ORLANDO — Adam LaRoche ambled toward his cart and clubs Saturday morning, ready to warm up on the driving range at Nationals Manager Davey Johnson’s charity golf tournament. Sitting in his own cart, Johnson spotted LaRoche and saw a chance to continue his winter-long pitch for LaRoche to re-sign with the Washington Nationals.
“Is your hand cramped up?” Johnson asked his first baseman, wondering if it was preventing him from signing a contract.
LaRoche had not reached that point. But he had spent Friday night at a pre-tournament party talking with Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo about his future. LaRoche and Rizzo shared an amicable, open conversation that lasted 30 or 40 minutes, a meeting that allowed both parties to lay out their stances on LaRoche’s potential return to the team.
The Major League Baseball world will descend Sunday on Nashville, where the annual winter meetings begin in earnest Monday morning. LaRoche remains one of the Nationals’ major priorities.
The Nationals want LaRoche to come back, and LaRoche wants to stay in Washington. The sides have not necessarily moved any closer to making that immediately happen, though. Rizzo explained to LaRoche why the Nationals want to re-sign him to a two-year deal. LaRoche outlined why he believes his Silver Slugger and Gold Glove season should net him a three-year deal. Both LaRoche and Rizzo will move forward with a full understanding of where the other stands.
“To be honest, it’s a years thing now,” LaRoche said. “I think they’re really wanting to stick to two years. I’m trying to talk them into lengthening that. To be honest, probably just one year. I’m not looking for four or five. I understand I’m 33 years old.
“I can’t say it moved forward. We understand each other a lot more now. I think he understands where I’m coming from. He understands I want to be there, kind of my argument for three years not being unreasonable.”
Rizzo explained to LaRoche why he wanted to cap the Nationals’ offer at two years. The Nationals will have a clogged infield once top prospect Anthony Rendon arrives. They will also have to make rising financial commitments in upcoming years to Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and a bevy of other homegrown players.
“It was a good, productive talk,” Rizzo said. “He’s a terrific guy I have a lot of respect for. . . . We didn’t talk dollars and cents at all. That’s for me to talk to his agent. I gave him kind of a global view of what we’re trying to do with him and the reasons for it. There’s a reason and a rationale for the offers we’ve made to Adam.”
LaRoche requested the meeting “to make sure nothing got lost in translation” between Rizzo and LaRoche’s agent, Mike Milchin. LaRoche typically steers way clear of negotiation, preferring to spend his winter with his cellphone off and a hunting bow in his hands. But with Rizzo, he felt comfortable with a face-to-face meeting.
“It was great,” LaRoche said. “It’s cool with Rizz. I think we can both open up and be really honest and not have to play the game of keeping everything close to the vest. I think we’re both a little bit past that. I’ve got too much respect for him to try to B.S. him through this, and I think he’s the same way.”
The Nationals gave themselves options with regard to LaRoche when they traded Thursday for center fielder Denard Span. If LaRoche leaves, the Nationals can shift Michael Morse from left field — now occupied by Harper or Jayson Werth — to first base. If they re-sign LaRoche, they can trade Morse.
But LaRoche has options, too. Several teams have contacted him, including the Red Sox, Rangers, Mariners and Rays. None of those talks have advanced far. But LaRoche is considered the best available free agent first baseman, and the crop behind him is thin.
“We’re listening,” LaRoche said. “I’m not making calls. But we’re definitely listening to calls from other teams. I don’t know if it’ll take a firm, hard offer from another team to get the Nationals to move. Talking to Rizz, he’s a pretty straight shooter, they’re pretty adamant on not flexing past two years.”
LaRoche has made clear since late in the regular season that he still wants to stay in Washington. If he receives a three-year offer from another team, he would not automatically sign there. Nearing the latter portion of a career that has included two playoff appearances in nine seasons, he does not want to play for a rebuilding team. Accepting a three-year offer elsewhere over a two-year offer from the Nationals may be a tough decision.
“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” LaRoche said. “I hope we come to the conclusion that both sides are happy with it, let’s go.”
LaRoche’s family loves the area, and he has become close to several players in the Nationals’ clubhouse. His demeanor fits the room as well as his quick hands fit at first base. Last year, when Harper, then 19, needed company as other players went to over-21 establishments, LaRoche was one of the teammates who tagged along.
On Friday night at Johnson’s party, Harper greeted LaRoche with a bear hug. Harper joked with Johnson that if the Nationals didn’t sign LaRoche, they at least needed to bring back Drake, LaRoche’s ever-present 10-year-old son.
LaRoche adores playing for Johnson. LaRoche sticks to his ranch in Kansas in the offseason, but he jumped at the chance to come to Orlando. Johnson hosted the event to benefit Lighthouse Central Florida, a cause dear to him. Johnson and his wife, Susan, raised Jake Allen, Susan’s son from another union who was deaf and blind. Jake received constant support from Lighthouse. He died in 2011 from a virus in his lungs.
“This is straight for Davey,” LaRoche said. “When my wife got the invitation, I was like, ‘Well, whatever the date is, let’s go.’ There’s a lot of these that go on through the year. You can’t do all of them. This is one I said, ‘We need to show up and support what he’s into.’ I’m glad. This is a nice break from hunting for a couple days.”
Johnson has been adamant he wants LaRoche to return, lobbying him all winter. Before LaRoche came to Orlando, Johnson told him, “Bring your pen” to a sign a contract. Johnson has also bought several pounds of beef from LaRoche’s ranch in Kansas.
Johnson worked to set up the meeting between LaRoche and Rizzo. “Pretty much telling both of us, ‘both of you kids get together and work this out. It’s not that hard,’ ” LaRoche said.
“I wanted him here to sign the damn contract,” Johnson said Friday night. “I’m eating his beef, and I wanted to put an order in for next year, too. After we win the World Series.”
On Saturday morning, as LaRoche walked around the Shingle Creek clubhouse, Johnson continued his needling.
“Hey Adam, do you need somebody to come and help repair fences?” Johnson yelled at him, a reference to his ranch. “If that’ll sweeten the deal . . . ”
“I love it!” LaRoche said, laughing. “You might be a little old to be out doing that kind of stuff, Davey.”
“You got a tractor with a post hole digger? I know how to back it up, put the auger down. I can do all that.”
“I could use that.”
LaRoche could only laugh. He had heard Johnson’s pitch so often. When he addressed the crowd at the Friday night party, Johnson thanked LaRoche for coming. Then Johnson said, “Adam LaRoche, Mike Rizzo, get together!”
They did. Their talk couldn’t get LaRoche to put pen on paper, as Johnson hoped. But they at least made progress.
“It was great,” LaRoche said. “There was nothing in that conversation that upset any one of us. We were both just totally open about expectations. We realize that we still got a little bit of time here.”