As Prince Fielder's never-ending search for a new club threatens to enter its fourth month -- did you know he officially became a free agent on Nov. 3? -- the man who was supposed to be the Nationals' first baseman in 2011 and for now is supposed to be their first baseman in 2012 has been lost in the shuffle.
Adam LaRoche is the forgotten man in this saga, signed for another season at 8 million but left twisting in the wind as the Fielder saga continues to drag on.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson have said all the right things about LaRoche, repeatedly praising the veteran and insisting he remains their starting first baseman for the upcoming season. All of that, of course, could be thrown out the window if the Nats somehow emerge as Fielder's new employer. (Please note nothing has happened to suggest that's on the verge of becoming reality. Fielder simply remains unsigned, and the Nationals are one of several teams linked to the slugger.)
Let's assume for this discussion, though, that Fielder doesn't end up in a curly W cap. What can the Nationals reasonably expect to get from LaRoche in 2012?
LaRoche is by no means as productive a player as Fielder. No one would try to suggest that. But he did have a remarkably consistent track record over his career before his 2011 season was derailed by a major shoulder injury.
Check out LaRoche's annual stats from 2007-09, most of which time he spent with the Pirates:
HR RBI AVG OBP SLG OPS 2007 21 88 .272 .345 .458 .803 2008 25 85 .270 .341 .500 .841 2009 25 83 .277 .355 .488 .843
Talk about a model of consistency. There may not be another player in baseball who put up such similar stats over a three-year stretch.
Now, LaRoche's numbers did veer off course some in 2010 while playing for the Diamondbacks. He still hit 25 homers and actually drove in 100 runs for the first time in his career. But his batting average dropped to .261, his OBP to .320, his slugging percentage to .468 and his OPS to .788. Perhaps most notably, he struck out 172 times, by far his highest total in the big leagues.
And then, of course, LaRoche suffered through the worst season of his career after signing with the Nationals last winter. Trying to play through a torn labrum in his left shoulder, he hit a paltry .172 over 43 games, with three homers, 15 RBI, a .288 OBP and a pathetic .258 slugging percentage and .546 OPS.
Obviously, LaRoche's injured shoulder was to blame for that sharp decrease in power. In finally accepting he needed season-ending surgery last summer, he acknowledged the labrum tear had sapped him of his power stroke.
So the question now becomes this: Is it fair to assume LaRoche will revert to his pre-injury form in 2012? Well, the Nationals certainly hope so, and there is some evidence to suggest it's likely to happen.
Take a look at LaRoche's batting ratios last season compared to previous seasons (we're looking at extra-base hit percentage, balls-in-play percentage, line-drive percentage and the percentage of fly balls that were home runs)...
XBH BIP LD HRFB 2007 10.0 66 21 8.5 2008 10.8 63 18 11.3 2009 10.3 62 20 10.1 2010 10.4 60 22 11.0 2011 4.0 63 20 5.3
What stands out to you? Look how consistent he was at putting balls in play and at hitting line drives, even when he was playing hurt last season. Then look at how his percentage of extra-base hits and home runs plummeted.
The shoulder injury didn't prevent LaRoche from hitting the ball the same way he always had. It did prevent him from hitting the ball with any semblance of power.
So it stands to reason that if LaRoche's shoulder is 100 percent healthy this season, he should have little trouble producing at a level commensurate with his career norms.
Is LaRoche's shoulder actually 100 percent healthy? The Nationals and LaRoche have insisted all winter it is, and by all accounts he's gone through his regular offseason workout regimen with no issues. Until we actually see him facing live pitching in Viera this spring, we can't know for sure. But the assumption is that shoulder health will not be an issue.
So, there's no reason we shouldn't be able to pencil in LaRoche for roughly 25 homers, a .270 average, a .340 on-base percentage and a .475 slugging percentage in 2012.
That may not come close to duplicating Fielder's production, but it would be exactly what the Nationals though they were getting when they gave LaRoche a two-year contract last winter.