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Veteran Adam LaRoche's signing to mediocre White Sox a surprising one

The Chicago White Sox have signed first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year contract worth $25 million, according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. That news comes just one day after the Marlins reportedly offered LaRoche, who has been squeezed out of the Nationals' infield picture, a two-year, $20 million deal. In Chicago, LaRoche will play in a far friendlier home ballpark and provide left-handed protection in the lineup for right-handed Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu in the heart of the White Sox’ lineup. However, he also joins a team that is far less likely to contend over the course of his contract. This makes LaRoche’s decision a curious one for a player entering the twilight of his career, especially one who had a taste of the playoffs in two of the last three seasons in Washington.

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A return to the Nationals was not an option for LaRoche, something of which he was likely aware long before Washington declined his $15 million option for 2015 the day after the World Series ended. LaRoche was a key part of the Nationals’ first playoff team in 2012, hitting .271/.343/.510 with 33 home runs and playing an excellent first base. While his slump in 2013 was just as significant a factor in the team’s failure to return to the postseason that year, he and the team both rebounded this past season, with LaRoche hitting .259/.362/.455 with 26 homers. The decision to part with LaRoche, however, had less to do with LaRoche’s performance than it did with Ryan Zimmerman’s right shoulder.

Quite simply, Zimmerman, who is among the team’s best hitters when healthy and signed through 2019, can’t play third base on a regular basis any more due to arthritis in his throwing shoulder. With the emergence of 2011 first-round pick Anthony Rendon, who proved himself an outstanding all-around third baseman in Zimmerman’s absence this past season — he won the Silver Slugger at the position and finished fifth in the National League Most Valuable Player voting — and LaRoche’s reaching his option year, the Nationals made a rather obvious decision to move Zimmerman to first base in 2015 and let LaRoche, who turned 35 earlier this month, go.

In truth, the sum total of LaRoche’s three full seasons in Washington (we’ll leave out 2011, when he missed most of the season due to surgery on his left shoulder) was rather ordinary. LaRoche hit .256/.346/.458 over the last three seasons combined, while the average major league first baseman hit .259/.335/.435. LaRoche was above average over those three seasons, but not dramatically so. Still, as a replacement for the now-retired Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, LaRoche does represent a dramatic upgrade for the White Sox.

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​Abreu made 144 of the White Sox’ 314 combined starts at first base and designated hitter in 2014. Dunn and Konerko made 146 of the remaining 170 and hit a combined .215/.311/.391 while making a combined $17.5 million. LaRoche should easily and significantly improve on that production while costing the White Sox $5 million less annually. This is also before factoring in that Nationals Park is one of the toughest major league ballparks for left-handed power hitters (left-handed home run park factor of 80 over the last three seasons, per the Bill James Handbook, with 100 being neutral) while the White Sox’ home park is among the friendliest home run parks in the majors (lefty home run factor of 113 over the last three years).

If the White Sox are willing to make their soon-to-be 28-year-old superstar a full-time DH, LaRoche will also be an upgrade defensively at first base. For the White Sox, there’s nothing not to like about this deal. For LaRoche, however, it remains a curious choice.

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Chicago won just 73 games last year despite tremendous seasons from Abreu and left-handed ace Chris Sale, and according to the advanced won-loss formulas (Pythagorean, third-order) they were closer to a 71-win team. The White Sox have two superstars and a handful of good-to-very-good players. Lefty Jose Quintana, center fielder Adam Eaton and shortstop Alexei Ramirez are all firmly in the latter category, to which they can now add LaRoche. Third baseman Conor Gillaspie took a nice step forward in his age-26 season, and Avisail Garcia remains a compelling talent heading into his age-24 season after losing most of 2014 to a shoulder injury.

They are not, however, a team that seems likely to contend in the next two years. Their rotation falls off sharply after Quintana, their bullpen inspires little confidence — something the three-year, $15 million deal they just gave veteran lefty Zach Duke does little to change — and the remaining holes in their lineup at second base and in left field, where Dayan Viciedo was a sub-replacement-level player last year despite his 21 home runs, are glaring. LaRoche will make the White Sox better, but he won’t make them good, and it’s surprising to see a player who was considered an important part of a two-time playoff team coming into this offseason, and who may be signing his last major contract, settle for a second-division club with such a bleak outlook.