After a disappointing 2010 season for the Washington Nationals, general manager Mike Rizzo allowed first baseman Adam Dunn to enter free agency to the dismay of many fans. With this loss, Washington began their search for another starting first baseman, their fifth in six seasons. On January 4th, 2011, Peter Gammons of MLB Network was the first to report via Twitter that the search was over. The Nationals had agreed to terms on a two-year deal with former Arizona Diamondbacks 1B Adam LaRoche.
LaRoche, 30 years old at the time, had proven himself to be the consistent first baseman that the Nationals needed, both offensively and defensively. In seven seasons with four different teams leading into 2011, he had accumulated six straight 20+ homerun and 78+ RBI seasons along with a career slash line of .271/.339/.488. Defensively, LaRoche had never made more than 11 errors in a season leading to an excellent .994 career fielding percentage at first base. In addition to these already reliable stats, he established a reputation for a strong resistance to injury by playing no less than 136 games a season, excluding his rookie year.
Given this history, fans had high expectation for LaRoche entering the 2011 season. Unfortunately, history didn’t repeat itself for the seventh time. In spring training, he was diagnosed with a slight labrum tear in his left shoulder after feeling discomfort, but despite this news, he continued to play into the regular season. After 43 games, during which he collected a dismal .172/.288/.258 slash line, William Ladson of MLB.com reported that the Nationals were leaning towards placing LaRoche on the 15-day disabled list while searching for a second opinion on the labrum tear. Soon after, former MASN reporter Ben Goessling announced that LaRoche would undergo season ending shoulder surgery based on a second opinion.
This opening left the starting first base position open for Michael Morse, a utility player who began the season platooning in left field with Roger Bernadina after a breakout spring training. Morse capitalized on this opportunity leading the team with 31 home runs, 95 RBIs and an outstanding .303 batting average in 146 games. In addition, he collected only 6 errors in 82 starts at first base. This great all around play led him to be the only Nationals player in 2011 to receive NL MVP votes.
Morse and rookie Chris Marrero split first base duties at the end of the season, putting the year left on Adam LaRoche’s contract out of the minds of some in the Nationals’ fan base. Rumors swirled that Washington was looking to acquire a big name first base free agent such as Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, because Morse could easily play left field. As excitement spread among the fans and reporters, it seemed more and more that the Nationals were going to surprise the league for the second year in a row with a big name signing despite the fact that LaRoche would be a $9 million bench player with no position flexibility.
In early December, most of this excitement was dampened with reports that the Nationals were not interested in either Pujols or Fielder. Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post posted on Twitter, “Nats source on Fielder/Pujols talk: "That's not even a good lie." Can we put that to bed now?” A short time after that, Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim with no reported pursuit by the Nationals.
With Fielder still on the market and rumors still flying, Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo was asked bluntly in a conference call on Friday if Adam LaRoche would be Washingon’s first baseman for 2012. According to Amanda Comak of the Washington Times, he responded with a straightforward “That’s correct.” This finally put to bed most of the rumors that the Nationals were in the market for a star first baseman and confirmed that LaRoche would be Washington’s 2012 first baseman.
Despite the statement made by Mike Rizzo, some optimistic fans that do not want to see a repeat performance from LaRoche still believe and are spreading news that the Nationals are possibly silently bidding for Fielder. Players are also campaigning to the front office for the star first baseman. New Nationals SP Gio Gonzalez on Christmas Eve tweeted, “Now that we are in the Nations Capital, we need a Prince. Come on Fielder.” Two days earlier, the Nationals' number one prospect Bryce Harper tweeted, “Now all we need to do is get Prince!hah,” after the trade to acquire Gio.
Only time will tell what the Nationals officially decide. For the time being, Adam LaRoche is the Washington Nationals' 2012 starting first baseman.