VIERA, Fla. -- As strong as his left shoulder feels at the moment, and as much as he believes it won't hinder his ability to hit for power the way it did one year ago, Adam LaRoche can't yet say for certainty whether he's made a complete recovery from last season's torn labrum.
And the Nationals first baseman probably won't know until the final week or two of spring training, after he's had a chance to face live pitching day in and day out, and once he's had a chance to reach back and fire a throw to the plate.
Until then, the 32-year-old can only continue to chart progress with each passing day, happy whenever he can complete a round of batting practice or play catch from 90 feet without feeling anything out of the ordinary in his shoulder.
"Hitting feels really good. I'm not worried about that at all," LaRoche said yesterday. "I'm starting to feel some strength coming back probably the last month. Throwing's all right. I haven't really stretched it out yet, been taking it slow. But I don't see any major setbacks like last year throwing."
It was right around this time one year ago when LaRoche first noticed discomfort in his left shoulder and brought it to the attention of the Nationals. What at first was described as a minor case of tendinitis was later diagnosed as a slight tear of the labrum, an injury LaRoche felt he could play through.
By late-May, it was clear the tear was affecting his ability to drive the ball with any semblance of power, not to mention preventing him from making what used to feel like routine throws in the field.
"The more I threw, the worse and worse it got, so it was affecting my hitting," he said. "So regardless whether my arm is 100 percent in the next six weeks, it's a good feeling knowing it's not -- or it shouldn't -- affect the way I feel at the plate. If it's sore, I can handle that. As long as it doesn't bother my swing."
So far this spring, it hasn't bothered LaRoche's swing at all, though to date he's only hit in the batting cage and has yet to face a live pitcher.
But it's pretty clear LaRoche is less confident about his ability to cut loose throws from his position at first base. He's yet to attempt to long-toss the ball from more than 90 feet, citing doctors' instructions not to push it too fast too soon.
LaRoche hopes to be allowed to do that before the end of spring training. Eventually, he's going to have to cut loose and find out once and for all whether he's fully recovered from the injury and subsequent surgery, or whether this is going to continue to linger.
When will he know for sure?
"It could be another year, or it could be a month," he said. "Who knows? Until you don't feel it any more, that's the only time it's going to be completely out of your mind. But again, it doesn't hurt at the plate. I can handle a little discomfort throwing the ball, as long as it's not carrying over for two or three days."
The Nationals are counting on LaRoche staying healthy enough to start all season at first base and provide the kind of sparkling defense and consistent offense that have defined his career to date.
"He's a gamer," manager Davey Johnson said. "I'm expecting him to have a really good year. And missing what he did last year and not being very productive, I know he's very focused on having a good year."
The club's confidence in LaRoche's ability to recapture that pre-injury form played at least some role in general manager Mike Rizzo's reluctance to make an aggressive offer for free agent first baseman Prince Fielder this winter. In the end, the Nationals did get into the discussion but never came anywhere close to matching the Tigers' eventual winning offer of nine years and 214 million.
LaRoche was well aware of the rumors suggesting the Nationals were among the frontrunners to sign Fielder, and that such a move would certainly have ended his brief stint in Washington. But he doesn't hold a grudge against the organization for considering the possibility.
"I was fine with it, I really was," he said. "I'm confident to know that when I'm healthy, I'm going to play for somebody. Obviously I want it to be here, especially coming off last year where I wasn't able to contribute. I would love to come back and prove that I'm healthy, prove that I can help this team. But I didn't mind it. You can't blame a team for going after a player like that. If it worked, I would've moved on. Luckily it didn't, and I'm back."
So LaRoche will hope to enter 2012 in top physical condition and hope to finally live up to the billing he received when the Nationals signed him for two years and 16 million.
Not that he isn't motivated to perform at the start of every season, but there is admittedly some extra motivation this time around.
"Everybody in this room knows what I'm capable of," he said. "I know what I'm capable of doing. And last year was frustrating not being able to follow it up. So yeah, there's some extra motivation this year. I'm excited about being healthy for another season and being a big part of this."