Late Monday night, at the end of his press conference, Manager Davey Johnson shifted the discussion, without prompting, to first baseman Adam LaRoche. “He should be in the MVP conversation,” Johnson said, choosing that moment to walk away from reporters.
This year, LaRoche has been the Nationals’ steadiest player. He ranks fourth in the National League in home runs with 29 and sixth with 92 RBI, and his .849 OPS leads the Nationals. He is one two regulars to miss no significant time with an injury. He has been the kind of player the Nationals want to have back next season, which is still an open question.
LaRoche’s season has made you forget what a question mark he was coming into the spring. Last year, LaRoche played 43 games and then underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left (throwing) shoulder. Now, in mid-September, LaRoche’s manager is stumping for him to win the MVP.
“It’s rewarding to me that I was a part of what our record is right now,” LaRoche said. “I was able to help out. I keep going back to last year. To sign a two-year deal somewhere, and you’re not able to do anything your first year with a new team, it’s kind of frustrating. To bounce back and to not only be healthy and playing, but to be a big part of it and hear stuff like that, whether its from your manager or your teammates or guys that recognize what’s going on, it’s always good to hear it.”
“Do I consider myself MVP-caliber? No,” LaRoche continued. “But I don’t know that anybody does. I don’t know that we ever sit down at the end of the year completely satisfied with the way things are going. Regardless what happens in the next few weeks, I’m going to look back and look at things I could have done better – some of the missed opportunities to drive runs in, some strikeouts, whatever it is. I guess it’s a good and a bad thing. You’re never probably totally satisfied with your year. But that’s what keeps driving us to compete every year.
LaRoche could still feel pain in his shoulder for the first two months this year, usually when he had to make an off-balance throw. But he said he hasn’t even thought about it for a month. Either way, he always thought he could respond this year with this kind of season.
“Absolutely,” LaRoche said. “It wasn’t about the time. It wasn’t about seeing pitches. It was more about, is my shoulder going to bounce back the way we think it is? Is this going to be something that lingers? Do we have to go back in and clean it up again, whatever. So far, I haven’t had a shoulder injury. It’s got to the point really in the last month of two, I don’t even think about it anymore. I don’t feel a thing.”
LaRoche is in the second season of a two-year, $16 million contract that contains a mutual option for 2013 worth $10 million. Both LaRoche and the Nationals would have to exercise the option for him to return under those terms.
The Nationals see LaRoche as a good fit in every way – at first base, in the middle of their lineup and in the clubhouse. They would want to bring LaRoche back especially for the one-year option, but they understand LaRoche could find a multi-year contract after his season.
LaRoche said he has thought “a little bit” about his situation next year, but has yet to talk with the Nationals about his contract. What he does know: After playing for five teams in a nine-year career, LaRoche would prefer to settle in Washington.
“I would love to stay,” LaRoche said. “I’m kind of getting tired of bouncing around. My kids enjoy it here. It might be nice to stay for a few more years. I have no idea what their long-term plans are. But I’d like to stick around.”
The Nationals and LaRoche would seem to have enough common ground to talk about a contract once the season ends. (The Nationals will wait until after the year to talk to LaRoche or any other possible extension candidate – like, for instance, Jordan Zimmermann – so as to distract them from the pennant race.) The sides would have until five days after the completion of the World Series to decline or exercise the options, which would be a window to work on a longer extension before LaRoche hits free agency.
“I can’t answer that now,” LaRoche said. “We’ll see where it is at the end of the year. I throw that on my agent – what’s the right move here? He knows loud and clear that I would like to stay in Washington. On the other hand, I’m not going to do something stupid where I turn down what could be two or three more extra years somewhere else.
“I’m not saying I would pick [the option] up or turn it down. All I’m saying is, I would like to stay for more than one year if possible.”
LaRoche has outperformed his 2010 season, the year he was coming off when he signed his current deal. He is also two years older. At 32, LaRoche has reached the stage when most players are slowly coming down from their peak seasons.
The Nationals would also have to weigh how LaRoche fits into the construction of their team. If they sign a center fielder like, say, Michael Bourn in free agency, then they would have to choose to between Morse and LaRoche at first base. (Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper will are set for the foreseeable future in two outfield spots.)
Morse, who has one year left after this season a two-year, $10 million deal, has power potential few in the majors can match and played a solid first base last year. LaRoche has a longer, more consistent track record than Morse and is one of the best defensive first basemen in the majors.
The Nationals may not have to make that choice, though. Harper has played center field at a high level this season, and in the minors, prospects Brian Goodwin, Eury Perez and Michael Taylor are all possible future center fielders. Not signing a free agent center fielder would allow the Nationals to keep both Morse and LaRoche while providing more financial flexibility.
For now, LaRoche is only concerned with finishing this season. He does not consider this anything like an aberration, or even the best individual year of his career.
“Even though I missed a year, I wasn’t concerned, ‘Is this the end of the road?’ ” LaRoche said. “I felt like after doing it enough years, there was really no question in my mind that I could come back and compete.
“I don’t look at a good year – say, a 100-and-30 year – as a fluke. If anything, I look at it like, ‘I missed a lot of opportunities out there.’ I went a month without hitting a home run. I’ll hit .280 with guys in scoring position. I’ll look at it and say, ‘I think I could hit 40 and drove in 120.’
I will not look back at this say, ‘That was one of those lucky years where everything came together.’ I feel like I can do this every year, especially hitting in the middle of a good lineup.”