The Nationals and Adam LaRoche ended their offseason-long stalemate and agreed to terms on a two-year contract, according to a person familiar with the deal. (Update, 4:17 p.m.: LaRoche passed his physical, and the Nationals officially announced the two-year deal with a mutual option for 2015.)
LaRoche, the reigning Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner in the National League, accepted the two-year offer the Nationals had on the table since the late fall. LaRoche had been holding out for a three-year deal, but he could not find one in a market stifled by the draft pick compensation attached to him.
LaRoche will earn at least $24 million over two years, and the contract includes a mutual option for a third year worth $15 million. If the option is not picked up, LaRoche will receive a $2 million buyout.
“It’s good to have it done, it really is,” LaRoche said in a phone conversation. “At the end of the year, I was pretty confident I was coming back. There was a little stretch there it wasn’t looking good. Some other teams were coming on pretty strong with noticeably better offers. The whole time, I was kind of fighting for this to work out. I’m glad it did. This was my first choice without question.”
Starting late in the regular season, LaRoche never wavered in his preference to return to Washington. But for a time this offseason, LaRoche thought he may have a new team in 2013. After the Nationals made an initial offer and refused to budge off of it, LaRoche thought for roughly a month he would sign elsewhere. After Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo made some small concessions, LaRoche decided to re-sign.
“We got a couple things moved,” LaRoche said. “We got the dollars moved a little bit. Some of the other small things. All in all, they held pretty tight. That’s part of what took a while. You got Rizz, myself, both pretty competitive guys going at it. We knew what the team could do. In no way do I consider this a bad deal. To be honest, we all make way more than we should, anyway. Either way, it’s a ton of money.”
He may not have gotten the three-year deal he hoped for, but LaRoche will stay with a team that suddenly has become a destination.
“It’s amazing how things have changed,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “People used to not be able to get out of here, and now they want to stay.”
LaRoche’s return answers the biggest remaining question of the Nationals’ winter and gives them back the first baseman who may have been the most valuable player of their 98-win season. He will provide another left-handed slugger in the middle of the order and allow for balance a potent lineup. Last season, LaRoche hit 33 home runs with a .271/.343/.510 slash line and 100 RBI. His slick fielding saved innumerable throws in the dirt. His bat and glove together earned a tie for sixth in the National League MVP voting.
With LaRoche established at first base, the Nationals will likely have to try to trade to Michael Morse, who not longer has a place in the starting lineup. Manager Davey Johnson has admitted he could not foresee both LaRoche and Morse returning with Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth taking up any potential outfield spot for Morse. The Nationals would prefer to receive young, starting pitching prospects or a major league reliever in return. Morse has one-year remaining on the two-year extension he signed last winter at $6.75 million.
Since the outset of the offseason, Johnson has campaigned for LaRoche to re-sign with the Nationals, going so far as to invite him to his charity golf tournament in Orlando. Recently, LaRoche said, Johnson sent him a text message offering to work on his ranch in order to offset a third year on his contract.
“More than that with Davey is just the fact I got to play for him last year and how much I enjoyed that,” LaRoche said. “He’s just a pleasure to play for. He runs a good clubhouse and manages well. That would have been one of the things I would have missed.”
LaRoche became a calming presence and hugely popular figure inside the Nationals’ clubhouse. Shortly after the news of him coming back broke, Harper tweeted, “Laroche is back!!! Lets go! That’s right!”
“We were kind of in a good position,” Zimmerman said. “Adam is one of the best first basemen in baseball. If he were to leave, we wouldn’t have been handicapped or at a loss. He makes our team better defensively, and having that left-handed bat in the middle is big for us.”
LaRoche’s signing figures to push the Nationals’ 2013 opening day payroll past $100 million, the highest it has been in franchise history.
They still have one or two more tweaks left to make to their roster, and trading Morse could take of one. The Nationals could use another left-handed reliever, and Morse may able to bring one back in a trade. The offense-poor Mariners and Orioles have shown interest in him. One major league executive speculated based on roster needs and makeup that the Yankees and Rays could make a play for Morse.
The Nationals’ opening day lineup now probably looks something like this, with a left-right pattern all the way through:
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Jayson Werth, LF
3. Bryce Harper, RF
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B
6. Ian Desmond, SS
7. Danny Espinosa, 2B
8. Kurt Suzuki, C
More to come.