(Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

First baseman Adam LaRoche’s representatives from the SFX agency and the Nationals have continued to discuss a new contract for next season and beyond, with no deal imminent but the sides working toward an agreement.

“I don’t know what stage you would say it is,” LaRoche said in a phone conversation Friday afternoon, while on a hunting trip in Illinois. “There’s nothing definitive. I don’t know if this is something that is a week out or two months out. They’ve laid a little bit of the groundwork to see if it would even work. They’ve made some progress.”

LaRoche, 32, just finished a career season in which he hit 33 home runs with 100 RBIs and an .853 OPS, which ranked first, first and second among National League first baseman. He also played above-average defense and made a significant contribution to the Nationals’ clubhouse atmosphere as he bounced back from shoulder surgery that cut short his 2011 season, his first year in Washington.

“He’s the catalyst,” shortstop Ian Desmond said at the end of the season.

After the Nationals’ loss to the Cardinals in the NLDS, General Manager Mike Rizzo said he saw LaRoche as a fit in Washington. The Nationals and LaRoche share a one-year, $10 million option for the 2013 season, which LaRoche would decline even though he wants to stay in Washington – a stance he reiterated today.

“I would like to stick around for a few years,” LaRoche said. “Whether that’s two or four, that’ll be up to these guys. I would like to stay. I haven’t changed my position at all since I made it clear I wanted to stay here. I hope they get it done.”

LaRoche’s season will allow him to seek a multi-year deal from the Nationals, or another team on the free agent market. The Nationals have until five days after the conclusion of the World Series to strike a deal with LaRoche before he can explore the free agent market.

“I don’t know that it matters to me at all,” LaRoche said. “I would think for the team, it could potentially make it a little harder [if they wait]. On my end, I’m not in panic to get it done by any deadline.”

The result from LaRoche’s contract negotiations could determine the course of the Nationals’ winter. They could make moves that ultimately will become more significant – if they lure Michael Bourn to play center field, or if they sign Jordan Zimmermann to a long-term extension, or if they similarly lock up Ian Desmond, or who knows what else.

But the most crucial, major choice the Nationals make this winter will be at first base. If they can secure LaRoche, they will then be able to determine whether Michael Morse is their left fielder or trade bait in the event they sign a free agent center fielder. They would also be able to more firmly evaluate where rookie Tyler Moore, a left fielder/first baseman who impressive power off the bench, fits into their plans for 2013 and beyond.

If the Nationals cannot find common ground with LaRoche, they would turn to either Morse or Moore at first base. They would not have many options on the free agent market – which surely plays into LaRoche’s bargaining favor.

From MLBTradeRumors.com, here’s the list of free agent first basemen, with age in parentheses:

Lance Berkman (36)
Jason Giambi (42)
Eric Hinske (35)
Aubrey Huff (36)
Casey Kotchman (30)
Adam LaRoche (33)
Carlos Lee (37)
James Loney (29)
Xavier Nady (34)
Mike Napoli (31)
Lyle Overbay (36)
Carlos Pena (35)
Ty Wigginton (35)

Not much to look at. The list excludes Nick Swisher (31), a switch-hitter who has played some first but is more of an outfielder. Only one of the players on the list, Mike Napoli, produced a WAR over 1.0, per FanGraphs.com. And Napoli is not really a first baseman; he’s a catcher who happens to play some first base. You wouldn’t feel very good about slotting any of them into the middle of your lineup as a first baseman.

Point being, LaRoche would be a highly sought-after player on the open market. When he signed his two-year, $16 million deal prior to the 2011 season, he shared a free agent season with Adam Dunn, Carlos Pena, Derrek Lee and others. This year, for teams in need of a first baseman – which most prominently includes the Orioles and Red Sox – LaRoche is it on the free agent market. He has some serious leverage.

LaRoche still seems like an ideal fit for the Nationals. His left-handed power gives the middle of their lineup a balance that would be difficult to find elsewhere. His glove gives the rest of the Nationals’ confidence. His demeanor provides an example in a young clubhouse. At the moment, the sides are still working to make sure the fit becomes a reality.