Morse vs. LaRoche: Comparing the sluggers

Morse vs. LaRoche: Comparing the sluggers
December 26, 2012, 9:45 am
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As we move past Christmas and toward New Year's with no resolution yet to the Adam LaRoche saga, it's worth remembering that the Nationals have a perfectly viable backup plan at first base should the reigning NL Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards winner ultimately choose to play elsewhere in 2013.

How many ballclubs out there could afford to let a key cog like LaRoche walk and simply plug a guy like Michael Morse into his spot? Not many.

In fact, there are some who would say Morse is capable of outperforming LaRoche in 2013 anyway.

Is that actually true? Well, yes. Morse is perfectly capable of outperforming LaRoche. He did it in 2011, posting a .910 OPS that easily trumped LaRoche's .853 mark this season.

The more appropriate question, though, doesn't involve asking whether Morse is capable of outperforming LaRoche. The appropriate question is whether he's likely to do it. And that's when the answer becomes less clear.

There's no doubt about Morse's ability with a bat in hand. He's received more than 1,500 big-league at-bats now and has a .295 average, .347 on-base percentage and .839 OPS to show for it. If he plays every day, he's going to do some serious damage on opposing pitchers.

But that's an important qualifier: If he plays every day. To this point in his career, Morse hasn't proven he can consistently stay healthy through a 162-game season.

Morse's injury history dates back to his days in Seattle. He had surgery to repair torn knee cartilage in 2006. He missed nearly all of 2008 with a torn labrum in his shoulder. After coming to Washington, he spent a month on the disabled list in 2010 with a strained calf muscle. And, of course, he missed two months this season with a torn lat muscle and spent September and October dealing with two separate hand injuries.

Does that guarantee more injury trouble for Morse in 2013? Of course not. But his track record certainly suggests he's more likely to miss some time due to physical ailment than he is to play in 162 games.

LaRoche, meanwhile, has a mostly sparkling physical history. He did miss most of 2011, his first season with the Nationals, with a torn labrum that severely hindered his ability to hit and throw. But that's the anomaly in an otherwise healthy career that has seen him play anywhere from 136 to 154 games every other year since 2005.

And few players have produced with the kind of consistency LaRoche has always displayed. His batting averages for each of his last five healthy seasons: .272, .270, .277, .261, .271. His OPS each of those years: .801, .841, .843, .788, .853.

Point is, you can pretty much pencil in LaRoche's 2013 numbers right now. Even if he slips a bit from the career stats he put up this season, he's almost guaranteed to hit about .270 with a .340 on-base percentage, 25 homers, 90 RBI and an .840 OPS.

LaRoche also is all but guaranteed to continue to play Gold Glove caliber defense, something the Nationals benefited from greatly this season.

Morse was no slouch at first base in 2011, handling the position far better than most expected when he took over. But he's not quite as adept as LaRoche at scooping bad throws out of the dirt or making pinpoint throws when called upon.

The sabermetric argument gives a slight edge to LaRoche, as well. He posted a career-best 3.8 WAR this season. Morse's WAR the previous season, his career-best, was 3.3. Not a huge difference, but another stat that tilts LaRoche's way.

In the end, the 2013 Nationals certainly would function well with either player at first base. LaRoche's consistency, durability, defense and left-handedness -- which brings more balance to Davey Johnson's lineup -- makes him slightly more valuable, but not exorbitantly so.

There is another important point to this debate. If LaRoche returns, he'll almost certainly be signing a two-year contract, keeping him in a Nationals uniform through 2014. Morse, on the other hand, is eligible to become a free agent after the upcoming season.

Which means the Nationals could find themselves back in this same exact spot one year from now, forced to decide whether Morse is worth the money to re-sign or whether they'll need to find another new first baseman for 2014.

For a franchise that has done so many other things to position itself to make a run at the World Series not only right now but for several years, it's yet another aspect to this argument that tilts in LaRoche's favor.