A familiar and popular face rolled into the Nationals clubhouse in Viera on Friday morning with a well-known child in tow. Adam LaRoche, the player Manager Davey Johnson made repeated personal appeals to re-sign this offseason, and his 11-year-old son Drake reported to camp after a multi-day drive from their home in Fort Scott, Kansas.
Teammates greeted LaRoche and Drake with hugs. LaRoche slipped on his Nationals uniform again, one he was so close to not wearing again during standstill negotiations this winter, and took the field for his first practice. (Drake, for the record, also put on his Nationals uniform and shagged balls in the outfield during batting practice. He had a wacky mullet hairdo courtesy of his father’s friend, country music singer Jason Aldean.)
“After signing and starting to look at this team a little closer, some of the new pickups we got, great to crank it up and see the guys again,” LaRoche said. “Let’s just get spring training over with.”
The team’s expectations, and Johnson’s hopes for it, are sky high, in part, because of the return of the 33-year-old LaRoche. The veteran first baseman was the team’s most consistent force in the lineup and on the field all of last year, posting perhaps the best all-around season in baseball for his position. The Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award winner had signed his two-year, $24 million deal in January, but now he was finally here.
“It’ll be disappointing if we were to repeat last year,” LaRoche said. “Which was a really good year. If we came out and made the playoffs and got beat out early or whatever it was, I don’t think everybody now will look at that as a successful year.”
LaRoche wanted to stay in Washington because of the close-knit clubhouse, his relationship with Johnson and, frankly, at 33, the Nationals presented the clearest path toward winning a title. But arriving at a new contract, however, wasn’t an easy path. LaRoche briefly re-hashed the journey on Friday: how he all along felt he was going to return (“I left my stuff in D.C.; I just assumed we’d work something out”); talked often with General Manager Mike Rizzo directly; thought his chances of re-signing were slim around December; and still wanted a longer contract but got the third season as an option year.
“It’s a great deal,” he said. “I’m not complaining about that at all.”
But LaRoche did reiterate the difficulty of operating under the new draft pick compensation system that was attached to him for declining a $13.3 million qualifying offer. He said it prevented several teams from seriously pursuing him for fear of losing their first pick in the draft.
“There were four or five of us [players] who were really affected this year, and in the future, I think you’re going to have that scenario every year,” he said. “So I think they’re going to have to do something about it. Because when it comes down to it, with a lot of guys in that draft pick, if you would have actually had a less productive year, it would have been easier to get a longer-term deal or have more competition in negotiations.”
The calls and text messages from Johnson threatening LaRoche to re-sign or else were helpful, too, LaRoche said, and comical. Johnson bought beef from LaRoche’s ranch, named E3 Ranch, and even offered to work on the ranch to offset the third year in the contract. Johnson didn’t follow through on his offer to help on LaRoche’s ranch, but it didn’t matter.
“A big reason I came back was the skipper we’ve got,” LaRoche said. “I love playing for him. Had a blast last year, which, how could you not with the record we had and the team we had out there. I just didn’t want to miss out on that.”
Said Johnson, of his first baseman: “He’s like an insurance policy at first base … He makes it look easy over there. It’s very nice from an infielder’s perspective that you know if it ain’t perfect he can make it right. He saved us a lot of errors over there.”
Unlike the previous spring, the Nationals’ offense is intact, except for the addition of Denard Span. There will be next to no competition for spots on the team, save for the bullpen and potentially a bench position. It was only a year ago when LaRoche, returning from major shoulder surgery that severely limited his 2011 season and nursing a hurt foot, was a candidate for sharing playing time at first base.
“Of course he tore ’em up,” Johnson said. “I might have to tell him that again if he’s going to come out of the chute like he did. I’ll think of something.”