By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 12:07 AM
Ever since early this fall, when the Washington Nationals and General Manager Mike Rizzo determined Adam Dunn's defensive shortcomings at first base made his asking price too high, they knew they would enter 2011 with a new face patrolling first base. On Tuesday night, they found their next first baseman.
The Nationals finalized a two-year deal with an option for a third year with slick-fielding Adam LaRoche, who last season hit 25 home runs and drove in 100 runs for the Arizona Diamondbacks. The deal is contingent upon a physical later this week. LaRoche, the best remaining free agent at the position, is a decided defensive upgrade over Dunn. Like most players, he is not in Dunn's class offensively.
LaRoche will make $15 million in the first two years of his contract, $7 million this season and $8 million the next. He and the Nationals have a mutual option for 2013. If LaRoche stays with the Nationals, he'll make $10 million.
The Nationals, though, could buy him out for $1 million instead. In effect, LaRoche will make $16 million over two years or $25 million over three.
Last season, LaRoche had a .261 batting average, a .320 on-base percentage and slugged .468. In his eight-year career, mostly with the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates, LaRoche has hit .271/.339./.488 with an average of 26 home runs and 93 RBI per 162 games.
"You have a lot of confidence with every throw that's going over there," said former Nationals closer Matt Capps, a teammate of LaRoche's in Pittsburgh. "You can throw it 10 feet short, 10 inches short, 20 feet short, he's going to pick it every time. That's another good sign for Washington."
LaRoche's offensive numbers align with league average statistics for a first baseman, but he meets Rizzo's qualifications as a strong defensive player. Last season, LaRoche posted a 5.2 UZR, short for ultimate zone rating, an advanced fielding metric devised by the Web site FanGraphs.com. LaRoche ranked third in that category among major league first basemen, behind only Daric Barton of the Oakland Athletics and Ike Davis of the New York Mets.
Most everyone in baseball expected LaRoche would land with the Nationals after Derrek Lee agreed to a one-year contract offer with the Baltimore Orioles on Friday. The Nationals had pursued Lee, as well as Carlos Pena, who signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs in December.
LaRoche, 31, was regarded as the best free agent first baseman available, and the Nationals, after losing Dunn to the Chicago White Sox in free agency, were the team most in need of a first baseman. The music had stopped playing, and only one chair remained.
While LaRoche may not be able to replace Dunn's offensive production, he should help fill the void Dunn left in the clubhouse. Teammates have raved about LaRoche at every stop. LaRoche, like Dunn, is easygoing and easy to like; he and Dunn, incidentally, are close friends.
"He'll fit in great in the clubhouse," Capps said. "If you can't get along with Adam LaRoche, you probably don't have a heartbeat. He plays hard and gives everything he has every night. What you see is what you get."
With LaRoche in the fold, the Nationals rounded out their starting lineup. Their next target will be a veteran to fill the remaining vacancy on their bench, likely a utility player. The Nationals have been in touch with Willie Harris, their own free agent.
Willie Bloomquist, who has played every position but catcher in his career, could also be a target.