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Steady LaRoche takes it up another notch

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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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Nationals sign former Orioles All-Star catcher Matt Wieters

Nationals sign former Orioles All-Star catcher Matt Wieters

The Washington Nationals have signed former Orioles All-Star catcher Matt Wieters to a one-year deal with a player option for a second year, according to multiple reports. 

Wieters spent the first eight years in the Majors with the Baltimore Orioles, being named to the AL All-Star team four times and winning two gold glove awards. Last season the switch-hitting catcher posted a .243 average with 17 homers and 66 RBI.  

The Nationals have been in the market for catchers all offseason after Wilson Ramos left for Tampa Bay in free agency. The team traded for former Padres catcher Derek Norris, whose role is now in question. The Nationals still have Jose Lobaton on the roster as a strong defensive backup catcher who has a proven rapport with many of the pitchers in the Nationals rotation. Wieters had been linked to the Nationals all offseason because of the team's need a the position and because of the Nationals close relationship with Wieters' agent Scott Boras. 

The only significant time that Wieters has missed due to injury in his career came in 2014-15 when he had Tommy John surgury. Prior to that surgury, however, Wieters had played in at least 130 games for four straight seasons and became a large part of the Orioles' identity. 

The 30-year-old backstop will give the Nationals lineup more depth and power. Wieters had three consecutive 20-homer seasons from 2011-13 and since 2009 when his career began, he ranks fifth among catchers in all of baseball in home runs with 117. 

Related: Nationals 2017 promotional schedule includes snow globes and fedoras

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Nationals 2017 promotional giveaways include snow globes and fedoras

Nationals 2017 promotional giveaways include snow globes and fedoras

The Washington Nationals recently released the dates of their promotional days and giveaways this season, and there are some real gems in this schedule.

Among the standard bobblehead giveaways — Daniel Murphy on April 14, Trea Turner on May 12 and Tanner Roark on June 9 — and the highly recommended Pups in the Park days — April 29, May 13, June 10, June 25, September 7 and September 30 — pick the right game and you could get a snow globe, an American flag shirt or even a fedora. Seriously.

On May 24’s game against the Mariners, the first 25,000 fans will get a Max Scherzer snow globe, which has the potential to be the coolest knickknack in your house. Or on June 14 against the Braves — oddly not closer to the Fourth of July — Budweiser is behind the first 15,000 21-and-up fans getting an American flag tank top.

But truly the most unique item on this list is the Nationals-themed fedora, which will go to the first 25,000 fans at the Brewers’ July 26 matchup. How the Nats landed on this promotional item remains a mystery, but if you like hats beyond a traditional baseball cap, this is the game to attend.

Other cool or oddball promotions include the Nats Magic 8-Ball game April 3, the Chewbacca Koozie day May 27, Bryce Harper action figure day August 29 and Oktoberfest beer stein day Sept. 29.

Here's the complete list of the team's promotional days and giveaways

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