LaRoche's returns to Nationals opens door to trading Morse
On Tuesday, the Nationals reportedly agreed to a two-year, $24 million deal with Adam LaRoche, a move that takes one of the four remaining free agents attached to qualifying offers and compensatory draft picks off the market. The new contract keeps the 33-year-old first baseman in place coming off a season in which he set career highs for home runs (33) and Wins Above Replacement Player (3.6) while helping Washington to the National League's top record. LaRoche's return will likely have a ripple effect on the team's lineup, as it makes Mike Morse expendable.
Coming off a dismal 2011 season in which labrum and rotator cuff tears limited him to just 43 games and a .172/.288/.258 line and required season-ending surgery in mid-June, LaRoche put up strong numbers for the Nationals in 2012. He hit .271/.343/.510 while matching or setting career highs in games (154), plate appearances (647), hits (155) and RBIs (100) as well as home runs, and his above-average defense (six to 11 run above average, according to various metrics) helped him win his first Gold Glove award. Batting primarily in the cleanup spot, he was a pillar in a lineup where Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos and Morse all missed significant time due to injuries, and Bryce Harper didn't arrive until late April. His 3.6 WARP ranked second only to Joey Votto among NL first basemen, while his .303 True Average ranked fifth among those with at least 400 plate appearances, and third among those who qualified for the batting title.
While the Nats can be reasonably sure of the health of LaRoche's shoulder, they have shelled out for a player coming off his absolute peak. LaRoche has been worth at least 3.0 WARP in only two other seasons, 2006 with the Braves and 2009 with the Pirates, Red Sox and Braves. Aside from a bit of extra power, his slash stats weren't that far off his career line of .268/.338/.482, but his True Average — which adjusts for park and league scoring levels — was 23 points above his career .280, a mark that's basically been around or below the long-term league average at the position.
In other words, he's primed for regression, though the short-term nature of the deal mitigates that somewhat, and his production isn't likely to be a drag on a contending team. The price isn't exorbitant, either; he'll make $10 million in 2013 and $12 million in 2014, with a $2 million buyout on a mutual option (value unknown at this writing) for 2015. At a going rate of around $6 million per win, he'll be a break-even proposition if he's worth 2.0 WARP per year, right on target with the 2.1 WARP he has averaged over the past seven seasons, injury and all.
The more interesting aspect of the deal, perhaps, is what it means for Morse, a late bloomer who has emerged as a credible mid-lineup threat himself in recent years after a career that stalled out in Seattle amid multiple PED suspensions at the major and minor league levels. After a breakout 2011 season in which he hit .303/.360/.550 with 31 homers in 146 games — all career bests — Morse missed the first two months of the 2012 season due to a strained latissimus dorsi, and his performance dipped to .291/.321/.470 with 18 homers in 102 games. That said, he did fare better after the All-Star break (.292/.326/.491) than before (.289/.310/.430), which is understandable given that his injury limited him to just three Grapefruit League appearance in the spring, and that he played just seven games on a rehab assignment; basically, he played his way into shape at a time when his team was shorthanded.
Morse split his time between leftfield (57 starts) and rightfield (35 starts) last year, after playing mostly first base (85 starts) and left (51 starts) the year before. He'll be 31 years old on March 22 and figured to take over first base if LaRoche signed elsewhere, but he now finds himself without a position in the Nationals' lineup. With the acquisition of the fleet-footed Denard Span in late November, Harper has been bumped from center field to left and Werth is in right; with five years and around $100 million remaining on his contract, he's not going anywhere. Morse is under contract for $6.75 million for 2013, his final year before free agency — an affordable sum that should appeal to other teams. Various reports from national writers have the Nats speaking to five or six teams about the possibility of a trade and seeking a lefty reliever or prospects in trade.
The Yankees, Rays, Mariners, Phillies, Mets, Orioles and Rangers all fit the bill as teams that may have an interest. None of them are likely to cough up a blue-chip prospect — no Profars, Wheelers or Bundys — but all appear to have at least some need:
• The Yankees could use him as a platoon partner for Ichiro Suzuki in rightfield, and find additional playing time for him as a backup in leftfield, at first base and DH as well.
• The Phillies could use him in rightfield and explore trade possibilities for Domonic Brown, a former top prospect whom they've clearly never been sold on.
LaRoche's signing leaves three of the nine players who received qualifying offers under the new free agency system still looking for work, namely Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse and Rafael Soriano. Washington would have gained a supplementary first-round pick in the 2013 draft had he signed elsewhere, while the team signing LaRoche would have lost its first-round pick unless they held one of the top 10 picks, in which case they would have lost a second-round pick. LaRoche is the third of the nine players to return to his old team, after David Ortiz (Red Sox) and Hiroki Kuroda (Yankees). The Red Sox have shown interest in LaRoche recently, as an alternative to Mike Napoli, who agreed to terms on a three-year deal in early December but who apparently has a hip injury that has prevented the team from finalizing the contract. LaRoche's return may well accelerate a resolution to that situation in addition to solidifying the Nationals' lineup.