ST. LOUIS — There has always been a certain, predictable rhythm to Adam LaRoche's seasons in the big leagues.
LaRoche inevitably goes through a prolonged, early season slump that leaves his batting average at depths not commonly acceptable for a power-hitting first baseman. But sure enough, by season's end that number will rise to its typical landing spot.
LaRoche has played eight full, healthy, major-league seasons. His annual batting average: .278, .259, .285, .272, .270, .277, .261, .271. It's like clockwork.
"Every year, I'll be at some point around .220-.230," he said. "Maybe it's around the first month. Maybe it's the All-Star break. But I've never had a doubt that I'll be right there at .270, right there where I always end up. Every single year, I've never panicked about it, because it's always just worked out."
Until this season. He got off to his usual, wretched start, got red-hot briefly, then fell right back into a slump that never ended. His batting average peaked on July 6 at a pedestrian .259 but has steadily dropped since. With three games to go on the Nationals' schedule, it sits at .237.
"It just never took off," he said. "It was a ton of 1-for-4's and 0-for-3's with a walk, it seemed like. And that just doesn't cut it."
No, it doesn't. Which is why the Nationals' toughest offseason decision may have nothing to do with hiring a new manager, adding a new No. 5 starter or bolstering their bench and bullpen. It may have everything to do with deciding whether they need a new first baseman.
That's easier said than done. LaRoche just signed a two-year contract last winter, one that guarantees him a $12 million salary in 2014 and, at worst, a $2 million buyout in 2015.
That's not an easy contract to move if the Nationals even wanted to attempt it, certainly not after a dreadful season like this.
To this point, club officials have given zero indication they are even considering a change at first base for next season, insisting all along they expect LaRoche to enjoy a rebound to career norms.
"Obviously he's not had one of his better years, but I think a lot of it is attributed to his diet or whatever, because he's certainly lost some weight," manager Davey Johnson said. "It would obviously be good to have the pop in his bat that he's had in the past. ... But I'm sure he'll bounce back."
Will he? LaRoche turns 34 in November. Power hitters generally don't get more productive at that age, they decline.
LaRoche, though, strongly believes he can buck the trend, in part by doing a better job keeping his weight up this winter and into next season after dropping about 15 pounds this summer as a side effect of his prescription medication for ADD.
"I started in the last month to put some of that weight back on," he said, "and I feel a lot stronger at the plate now."
LaRoche also believes he possesses the kind of body type that should hold up through his mid-30s.
"I don't know how to make sense of that scientifically, other than I'm not a big guy," the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder said. "So I don't think my body takes quite the wear-and-tear that somebody who weighs 50 pounds more than I do does. Time will tell. I don't have any doubt I can bounce back next year and be dangerous."
Said Johnson: "He's not over the hill by any means."
After enjoying a career year in 2012, earning both his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award, LaRoche desperately wanted to return to Washington last winter. He settled for a shorter deal than he desired, but all along he felt like he belonged with a Nationals club that was poised to make a World Series run.
That run didn't happen this year, but the organization has every reason to believe it can make it next year. And LaRoche again desperately wants to be a part of it.
But does he ever worry they might not want him?
"No," he said. "It's never crossed my mind, and I definitely never worry about it. If I'm supposed to be somewhere else, then I'll be somewhere else. All that stuff's out of my control, and I choose not to think about it a whole lot.
"Hopefully they want me back."