complete team.”

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell.

 
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