Nationals' LaRoche likely to decline mutual option, explore free agency

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Photo - Alex Brandon/AP
First baseman Adam LaRoche led the Nationals with 33 home runs and 100 RBIs this season.
Alex Brandon/AP First baseman Adam LaRoche led the Nationals with 33 home runs and 100 RBIs this season.
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His teammates all want first baseman to return

Adam LaRoche began the season just hoping he could contribute again at a meaningful level after left shoulder surgery wiped out most of a miserable 2011.

He wound up being arguably the most valuable player the Nationals had in 2012.

LaRoche hit a career-high 33 home runs and matched his career best with 100 RBIs. No Nats regular had a better OPS (.853). And yet after all of that, LaRoche isn't sure where he will play next season.

The 32-year-old almost certainly will decline a mutual option in his contract that allows him to become a free agent next month. And while the team has had discussions with LaRoche's representatives, according to general manager Mike Rizzo, a signed contract extension doesn't appear imminent.

"I hope so" was all LaRoche could offer when asked whether he planned to return to Washington next year.

His teammates were equally in the dark about what would happen. But they also made it clear they want the steady, even-keeled LaRoche back in the clubhouse.

"Hopefully Adam gets a chance to come back. I know he loves it here," Mark DeRosa said.

Added shortstop Ian Desmond: "[LaRoche is] the catalyst in here. [Jayson Werth] does a lot. [Ryan Zimmerman] does a lot. All the other guys, [DeRosa]. But LaRoche is that steady head. He's really, really, really respected in here. We would definitely miss him."

LaRoche made just seven errors at first base and is regarded by scouts and opposing players as one of the game's smoothest defensive players at the position. But the Nats have to decide exactly how much that is worth. LaRoche made $7 million in 2011 and $8 million in 2012. If he and the team both picked up the mutual option, he would make $10 million next season. But the open market likely provides leverage for LaRoche to sign for more.

Then there is the decision on how many years Washington wants to devote to a player who turns 33 on Nov. 6. Tyler Moore had a nice season off the bench for the Nats and is a first baseman by trade. But it would be a massive risk to assume he could match LaRoche's offensive production as a full-time player -- and he is nowhere near as accomplished in the field.

Outfielder Michael Morse probably could hit those offensive numbers. He basically did in 2011 in just 522 at-bats (31 home runs, 95 RBI). But he also has a history of injuries and played in just 102 games this season. Plus, Rizzo would have to find a starting outfielder to fill that hole.

"Adam was finally healthy, and for a lot of guys in this sport, health is the key issue," Zimmerman said. "When Adam's healthy, this is the year that he usually produces. He's a great player, but I think a better teammate and a great leader in here. I think all of us would love to have him back."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner