Bearded and bulked up, with his ubiquitous 12-year-old son Drake trailing behind, Adam LaRoche strolled out of the dugout at Space Coast Stadium this afternoon and headed to the batting cage.
LaRoche had arrived at what could be his final Nationals spring training with what he termed a “fresh start” after the least healthy season of his 10-year career. He did not necessarily feel motivated by last season, when slumps and weight loss led to a .237/.332/.403 batting line, 20 homers and 62 RBIs. But he believes he can – and will – return to his career norm, closer to a 2012 season in which he finished sixth in the National League MVP vote.
“I don’t know that it’s about erasing the memory,” LaRoche said. “We totally underachieved last year. No excuse there. Offensively terrible for the first three months, or whatever it was. You try to come back and pinpoint that and what we can do to correct it and get off to a better start. This is different for me personally from a couple years ago when I was hurt and it was really frustrating to play. But I physically felt fine last year. It was just one of those years. It was probably a combination of trying too hard and being streaky.”
LaRoche started strong last season, an anomaly even compared to his best years. But his struggles started when he lost weight, a result of his ADD medication suppressing his appetite. He dropped to below 190 pounds, he said, his weight in college. LaRoche changed the release time of his medication at the all-star break, and he started to put weight back on.
LaRoche planned to continue his weight gain through lifting weights in the winter, but that plan skidded to a halt. In the final series of the season, LaRoche felt a twinge in his elbow. He underwent surgery in November to remove bone chips and couldn’t touch a weight for two months. LaRoche started packing weight on after that, and he would like to add five more pounds during spring.
“I just physically feel a lot better,” LaRoche said.
LaRoche insisted the bone chips had no effect on his 2012 season, that he could not even feel them until the final days of the season. He will not be bothered during the spring, either, barring an unforeseen setback. “So far, so good,” LaRoche said. “It gets a little sore from time to time, especially now that I’m throwing a little more.”
As LaRoche settled into his locker, he could peek over two stalls and see a first baseman’s mitt in Ryan Zimmerman’s cubby. “Does that mean I get to go play third?” LaRoche asked, laughing.
One reason for the mitt is that Matt Williams may choose to sit LaRoche in favor of Zimmerman against some left-handed starters. “That doesn’t bother me,” LaRoche said. For most of his career, LaRoche fared well against left-handed pitchers. Last year, he cratered against them, hitting .198/.254/.313.
Williams has no definite schedule for how often LaRoche will sit against lefties, or if he will sit at all. Williams believes LaRoche will shed last season – “he’s too good of a player,” he said – but he has considered a partial platoon at first base.
“I think it depends on how he’s swinging,” Williams said. “If he’s seeing the ball well, it really doesn’t matter. How many days in a row he’s played, all those things come into play over the course of the season. There’s no set plan right now, but there will be times where we just 1) want to give him a day, and we pick that day because there’s a lefty going or he doesn’t match up well. And 2) if we want to stack the lineup against a lefty with right-handed hitters, we can do that, too.”
As he hopes for different results, LaRoche will also sport a different look. A longtime friend and hunting partner of the “Duck Dynasty” Robertson clan, he decided this winter to grow a beard. It came in red with a white blotch under his chin. He employed a classic beard-growing strategy.
“I just didn’t shave it for a while,” LaRoche said. “And then I didn’t shave it for a while longer. And then I just never shaved. Plus, the crew I hang out with, I’m the odd man out if I don’t have a beard.”