Jan 14, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
Age on Opening Day 2014: 34
How acquired: Signed as free agent, January 2013
2014 salary: $12 million
2013 stats: 152 G, 590 PA, 70 R, 121 H, 19 2B, 3 3B, 20 HR, 62 RBI, 4 SB, 72 BB, 131 SO, .237 AVG, .332 OBP, .403 SLG, .735 OPS, 11 E, -2.3 UZR, 0.6 WAR
2014 storyline: After a dismal season that resulted in the lowest batting average, slugging percentage and OPS of his career, LaRoche enters 2014 as perhaps the biggest question mark in the Nationals lineup. Was last year evidence of a career in regression, or was it a mere blip in the big picture?
LaRoche has been in a similar situation before, not all that long ago. His first season in D.C. was a train wreck due to a major shoulder injury that left some writing him off. But he bounced back the following year to post the best numbers of his career, earning the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove award at first base. LaRoche knew he was playing for a contract, and that’s the same situation he’ll find himself in this year. There’s a $15 million mutual option for 2015 which the Nationals will pick up only if he has a strong season. Another down year and LaRoche could have a hard time finding any suitors next winter, putting the pressure on himself to bounce back big-time in 2014.
Best-case scenario: Motivated to prove everyone wrong — and healthy after figuring out how to keep his weight up despite his ADD medication — LaRoche duplicates his fantastic 2012 season. He clubs 30 homers, drives in 100 and goes on several prolonged tears during which he carries the Nationals’ lineup. He also finds his missing Gold Glove and bails out Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman from countless throwing errors, re-establishing his status as one of baseball’s best defensive first basemen. Recognizing his value to the club, the Nationals pick up LaRoche’s $15 million option and he returns for one final hurrah in 2015.
Worst-case scenario: LaRoche opens the season in one of his all-too-frequent slumps, going 1-for-23 to put himself in a deep hole early. He manages to put together a couple of strong streaks but never does find his hitting stroke. Desperate for production from his spot, the Nationals turn to Tyler Moore on a more regular basis, leaving LaRoche in a platoon. He finishes with a .235 batting average and 15 homers in only 120 games. The Nats decline his 2015 option and a 35-year-old LaRoche must decide whether to give it another shot elsewhere next spring or to trade in his spikes for a crossbow on a permanent basis.
Most-likely scenario: LaRoche, as has usually been the case in his career, is one of baseball’s streakiest hitters. He goes on multiple, month-long tears at the plate, but he also goes through stretches where he simply can’t make contact. He remains a key component of the Nationals’ lineup and still plays a smooth first base, but he does get benched every once in a while against a tough left-hander. He finishes with typical LaRoche numbers: a .270 average, 23 homers, 80 RBI, leaving the Nats in a quandary whether to pick up the option or not.
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