After Adam LaRoche missed most of 2011 with a torn labrum, the Washington Nationals reportedly pursued free agent options like Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols for 2012, but in the end stuck with LaRoche in the second year of his $16 million contract. He responded with a bounce-back season, slugging 33 home runs (a career high), driving in 100 and winning a Gold Glove.
The final season line was right in line with his career numbers: He hit .271/.343/.510 and owns a career line of .271/.338/.482. Really, he was just as consistent as ever, just with a few more home runs than normal.
He's a good player -- although his 4.0 WAR was well above his previous best of 1.9 -- but the kind of free agent teams should be leery of giving too many years and too much money. He's entering his age-33 season and if he regresses back to what he did for Arizona in 2010 (.261/.320/.468) he's not helping much. That's OK for one year or maybe two, but once you start going three or four, it gets dicey. He is valuable to the Nationals as the only other left-handed bats in their regular lineup are Bryce Harper and switch-hitting Danny Espinosa. But it's also worth noting that his numbers were helped by a monster September, when he belted 10 home runs and slugged .667. Through August, he was hitting .259/.332/.472. That's a much better bet for his likely production in 2013.
All that said, the best move for the Nationals is to move on. Three reasons:
1. While the free agent market is thin for first basemen, the Nationals have an able replacement in Michael Morse, who is miscast as a left fielder. Morse's production in 2012 isn't great for a first baseman, but is certainly adequate, and the Nationals could upgrade their defense in left.
2. Avoid the risk of overpaying for LaRoche as he enters into a potential decline phase while also getting a draft pick in return (since the Nationals made a qualifying offer to LaRoche).
3. Use the money not given LaRoche to sign an outfielder or starting pitcher. The Nationals could go in on a center fielder like Michael Bourn or Angel Pagan -- which would give the team a leadoff hitter (although Jayson Werth was an excellent out-of-the box option for that spot) -- or a corner guy like Nick Swisher, with Harper remaining in center. Or maybe they spend that money on a starter to replace free agent Edwin Jackson and go with a Tyler Moore/Roger Bernadina platoon in left field.
Remember, the Nationals are probably a good bet to score a few more runs next year, even without LaRoche. Harper is obviously likely to improve, Werth missed time and Wilson Ramos should return to provide more offense at catcher.
Even without signing a free agent outfielder, this lineup looks deep to me:
SS Ian Desmond
Signing LaRoche at $12 to $15 million per season limits the Nationals' payroll flexibility and ability to replace Jackson in the rotation. Letting him go shouldn't weaken the lineup and gives you an extra draft pick and more financial flexibility. It's not always easy departing with those who got you to the top, but in this case it makes sense.