Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/17/14
Adam LaRoche lost a lot of 2011 to injury, okay, and in 2012 he had himself a bounceback season, okay. Sometime during the season, the Nationals approached LaRoche — a free-agent-to-be — about a contract extension. Nothing was agreed to; the Nationals were willing to give LaRoche two years, and LaRoche was seeking three years, citing a desire to stop bouncing around. Come the offseason, the Nationals extended to LaRoche a qualifying offer, and LaRoche turned it down; LaRoche was seeking three years. LaRoche kept on seeking three years. On Tuesday, LaRoche re-signed with the Nationals. He re-signed for two years, with a mutual third-year option. I’ll quote Amanda Comak: “[The negotiations] were pretty much not moving for a couple months,” LaRoche said. “It got to a point at one time where I really thought ‘OK, I probably am not going back to Washington.’ We were in talks with some other teams and things were looking promising and Washington wasn’t budging.” [...] The deal, which a source said is the same one that had been on the table for the first baseman for much of the offseason[...] Here are the actual terms: 2013: $10 million 2014: $12 million 2015: $? mutual option, $2 million buyout Along the way, the Nationals had most of the leverage, and this end result is hardly surprising. Maybe LaRoche didn’t think this was how things would work out, but then that would fall on his agent. For one thing, the Nationals had and still have Michael Morse, who’s capable of approximating LaRoche’s production, so re-signing LaRoche wasn’t an organizational necessity. And then there’s the matter of the qualifying offer, meaning LaRoche would cost other suitors a pretty high draft pick. By re-signing LaRoche, the Nationals don’t receive a compensation pick, but that pick would be lower than most of the picks other suitors would’ve stood to lose. The Nationals had every reason to hold their ground, and in the end LaRoche found out he couldn’t do any better. I can’t help but laugh at this other LaRoche quote, after the contract news broke: “You know me, I wasn’t stressing it a whole lot, but I’m glad it’s with Washington and not somebody else,” LaRoche said in a phone interview with The Washington Times. “I was prepared to leave, if I had to, but I was really trying to do everything I could to get back there so, I’m glad it worked out.” LaRoche was doing everything he could to re-sign with the Nationals, so he took months to accept the offer they had out on the table. One of these parties is presumably more disappointed than the other. Not that LaRoche isn’t happy to stay, but it seems he thought higher of himself. Here’s the thing, though: while the headline says that LaRoche caved, and while the Nationals were fairly inflexible, ultimately the Nationals haven’t re-signed LaRoche at a bargain. LaRoche, without question, is coming off a big year, but he’s also a 33-year-old first baseman. It takes little more than a quick stroll through his historical WARs to understand what sort of player LaRoche really is. The Nationals aren’t interested in paying LaRoche for what he’s done — they’re interested in paying him for what he will do, based on what he’s done, and on what similar peers have done at similar ages. LaRoche, just last season, posted a strong 127 wRC+, but his career mark is 112, and he hadn’t broken 120 since 2006. He hadn’t ever been worth more than 2.5 wins above replacement, according to his player page, previous to last year’s 3.8. Last year, LaRoche was a Nationals team MVP candidate, but Future Adam LaRoche probably won’t be 2012 Adam LaRoche. I don’t like the word “fluke”, and I think baseball fans use it too freely. Certainly, there are performances that look somewhat flukey. I don’t see anything flukey about LaRoche’s 2012. His BABIP wasn’t elevated to a crazy degree, and none of his other numbers spiked or fell unnaturally. To those who say Adam LaRoche’s 2012 season was a fluke, I say, no, I think you’re wrong, sort of, and allow me to explain. LaRoche’s underlying skillset didn’t change. He had all the same strengths and weaknesses he’s always had, since breaking into the league. Because his skillset was the same in 2012 as it was in seasons previous, a future projection should be based on a number of those previous seasons. Given that skillset, LaRoche has demonstrated that a season like 2012 is achievable. However, it is not to be considered the “mean” season — it might represent his 70th or 80th or 90th percentile. Contracts should think more about the 50th percentile. And that’s where we turn our attention to LaRoche’s 112 career wRC+, or 1.7 career WAR/600 plate appearances. It’s meaningful when a player’s coming off a strong season, but only in that it provides new information, and not complete information. Sure, LaRoche’s 33 dingers last year were somewhat out of character. But then, he hit 32 dingers in 2006, with a .276 ISO. The next season, he hit 21 dingers with a .187 ISO. LaRoche showed in 2006 that this sort of performance was within his reach, but it did not and does not accurately reflect his true talent. LaRoche is a pretty good player who can look like a pretty great player. In 2012, he looked like a pretty great player more often than usual, and in 2013, he probably will not. Maybe he’s a 2-win guy, and the Nationals are paying him more or less like he’s a 2-win guy. Maybe he’s a little better, or maybe he’s a little worse — if nothing else, 2012 proved that LaRoche isn’t in the midst of a decline — and maybe the Nationals are giving LaRoche a little something extra because they like having him in the clubhouse. He’s one of them beloved veteran mentors, see, and while I’m not dismissing that as irrelevant, I just don’t have anything to say on the subject. The Nationals like LaRoche’s leadership, and presumably that factored in here somehow. Without the qualifying-offer issue, Adam LaRoche might’ve been able to find a bigger free-agent contract than this. This contract, though, seems to be about what he’s worth, assuming you agree LaRoche is somewhat worse than his 2012 performance. The Nationals are at a place where every win matters, so the focus is more on talent than efficiency. Maybe keeping Morse instead of LaRoche would’ve been a little more efficient; LaRoche, however, is probably a little better. Now Morse can be dealt to improve the roster somewhere else, making the 2013 Nationals even better than before. Adam LaRoche isn’t not a 127 wRC+ kind of guy. He can do that. He just did that. He might think he’s a little more likely to do that again than the Nationals and the rest of the market. The Nationals won, signing LaRoche to the contract they wanted, but it’s not a bad contract for LaRoche, so in time, he should be happy. He got his multi-year deal, he got to stay where he was, and he’s going to play for quite possibly the best team in baseball next season. There are worse ways for contract negotiations to turn out.
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