While a host of teams across Major League Baseball have upcoming decisions to make regarding contract options, GM Mike Rizzo finds himself able to skip that part of his offseason checklist. There are zero, yes zero, option decisions that need to be made this winter in preparation for the 2012 season. There are, however, two facing the team after next season. We’re a year early, but let’s take a quick look at them anyways. We’ll start with Adam LaRoche.
2013 – $10 Million mutual option ($1 Million buyout)
One of the more surprising decisions made last January was the one which handed LaRoche a two year contract worth $16 Million. The deal paid the first baseman $7 Million this past season – a season in which he appeared in only 43 games before tearing the labrum and rotator cuff in his left shoulder. In 171 plate appearances he batted a mere .172/.288/.258 with 3 HR and 15 RBI. Not exactly the type of production the team was hoping for out of it’s Opening Day first baseman. Certainly not at a cost of $7 Million.
By all accounts LaRoche is expected to be ready for the 2012 season, a year in which he is scheduled to earn $8 Million. At least to date we haven’t heard any reports to the contrary. Yet, we still don’t know what the Nationals will actually get from LaRoche. Just as recently as 2010 he hit 25 HR with 100 RBI while batting .261/.320/.468 in 615 plate appearances. That season marked the lone time in his career he’s reached the 100 RBI plateau but he had averaged 20 HR and 80 RBI over the previous five seasons. He was never in the upper echelon of first baseman, but he was able to put up solid numbers relatively consistently.
There is zero certainty that a healthy LaRoche will put up those type of numbers next season. But it could be within reason to hope for 15 HR, 60 RBI, and a .250/.325/.400 line presuming full time at bats. Presumably the team will enter Spring Training with the intention of starting LaRoche at first but I wouldn’t expect that decision to be set in stone. The team has options, meaning that his at bats should be earned based on performance.
Michael Morse is an obvious candidate to take at bats away from LaRoche. The bulk of his 2011 at bats came at first base, where his offensive production was significantly higher. (Thanks to Craig MacHenry at The Nats Blog for the splits.)
As 1B: .336/.401/.601, 318 AB, 53 R, 107 H, 27 2B, 19 HR, 62 RBI
As OF: .254/.293/.482, 193 AB, 23 R, 49 H, 8 2B, 12 HR, 23 RBI
Morse was one of this team’s best offensive weapons during the 2011 season and will be a central part of that lineup next season, one way or another. His position ultimately will depend on two factors – who the team brings in this winter and who they decide to play at first base. Either someone new to the organization or LaRoche will likely get the at bats at first, meaning Morse will be in the outfield. But, an acquisition of an outfielder might push the team to leave Morse at first. Time will play this one out.
There is also the presence of former top prospect Chris Marrero, who made his MLB Debut on August 27th. Marrero batted 7th that day against the Reds, going 1 for 4 with a strikeout. His lone hit was a two-out single in the 4th inning. Over the remainder of the season the former 1st Round Draft Pick (15th overall in 2006) batted .248/.274/.294 in 117 plate appearances. It’s a relatively small sample size, so any conclusions made from it need to be taken with a grain of salt but the one feature that seems most troubling was the lack of power shown by Marrero. Just 5 of his 27 hits went for extra bases. None were home runs.
Over six minor league seasons the 23 year old right-hander has batted .285/.353/.457 in 2,589 plate appearances – fairly decent numbers. The problem throughout his minor league career, however, has been a lack of power. That, coupled with average defense, leads one to question his longevity as a potential starting first baseman. Marrero doesn’t really have the agility to consider moving him to the outfield.
While a long shot in all likelihood, Steven over at FJB brings out attention to yet another internal option: Tyler Moore. This past season at Double-A he batted .270/.314/.532 with 31 HR and 90 RBI in 561 plate appearances. Combined the right-hander has mashed 62 home runs and driven in 201 over his past two seasons in the minors. However, while many scouts have prescribed to the theory that Double-A can be a better test of a player’s abilities than Triple-A there still hasn’t been much discussion taking place regarding Moore.
He’s a year older than Marrero but clearly was someone who caught the attention of Nationals’ scouts early on. Moore was actually drafted by the team three times – 2005 (41st round), 2006 (33rd round), and 2008 (16th round) – before signing. Yet, they’ve taken a very cautious approach towards rushing his development, particularly with Marrero blocking him the next level up each season. As a 24 year old, he was certainly older than much of the competition he’s been facing over the past few seasons, a fact that will limit how high his prospect status may reach. He could have earned himself at least an invite to Spring Training however.
Now, I won’t necessarily go out on a limb and state that Marrero or Moore are the team’s “first baseman of the future”. That honor could belong to anyone at this point in time. We don’t know how LaRoche will perform in 2012 or if Morse will find himself at first base more regularly again. We don’t know if Marrero, Moore, or another prospect (Derek Norris?) might fare if/when given playing time. We don’t know what this winter may bring via trade or free agency. But, finding the team’s “first baseman of the future” was never the intention of this post.
That goal was to evaluate LaRoche’s upcoming option decision that will need to be addressed after the 2012 season. Part of that process is evaluating the alternative options, of course, but ultimately the decision is going to boil down to the financial side of things. In my opinion, barring a return to his 2010 form, there is no level of production that LaRoche can bring to the table in 2012 that would warrant exercising the option and paying him $10 Million for the 2013 season. The Nationals are a team that cannot afford to waste such a significant portion of their overall salary budget on one player who isn’t a star. More importantly, they won’t spend that much on a player who isn’t part of the cornerstone of this team as they build for the future.