After having his 2011 season ruined by injury, Adam LaRoche had a nice comeback in 2012. He hit .271/.343/.510 (127 wRC+), including a career-high 33 home runs on the way to the postseason with Washington. The Nationals and LaRoche had a mutual option for 2013, but LaRoche turned down his side of it and opted for free agency as he entered his age-33 season.
LaRoche is reportedly looking for a three-year contract similar to the one Mike Napoli received from Boston, while the Nationals are said to be willing to offer only two years and $25 million. LaRoche is apparently talking to the Orioles, too. LaRoche had a nice year, but it is worth asking (assuming the Nationals are being serious in their pursuit of LaRoche) why Washington is bidding on LaRoche, given that they already have Michael Morse signed for 2013 at a considerably lower price.
LaRoche obviously had a better 2012 than Morse. While LaRoche had a good season, Morse, primarily playing the outfield because of LaRoche’s return, struggled. Morse missed the first third of the season recovering from a shoulder strain, and went through a slump in August while playing through various hand and wrist injuries. Despite all of that, Morse still managed a decent year with the bat, hitting .291/.312/.470 (113 wRC+), although that was largely canceled out by less-than-brilliant defense in the outfield. Clearly, LaRoche was much more valuable to the Nationals in 2012.
That is all in the past, and the Nationals are looking at 2013 and beyond when considering what to do with first base. The last season is not the only relevant performance. While LaRoche out-hit Morse in 2012, Morse not only hit better than LaRoche in 2011 when LaRoche was mostly out with injury, but also in 2010. Although neither are exactly young, Morse is a couple of years younger. If one feels that Bill James projections tend to be too rosy for hitters (projecting a .360 wOBA for Morse and a .345 for LaRoche in 2013), my own simple projections, which include basic regression, weighting, and age adjustments, projects about the same gap between the two hitters in 2013: a .348 wOBA for Morse and .334 for LaRoche. Over a full season, that is about seven runs.
Neither player is exactly brilliant when it comes to running the bases, although again, looking beyond 2012, LaRoche is clearly worse, even if the difference only projects to be a couple runs. Base running aside, one might point to LaRoche’s superior defense. Even without looking at fielding metrics, it should be conceded that LaRoche does have a good reputation in the field, certainly better than that of Morse. However, one should not get too hung up on Morse’s fielding numbers from 2012, even if one likes advanced metrics.
As mentioned before, Morse primarily played outfield in 2012, and with Denard Span slated to play center, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper will be moving to the corners, leaving only first base for Morse. He is not exactly Keith Hernandez there, either, but in a small sample, he seems to have only been a bit below average. There is likely a gap between Morse and LaRoche as first basemen, but it seems unlikely to be larger than, or even equal to, the projected gap on offense.
The only place to start Morse at this point is at first base, so it really is a choice between him and LaRoche. However, while the Nationals’ reported offer to LaRoche would probably pay him between $12 and $13 million dollars in 2013 (assuming the salary is distributed evenly), Morse is signed for less than $7 million next year. In terms of surplus value, assuming that defense makes LaRoche Morse’s projected equal, this would seem to be a deal breaker.
However, the Nationals might have other reasons to prefer LaRoche. They may be concerned that Morse’s various hand and wrist problems from last August could carry over into 2013, although he did hit well in 100 September plate appearances (128 wRC+). LaRoche’s offensive skill set may also seem more sustainable. Although both generally have good power, LaRoche takes a good number of walks, while Morse, even at his best, has a below-average walk rate that was downright miserable last season. Although Morse has shown an ability to hit for a higher-than-average BABIP over the last few seasons, that is less generally reliable year-to-year as a method for getting on base than taking walks. Looking at the Nationals’ projected 2013 batting order with Morse at first base, only Span, Harper, and Danny Espinosa are not right-handed hitters, and of those three, only Harper is a power threat. Some teams might want a more balanced lineup.
Just on the basis of the numbers, Morse seems to be roughly as good as (and maybe a bit better than) LaRoche at about half the reported 2013 price, which makes the National’s interest in LaRoche puzzling. However, other factors (just to name a few possiblities) such an injury information that the team has, the style of hitting, and a desire for a more handedness-balanced lineup might make spending a more for LaRoche an attractive option as the Nationals make another loaded run for the playoffs. In addition, if they did bring back LaRoche, Morse’s relatively low salary might might him an attractive trade piece.
Even if the Nationals would rather have LaRoche as their starting first baseman, simply having Morse as an acceptable option in 2013 keeps them from having to going further than they are comfortable in dollars or years for LaRoche. It must be nice.