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Steady LaRoche takes it up another notch


Steady LaRoche takes it up another notch

ATLANTA -- One of the central figures in the Nationals' 5-4 loss yesterday was Adam LaRoche, though certainly not for the reason he would have preferred. After being called by umpire Marvin Hudson for not keeping his foot on first base on a routine, sixth-inning grounder, the veteran's imprint on the outcome of the game was sealed.

If not for that botched call, LaRoche might well have been the central figure in a Nationals victory for what he had done way back in the first inning, something he has done plenty of times this year: Hit a ball out of the park.

With a two-run blast off the Braves' Tommy Hanson, LaRoche recorded his 30th home run of the season, a milestone he would have enjoyed celebrating if not for the events of the remainder of the evening.

"It's always nice to hit a mark or a milestone on a win," he said. "So it's a little bittersweet. But it's nice."

It's more than nice, both for the Nationals and LaRoche. After an injury-plagued 2011 and a rumor-filled winter that had many wondering if general manager Mike Rizzo was going to sign Prince Fielder to a mammoth contract and dump LaRoche (and his 8 million salary) to the curb, it's worth noting now just how much the Nats benefited from sticking with the status quo.

Not that Fielder wouldn't have been a nice addition to what has become one of the most-potent lineups in baseball. But the disparity in performance between the two first basemen isn't nearly as large as the disparity between their contracts (214 million vs. 8 million).

Fielder has put up his customary gaudy numbers in his first season in Detroit: 26 homers, 98 RBI, a .304 batting average, .404 on-base percentage, .513 slugging percentage and .917 OPS.

LaRoche's comparable numbers: 30 homers, 94 RBI, .269 average, .340 on-base percentage, .505 slugging percentage and .845 OPS.

Factor in defense, of course, and LaRoche closes the gap by a significant amount. The two have a nearly identical WAR (Wins Above Replacement) this season, according to Baseball-Reference's formula, with Fielder (3.4) narrowly edging out LaRoche (3.2). Fangraphs, which uses a slightly different formula in calculating WAR, has Fielder at 4.2 and LaRoche at 3.1.

The point, though, isn't to do a complete, side-by-side comparison of the two, but rather to reiterate how valuable LaRoche has been to the Nationals. Rizzo talked all spring about the consistent numbers LaRoche has posted throughout his career and how he fully expected the now-healthy first baseman to return to his career norms.

LaRoche has indeed done that, but he's stepped it up a notch or two as well. Though he's averaged 28.8 homers in each of his last seven healthy seasons, this is only the second time he's hit 30 (he hit a career-best 32 in 2006 with the Braves). And though he's averaged 88.5 RBI during those same seven seasons, he's already notched the second-most in his career (94) with a good chance to top his personal best mark of 100 set in 2010 with the Diamondbacks.

And none of this takes into account the different LaRoche has made in the field, both in his ability to field balls hit in his direction but more importantly his ability to catch wayward throws from his infielders (a skill that isn't measured by any advanced metric).

You don't have to convince Davey Johnson of LaRoche's importance to his team.

"He takes a lot of heat off everybody, and he's having an unbelievable year," the manager said a few days ago in New York. "He should be in the MVP consideration."

While LaRoche won't be a serious challenger to Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen and Ryan Braun in the actual MVP vote, his value within the Nationals clubhouse is well-known.

The Nationals and LaRoche face a key decision this winter. There's a 10 million mutual option left on his contract, which the Nats are sure to pick up, but LaRoche is likely going to want a longer commitment than that, creating a dilemma in which Rizzo has to decide how many more years he's willing to guarantee a first baseman who turns 33 in November.

For now, the Nats are simply happy they stuck with LaRoche for 2012, confident he would post his usual, consistent numbers and thrilled he's taken it up another notch.

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Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Majestic’s reign as the maker of MLB jerseys are about to come to an end. 

In 2020, Fanatics and Under Armour will be teaming to make on-field jerseys and apparel for all MLB teams, according to a Sports Business Journal report. 

The news outlet also reports that the deal means the MLB’s licensing relations with Nike will be over as well. 

Under Armour will produce the jerseys starting in Spring Training of the 2020 season, and “broad apparel rights” will go to Fanatics. 

New Era will continue to be the maker of MLB hats. 

Given that Maryland native Kevin Plank founded Under Armour, and that the business' headquarters are in Baltimore, it’s sure to be a splash with baseball fans in the DMV.

You can read the full Sports Business journal report here. 

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Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Here is an early look at the biggest questions facing the Washington Nationals as they embark on another offseason in their quest to build a championship team...

What to do with Wilson Ramos and the catcher position?

The Nationals' biggest question entering this offseason is without a doubt at catcher with All-Star Wilson Ramos on the mend after having the ACL in his right knee repaired on Friday. Not only is the recovery a long one - he could be out until well into the 2017 season - it is the second time he's had the ligament fixed. At 29, his viability as a primary catcher moving forward is a real question. Even Ramos admitted he may have to transition to the American League with his next contract.

If Ramos does leave, behind him will be a significant hole on the Nationals. They have several in-house options, but none that are anywhere close to Ramos, who emerged this season as the best offensive catcher in baseball. Pedro Severino is a nice young player, but has a career .632 OPS in the minors. The drop-off on offense from Ramos to him would be significant. The same can be said about Jose Lobaton.

It won't be easy replacing Ramos with an external option, if that's the way the Nats opt to go. Catchers who can hit and play defense like him are a rarity. Matt Wieters of the Orioles would be the best option in free agency, but he's a year older and is also a step down offensively. Unless they like Wieters - who does happen to be represented by Scott Boras - they may have to trade for a new backstop, and that won't be easy either. 

This is all not to rule out the Nationals re-signing Ramos, but right now it's difficult to project what type of contract he will garner and whether that could fit in their plans. Surely it would be tough for them to offer a long-term deal, but maybe they make sense if he decides to take a short-term contract to reset for free agency either next offseason or the one after that.

Any major upgrades needed?

The Nationals are in an interesting spot, having won 95 games and the NL East, but with yet another disappointing end to their year. General manager Mike Rizzo loves to make big splashes in the offseason. Every single winter he does something aggressive and unexpected. What will he do this year? There aren't many areas where he could potentially upgrade, but that hasn't stopped him in the past.

If Ramos leaves, catcher is obviously the biggest need. But beyond that, the two major problem areas in their lineup this season were at shortstop and first base. Danny Espinosa played solid defense and hit 24 homers, but held an unsightly .209 batting average. His .552 OPS in the second half was worst in baseball among those with at least 165 at-bats. 

Espinosa is always looking over his shoulder this time of the year and just this past winter appeared to be the odd-man out when the Nats traded for Ben Revere and signed Daniel Murphy. Espinosa managed to overcome the odds and play 157 games. He has one year left on his contract, so one way or another the Nats will need to start thinking long-term about his position.

Shortstop is an easier situation to evaluate than first base, where Ryan Zimmerman is due to make $14 million each of the next two seasons and $18 million the year after that. He had the worst season of his career with a .642 OPS through 115 games. Bringing in a first baseman to flat-out replace Zimmerman seems unrealistic, given his contract. But perhaps they can find someone who plays both first base and left field, with Jayson Werth having just one year left on his deal.

Who will be the closer?

The Nationals found success in the ninth inning with Mark Melancon after they acquired him at the trade deadline in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But it was just a rental. Now Melancon is due for free agency and the Nats once again have questions at the position. They could opt to re-sign Melancon, or go with another free agent option. Aroldis Chapman, whom they have coveted in the past, will be available. So will Kenley Jansen, who just helped end their season with the Dodgers. It's an unusually deep crop of star closers and it would be a surprise if the Nationals didn't snag one of them. Another option would be to promote Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen, but that would be out of the Nationals' character.

Are they content with the rotation?

If one were to pick the biggest reason the Nationals lost their NL Division Series against the Dodgers it would have to be the starting rotation. It was their most glaring weakness and it wasn't even close. This is despite the Nats being built on starting pitching and boasting one of the best regular season rotations in baseball. Losing Stephen Strasburg to injury didn't help, but they still had four capable starters left over. Max Scherzer struggled in Game 1, while Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross combined to pitch just 11 1/3 innings in their respective outings. 

If you look at the year as a whole, starting pitching was not a major concern. But the Nats are always aggressive in addressing their needs, whether big or small. They have top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, but neither distinguished themselves this season. Do they sit tight and hope things improve, or do they try to make another game-changing move? With a weak free agent class, any outside upgrade would have to come through a trade. Also, Gonzalez' $12 million team option is definitely something to watch this winter.

Will extension talks with Harper heat up?

Both the Nationals and Bryce Harper, one could argue, may have incentive to back away from the negotiating table this winter, given the Nats have to be less confident in giving Harper a record-setting contract after his disappointing year, and that Harper may not be wise to sign his new deal when his stock has lowered. But if the Nats and Harper do not come to terms this winter, that sets up a lot more pressure for the following offseason. Harper has two years left on his contract. Heading into next offseason without a deal, with just one year remaining, would create a lot of uncertainty for all sides involved, including the fans who certainly want to see the 2015 MVP remain in Washington for a long time. The storyline would dominate their offseason.

This upcoming winter always seemed like the best time to broker a deal to avoid that scenario, but the timing has not worked out with Harper's production on the field. Also, would anyone be surprised if it turns out Harper was dealing with an injury this season that held him back at the plate? If it were a serious one, he wouldn't have kept playing. But any injury has to be factored in those discussions.

[RELATED: Bullpen, baserunning leads to Nats heartbreak]