LaRoche Brings D, Likely Best Possible Lineup

The Nats re-signed Adam LaRoche today, getting him on a two year deal. Comparing LaRoche to the other first base options, Michael Morse and Tyler Moore, I think this is the scenario most likely to be the most successful.

The defense gets a boost with LaRoche over the other guys. On offense, it allows them to have a better lefty-righty mix, and is the most probable candidate for best lineup. Morse has the potential to hit better than either of the other guys, but he also has the potential to turn in a .320 or lower OPS, and even with more power than LaRoche, this is a hindrance to his value. Moore is still unproven as a full timer, and while I’m excited to see what he can do, I doubt its the .840 OPS he showed this year.

I’ve heard that 2012 was a career year for LaRoche, but it really wasn’t. I wrote about it at length here in October, but suffice to say it wasn’t so much better than his 2006, and slightly better than 2008 and 2009. He’ll probably end up with another strong but non-spectacular offensive 1B season. Rizzo went with best probable lineup rather than best potential lineup, and I can’t blame him for that. All that coupled with strong defense made him the best choice for this team.

The Morse Surprise

Because of this contract, it seemingly relegates Morse to the bench. It likely means that management will trade him, which makes sense in terms of building the best team. It is unfortunate to feel the need to trade such a good player who is a fan favorite, and count me as one of those fans who enjoys watching his enthusiastic play. His emergence as a true power hitter was more surprising than you may recall.

In one of the more lopsided trades this team has made (in hindsight), they gave up Ryan Langerhans to get Morse. Langerhans looked like the better player at the time – although he hadn’t had much success hitting, he was at least a lefty, had shown some power in the minors, and was a good fielder. Morse, on the other hand, hadn’t yet shown power in the majors, or the minors for that matter. He was also a converted infielder who couldn’t seem to field anywhere that well. Here is what Baseball Prospectus said about him before the 2008 season:

As utilitymen go, Michael Morse is a tweener-he doesn’t have the defensive skill to back up the middle infield positions or the power to hold down even the short-side of a platoon at one of the corners. What that leaves, particularly on a team that already has Willie Bloomquist, is not much

Yup, that’s Mike Morse, light-hitting utility man. Still with the Mariners in 2009, here is what they said about him:

He should be healthy by the start of this season, and could wind up filling the super-utility role vacated by Willie Bloomquist, though like his predecessor, he’s not much of an asset at any of the positions for which he owns a glove.

So apparently he’s Mike Morse, light-hitting poor-fielding utility man. Then, after getting traded to the Nats before the 2010 season, this is what was said:

…at first glance Morse’s four-corner skill set seems to mesh well with [Willie] Harris’s to complete some sort of Utility Player 3-D Cube Puzzle, but Morse’s missing piece is power. He has never consistently produced the sort of thunder you’d hope for from an infield corner, even in a reserve role, which presages a short shelf-life, even with the talent-starved Nationals.

Can still play the corner IF and OF spots, but still has no power. Then he ends up hitting 15 HRs in 293 PAs, batting .289/.352/.519, and presaging his truly breakout 2011. But not totally… Here is what BP said about him before the 2011 season:

You might wonder where Morse’s 2010 season came from, but credit Rizzo and company for snagging something of value in a minor exchange. A decade ago, Morse was a prospect, but he lost major chunks of his career to a PED suspension plus injuries to a knee and shoulder… Morse is an impatient hacker sure to undershoot expectations that he’ll keep slugging .500 or live up to “Jayson Werth 2.0″ comparisons… Between left-field platoon chores with Rick Ankiel and an open casting call at first base as we go to press, he should make an effective enough placeholder however he’s employed; by the time the Nats develop alternatives, he’ll have earned a stretch deal to man a contender’s bench.

Not exactly predicting his .303/.360/.550 with 31 HRs in 575 PAs in 2011, was it? But not many people were, despite a strong 2010. Nevertheless, he was unable to really capitalize on this production thanks to another injury in 2012. It limited him to a .291/.321/.470 line, although once he recovered he looked much stronger. After July 14th, he hit .300/.336/.506, very comparable to 2011. In fact, it might be just about what one would expect if he regressed a little bit from a career year.

Trade Potential

All this leads to a mixed bag as a trade commodity. The Nats can point to those sets of numbers and sell a guy who hits .300 and will slug over .500 when healthy. But he also has enough of an injury history to scare some people away. The timing is also unfortunate, as he will be 31 years old and in the final year of his contract. I always thought that if Rizzo wanted to hang on to him, he needed to extend him 2 years or so, because once he hits free agency he might be too old to sign long term.

That isn’t to say they won’t get alot of him. I don’t think he’s worth a star, but there are enough teams out there that need a RH power bat and will be happy to take Morse, for the right prospect. A strong, but not slam dunk, prospect is probably a decent possibility. Another idea is to get that lefty reliever – not a LOOGY but a real solid LHP that might slot in to a setup role on alot of teams, plus maybe a more middling prospect.

Of course, they could just hold off on the trade, and have a spectacular right handed bench player who can help spell guys, start in place of LaRoche or Span against the toughest lefties, and make a damn scary pinch hitter. From a pure value perspective, this isn’t the path of maximum return, unless of course you get a corner outfield or infield injury. But his salary isn’t very high, and doesn’t prevent the Nats from doing anything. So, you never know…

Regardless of what they get for Morse, it’s hard to imagine it will match the excitement of seeing him, as a 28 and 29 year old non-prospect, emerge as a monster power source on a young team just starting to compete. It didn’t garner that same nationwide attention that some of the rookies who came up the last two years did, but for those who watched this team closely, it was really fun to watch.

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