At this time last year, the signing of free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $16 million deal in January of 2011 seemed likely to prove a decision that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo would come to regret. LaRoche's first season in Washington was over by late May, due to a torn labrum in his left shoulder, and prior to that the injury had caused LaRoche to suffer through one of the worst stretches of his career. He ended the year having played in just 41 games, in which he had batted .172 with three home runs and 15 RBIs, and a ghastly .546 OPS.
Now? "He's been terrific for us," says Rizzo, unequivocally. LaRoche, 32, is on pace to set career highs in homers (he has 30, tying him for fourth in the National League) and RBIs (his 94 rank him ninth), and equally important has been his consistent presence in the heart of the Nationals' lineup. In a season in which virtually all of the club's veteran hitters -- including Ian Desmond, Mike Morse, Wilson Ramos, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman -- have spent stretches on the disabled list, LaRoche has played in 142 of 149 games, and he has been a consistent force. He has hit either four or seven homers and driven in between 12 and 20 runs in each of the season's months, and it is difficult to imagine that the 91-58 Nationals would have already clinched their first-ever playoff berth without him.
"I give him a lot of credit for having a terrific year under trying circumstances," says Rizzo. "This is what I expected when we gave him that contract."
LaRoche is fortunate that the outcomes of his seasons in Washington were not chronologically reversed. Even as he bounced from team to team between 2005 and 2010 -- he played in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Boston, Atlanta again, and then Arizona -- he was one of the game's most dependable producers, slugging between 20 and 32 homers and driving in between 78 and 100 runs each year. But LaRoche can become a free agent this winter should he decline a mutual $10 million option for 2013 -- as he very likely will -- and he is poised to finally be rewarded with a lucrative long-term deal based largely on the exquisite timing of what will prove in many ways to be a career year.
Indeed, a breakout during a contract year, or even a few impressive months near the end of one, can allow free agents to command offers that sometimes include tens of millions of extra dollars in compensation. Similarly, a poorly-timed injury or down season can deeply hurt the financial prospects of even a proven star, to say nothing of their standing in the Reiter 50 SI.com's annual list of the top 50 free agents available on the market, which will be released in the days after the conclusion of the World Series.
LaRoche might end up in Washington, even if he declines his option. "I love Adam LaRoche, and I love having him around," says Rizzo. "He's a great teammate, he solidifies the middle of the lineup, he plays a great first base and he's a lefthanded presence in the lineup. He's gotta do what's best for Adam LaRoche, and we've gotta do what's best for the Washington Nationals. Oftentimes, what's best for both parties can come together, and we can be together for a while. We're certainly open to some different ideas, but we're going to table that stuff until after the season, which we hope is way down the road."
Helping LaRoche's cause it that he can hit the market during a winter that will be unusually thin for quality free agent first basemen. The rest are either deep into age-related declines (Lance Berkman, Jason Giambi, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Lee, Lyle Overbay Carlos Pena, Ty Wigginton and Kevin Youkilis) or below average as far as their recent production (Casey Kotchman, James Loney). LaRoche will clearly be at the top of his class. Here are five other likely free agents whose stock will be similarly ascendant, based in large measure upon their timing, and five who will not prove as fortunate:
Josh Hamilton, Rangers OF
After a midsummer swoon that would have depressed Hamilton's earning had it persisted -- he hit .202 with eight homers and 27 RBIs during June and July, with an OPS of .687 -- the 31-year-old slugger has returned to form. In his 44 games since August 1, he's batting .285, with 13 home runs and 39 RBIs, which has done as much to alleviate concerns about his durability as the fact that he has played in 138 of the Rangers' 149 games. While his personal history might shave a few million off his first free agent payday, nothing about his recent performance likely will.
Jeremy Guthrie, Royals SP
The Rockies traded for Guthrie last February with the idea that he'd be a dependable innings-eater. He didn't prove to be so until his third start with his second team of 2012, the Royals, to whom he was banished after beginning the year 3-9 with a 6.35 ERA for Colorado. Kansas City has won nine of Guthrie's 10 outings since August 3, though, as he's posted an ERA of 1.99, and as a Royal he has cut his home run rate from 2.1 per nine to 0.8 per nine. An escape from Coors has helped propel Guthrie, 33, into consideration for teams who are not necessarily considering shelling out for an ace -- Zack Greinke will top the market -- but who are in need of a solid No. 3 or No. 4.
Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays 2B
His OPS+ has fallen precipitously since he was a Diamondback in 2010 -- from 127, to 92, to 80. His current numbers are something worse than pedestrian, as he is batting .222 -- .188 since the All-Star break -- with 14 home runs, 51 RBIs and 13 steals. So how can the 30-year-old Johnson's free agent stock be said to be on the rise? It's simple: After the Yankees pick up Robinson Cano's bargain $15 million option, Johnson, who offers at least something as far as power and speed, will emerge as the best option in a painfully thin class of free agent second baseman, over uninspiring choices like Jeff Baker, Maicer Izturis, Ryan Theriot and even the Rays' Jeff Keppinger, who is batting .321 but has little of Johnson's potential.
Rafael Soriano, Yankees RP
Soriano, 32, can thank Mariano Rivera's enthusiastic fungo shagging for his appearance on this list. The torn ACL Rivera suffered in May while engaged in that particular activity opened the closer's role for Soriano, and he has responded with 42 saves in 45 opportunities, to go with a 1.99 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 9.4 strikeouts per nine. Those numbers, and the staggering fact that the Yankees have not missed Rivera at all, should make Soriano the market's top free agent closer -- over Jonathan Broxton, Brandon League and Jose Valverde (and even Rivera himself, who will likely be a free agent in classification only, as it is difficult to imagine him anywhere but New York) -- should he choose to opt out of a contract that would pay him $14 million in 2013. He might be tempted by the possibility of a long-term deal, even at a lesser yearly wage.
B.J. Upton, Rays OF
Joe Sheehan nicely encapsulated Upton's situation last week. To summarize: He's 28, he's fast and strong and in September he has eight home runs and an OPS of 1.000, which will only add several more millions to the many millions that a team -- almost certainly not the cost-conscious Rays -- will pay for his talents, yet to be fully realized as they are.
Michael Bourn, Braves OF
Unfortunately for Bourn, general managers might look at him and think about the disappointing result of the recent free agency of another speedy native of Houston: Carl Crawford, who had far more power than Bourn to go with his wheels. Further hurting Bourn's cause will be that his numbers are down virtually across the board this year -- he's lost 22 points in batting average, and he is on pace for nearly 20 fewer steals (he had 61 last year and currently has 39). Bourn's stellar defense (he leads all players in UZR) and solid OBP skills will still draw suitors, but they will be wary, as his central asset is one that can quickly degenerate.
Mike Napoli, Rangers C
If only Napoli, 30, had reached free agency last winter, after a postseason in which he nearly slugged the Rangers to a championship, hitting .328 with 3 home runs and 15 RBIs in 17 games. His follow-up campaign has been disappointing, as his average has dropped to .230 and his OPS to .801, to go with 19 home runs and, somehow, just eight doubles. He will not be helped by the fact that he is part of an unusually deep class of free agent catchers. Among his competitors will be Russell Martin and A.J. Pierzynski. Others, depending on the non-exercising of options, could be Chris Ianetta, Brian McCann and Carlos Ruiz.
Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers RP
Even a terrific two-and-a-half month stint as a setup man in Milwaukee last season, in which he had an ERA of 1.86 and struck out 10.2 batters per nine innings, couldn't get Rodriguez, 30, a big deal to become a closer again, so he returned to the Brewers for one more try. It hasn't worked out. His ERA has ballooned to 4.71, his strikeout rate is a career low 8.9 per nine, and he has blown seven of the 10 save chances he has been given. His days as a closer, and as someone who gets paid like a closer, appear to have come to a close.
Nick Swisher, Yankees OF
Swisher, so steady during the majority of his four happy years as a Yankee, picked an inopportune time to stop being as such. In 58 games since the All-Star break, the 31-year-old is batting .252, with eight home runs, 32 RBIs and an OPS of .786, and he will threaten his Yankee-years lows in all those categories. Swisher's swoon might make him affordable enough for a return to the supposedly cost-cutting Yankees.
Shane Victorino, Dodgers OF
Victorino has been perhaps the most disappointing of the Dodgers' many mid-season acquisitions: In 44 games since arriving from the Phillies, he's batting .225, with one home run, 11 RBIs and an OPS+ of just 71. Those numbers will represent just the finishing touches on what has been an awful contract year altogether, as all Victorino has had to offer, really, is stolen bases (37). The 31-year-old suggested in March that he would seek a five-year deal, but at this point he'd be lucky to receive an offer that tops that of his younger, more productive and considerably more disgraced fellow free agent Melky Cabrera.