Nationals fans, that ringing you’re hearing in your ears right now might be alarm bells about Adam LaRoche, Washington’s expected Opening Day starter at first base.
Last season, after the Nationals signed him to a 2-year contract, with a team option for 2013, LaRoche’s shoulder hurt whenever he threw the baseball. At the time, he passed it off as soreness, nothing of much concern. Even when tests revealed a slight tear in his left labrum, LaRoche insisted he could play through the pain.
While it might hut his throwing velocity, it would be accurate and fast enough to complete a 3-6-3 double play of nail a runner at the plate. Plus, he noted, the injury would have no effect on his hitting.
Except it did.
As promised, LaRoche performed wonderfully in the field, erasing memories of Adam Dunn butchering or failing to react to grounders. LaRoche also proved adept at scooping throws in the dirt, saving his fellow infielders from numerous errors.
But hitting was another matter. The more LaRoche played, the bigger the tear in his muscle and the weaker his arm — and hitting — became. Attentive sportswriters like the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell, noticed LaRoche often failed to clear the fences during batting practice.
The more LaRoche insisted he was fine, the more the results showed he wasn’t. Nats fans would like to forget the gory details — .172 batting average, .288 on-base percentage, .258 slugging percentage, a strikeout every 4 at-bats on average (although LaRoche has high “K” rates even in his healthy years).
Eventually, both he and the franchise faced facts and LaRoche had season-ending surgery.
Now, in 2012, LaRoche sprained his ankle early in spring training and has yet to appear in a game. He remains unable to run or make sharp cuts, such as turning the corner while baserunning, without pain. Though he has hit for two consecutive days against minor league pitching and even slugged a home run today.
Yet, in a story in this morning’s Washington Post, he also told Adam Kilgore that his shoulder still hurts when he throws. He expects it could take up to two years before it is fully healed. He told Kilgore, “Throwing will be, I feel it a little bit. But if I make a throw, it’s not going to set me back at the plate.”
Sound familiar? (And note that many baseball players use the phrases “kind of” and “a little bit” like regular folks use “you know.” So, translating, LaRoche really told Kilgore, “When I throw, it still hurts like crazy.”)
Now, maybe LaRoche really is fine, the shoulder won’t bother him, his ankle will heal, and he will return to the 25 homer, 85 RBI, slick fielding first baseman he’s always been.
But the Nationals shouldn’t count on that.
The club does know that, based on last year’s experience, Michael Morse can step in and do a fine job at first base. However, that could be a problem if manager Davey Johnson holds to his vow not to use Morse at first this spring. But the alternative options are limited.
If LaRoche’s injuries do become chronic and Morse has to cover first, it creates a hole in Washington’s outfield. That might be a hidden silver lining in this situation.
If LaRoche cannot perform, Rizzo will be nearly compelled to trade some of his pitching, such as John Lannan, Tom Gorzelanny, or Ross Detwiler, for a good outfielder. Of course, if he waits until LaRoche is clearly out, he deals from a position of profound weakness. But, if pitching injuries hit a team will talented surplus outfielders, such as the Arizona Diamondbacks (Gerardo Parra?) or Los Angeles Angels (the frequent, though less likely, Peter Bourjos rumors), it could lead the Nats to a convenient trading partner.
And that might not be such a bad thing for the Nationals in the long run.
Which line-up looks better?
Parra — LF Desmond – SS
Espinosa — 2B Espinosa — 2B
Zimmerman — 3B Zimmerman — 3B
Morse — 1B Morse — LF
Werth — CF Werth — CF
Harper — RF LaRoche — 1B
Ramos — C Harper — RF
Desmond — SS Ramos — C
Of course, a trade for someone like Parra further depletes the Nationals’ pitching depth.
Overall, the best outcome for Washington is for LaRoche to return to his career norms. With his injury-filled time in Washington, though, that is far from a sure thing.