The 2012 Washington Nationals season is unofficially underway, and stories are flying out about how important Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper are to the team this season. All of those people are vital to the team's success, but one crucial piece of the puzzle continues to fly under the radar: Adam LaRoche.
It was a tumultuous offseason for LaRoche, as he recovered from labrum surgery and wondered if his job would be there in 2012 until Prince Fielder signed with the Detroit Tigers. After Fielder was off the table, LaRoche said all the right things to the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore:
“I can’t say I cared about it. I didn’t lose any sleep over it. It would have obviously been a disappointment. I think everybody knows we’re turning the corner right now, and I wanted to be a part of that. I understand why stuff like that happens. I wouldn’t have any grudges. I would have totally understood the business decision. Then again, it’s fixing to get really exciting in D.C., and I want to be a part of it.”
The laid back attitude that LaRoche brings to the team will be vital, combined with his ability to hit for power from the left side of the plate. After recovering from his shoulder surgery, LaRoche started in the cage in December and January to prepare for the season. He told MASNSports.com's Pete Kerzel:
"I wouldn't even say it's there yet, as far as 100 percent. But it was the first couple of weeks of hitting when I started getting excited (and feeling like) this is turning out to be really good, it feels really good. I have every hope that by the end of camp it's going to be really good swinging and I think throwing will eventually come."
The Nationals have to hope LaRoche makes a full recovery too 100% before April 5th. Despite flying under the radar to the team's current stars, he will be an important bat at the heart of the lineup. He will fit in to break up a lineup full of right-handed batters in the middle of the order, including Zimmerman, Morse, and Werth.
It's easy to forget, but LaRoche also brings a track record of home runs and RBI. From 2006 to 2010, he put up a .273/.343/.493 slash line, good for an impressive .836 OPS. He didn't hit fewer than 80 RBI in those five seasons, and in 2010, he hit 25 home runs and drove in a career-high 100 RBI for an Arizona Diamondbacks team that won just 65 games. His 2011 season is an unfair comparison, as he was unhealthy from Spring Training until his surgery.
LaRoche will likely replace Jayson Werth in the Nationals No. 5 spot in the batting order, and that's a good spot for him. He'll have the opportunity to have Werth, Zimmermann, and Morse on base in front of him to drive in runs and hopefully approach the 2010 version of himself by the time the season ends. As the season rolls on, LaRoche may end up as trade bait once he shows he's healthy, but for now, he's an important part of the Nationals everyday lineup.