Washington Nationals Rumors

Washington Nationals trade and free agent rumors from MLBTradeRumors.com.

NL East Notes: Stanton, Mets, Nationals, Tomas, Hamels

As expected, the Marlins have begun extension talks with star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald reports on Twitter. President of baseball operations Michael Hill tells Spencer that the team has “reached out” to Stanton’s representatives and that “negotiations are ongoing.”

Here’s more from the NL East:

  • At present, the Mets are more inclined to fill their needs in the corner outfield via trade than through a free agent signing, reports Marc Carig of Newsday. New York is still hesitant to give up any of its best young talent in a swap. But veterans like Michael Morse, Alex Rios, and Torii Hunter all seem more like fallback options that the team would pursue if value can be had and nothing better has materialized. The Mets are said to prefer to add a right-handed bat.
  • One other hypothetical possibility, Nick Markakis, is not presently engaged with the team in any way, according to Matt Ehalt of The Record (Twitter link).
  • As they weigh their options at second, the Nationals are not unmindful of the Cuban market that has begun to materialize in recent weeks, James Wagner of the Washington Post reports. The primary possible targets, per Wagner, are 26-year-old Jose Fernandez and high-upside youngster Yoan Moncada. The 20-year-old Moncada will draw immense interest, with Ben Badler of Baseball America saying he is talented enough that he would be the odds-on favorite to go first overall in this year’s amateur draft (were he eligible).
  • The Phillies are still the favorite to land Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, reports Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, with A.J. Burnett‘s decision to decline his option possibly burnishing Philly’s chances. That does not mean they are without competition, of course. Other clubs that have seen (or will soon see) Tomas since his showcase include the Rangers, D’backs, Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Red Sox, and Mariners.
  • Also per Heyman, the Phillies could clear yet more payroll space and add young talent through a deal for pitcher Cole Hamels, with the Cubs still showing interest in the lefty.

Offseason Outlook: Washington Nationals

The Nationals have little in the way of glaring needs and could seek to defend their NL East crown with relatively few moves. But some big-picture issues are now squarely in focus, and significant change could occur for the first time in several years.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Ryan Zimmerman, 3B/1B/OF: $76MM through 2019 (including $2MM buyout of 2020 option) + $10MM personal services contract over five years post-playing career
  • Jayson Werth, OF: $63MM through 2017
  • Gio Gonzalez, SP: $23.5MM through 2016 (including $500K buyout of 2017 option)
  • Jordan Zimmermann, SP: $16.5MM through 2015
  • Ian Desmond, SS: $11MM through 2015
  • Nate McLouth, OF: $5.75MM through 2015 (including $750K buyout of 2016 option)
  • Matt Thornton, RP: $3.5MM through 2015
  • *Bryce Harper, OF: $1MM plus $1.25MM in prorated bonus through 2015 (Harper signed MLB contract out of 2010 draft that left undecided whether he could opt into arbitration; Harper would qualify as Super Two with 2.159 years of service; matter will be resolved by negotiation or grievance)

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)

Contract Options

*The Nationals have officially exercised Span’s option while declining the options on LaRoche and Soriano.

Free Agents

Another NL East crown, another gut-wrenching loss in the NLDS. That scenario pains Nationals fans, but probably does little to dissuade GM Mike Rizzo from his path. After all, most of his recent moves have turned out swimmingly for Washington. Brimming with talent at nearly every position, most of it still in prime years, the Nats would undoubtedly be among the favorites to take the 2015 World Series even if they did not make a single outside addition to the roster.

But as three straight years of disappointment – twice in the playoffs, once in failing to make them – have demonstrated, no assembly of talent is good enough. That alone is motivation for change. More significant, though, is the ticking of the service clocks of several core players who have driven the most successful run of any Washington, DC-based MLB team since the mid-1920s Senators.

As always, payroll is an important factor as well. Owner Mark Lerner said early in 2014 that the club was “beyond tapped out” in terms of player salary, but it is already on track to top last year’s nearly $137MM Opening Day tab. As things stand for 2015, the club has about $94MM in guarantees on the books before adding in the approximately $50MM in arb commitments outlined above. Of course, public statements must be taken with a grain of salt, particularly for a team with an ongoing TV rights fee dispute (the results of which could make a big difference in spending capacity) and many potential extension discussions to be had. But it remains to be seen what kind of flexibility Rizzo will have to work with.

Ultimately, the Nationals could just plug needs while exploring a few extension scenarios. Or the club could pursue bold, opportunistic moves that could serve the present while setting things up down the line. Let’s canvas the roster to identify the areas of opportunity and pressure points.

The outfield is the most straightforward area. Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth are locks for the two corner spots. And center fielder Denard Span’s $9MM option is certain to be exercised after a quality season from the 30-year-old. Youngster Michael Taylor is waiting in the wings up the middle, and the more advanced Steven Souza seems ready to contribute in a corner role, and Nate McLouth is set to return from a disappointing, injury-shortened first season in D.C. That group offers sufficient flexibility that trade possibilities cannot be discounted; the likeliest scenario, perhaps, would involve Souza going as part of a deal to address another area, though there could be some temptation to explore a trade involving Span to take advantage of a weak free agent crop of center fielders. (Of course, there are not necessarily that many teams in position to aggressively pursue new center fielders, either.)

In the infield, Wilson Ramos remains entrenched behind the plate, with Jose Lobaton locked in as the back-up. And Ian Desmond is unquestionably set to play short, though he will be entering his final year of team control. One of several still-youthful veterans who will reach free agency after the coming season, Desmond appears the most likely to ink a long-term extension. (Desmond has said he expects to stay with the team for the long run, though he reportedly turned down a seven-year extension last offseason that would have guaranteed him somewhere in the range of $85MM to $98MM.)

Ryan Zimmerman figures to move from his natural third base across to first, taking over for Adam LaRoche. Zimmerman’s inability to stick at third represents a significant downgrade in his value, though his bat is still solid and he has shown some promise of playing a serviceable corner outfield if need be. As for LaRoche, his $15MM mutual option seemed a reasonable value, but he just did not fit on the roster and will be allowed to walk (unencumbered by a qualifying offer) as a free agent.

The Nats would surely prefer to be weighing their options at first while fielding Zimmerman at third and emerging star Anthony Rendon at second. But that is not to be, and the resulting situation is not without its flexibility. Rendon’s bat is good enough to play anywhere on the diamond, and he showed the ability to add value with his glove at both second and third over the course of 2014. Washington will probably angle to add a player to take over at the keystone, keeping Rendon at his natural third base for the long haul, but could jump on a third baseman if the right opportunity presented itself. (The team was said to have interest in Adrian Beltre at the trade deadline, and I believe it could likewise be interested in an option like Chase Headley if he could be had on a short-term contract, though that seems unlikely.)

If the Nationals go looking for a second baseman, while keeping their eye on third, what are their options? The only internal option – former starter Danny Espinosa — is not reliable in the batter’s box against righties, though he could theoretically form a very good left-handed side of a platoon. His offensive upside, defensive prowess, young age, and relatively low cost makes him a player that the Nationals will not give away in trade, but neither is he a full-time option for a contender.

The free agent market is largely unappealing, being headed by players such as Asdrubal Cabrera (who had a late run with the Nats after the trade deadline) and Jed Lowrie. I do not see Rizzo committing to that kind of player on a lengthy deal, though he could jump on a shorter pact if it becomes an option. (Rizzo was willing, for instance, to give two years to Nate McLouth as a fourth outfielder, and could theoretically add a second baseman who would eventually become more of a utility option.) Bounceback candidate Stephen Drew could make sense, as the righty-masher would pair nicely with Espinosa.

There are more intriguing names that will at least potentially be available on the international scene. Korean star Jung-ho Kang could be posted, while no fewer than three well-regarded Cuban second baggers — Jose Fernandez, Hector Olivera, and Andy Ibanez (links to posts)– have (or may have) left their home island with intentions of ultimately landing MLB contracts. It is hard to know at this point what level of interest the Nationals, or other teams, will have in that group, however, and it remains to be seen precisely which of those players will be ready not only to sign but also to contribute on the MLB level in 2015.

Another possibility, of course, is for the Nationals to explore the trade market. Ben Zobrist of the Rays and Howie Kendrick of the Angels would seem to be fits, if they are made available, while Brandon Phillips is at least a hypothetical possibility if the Reds eat a good bit of salary. Alternatively, the Nationals could look to kill two birds with one stone. The team has indicated it is interested in adding a young shortstop to serve as depth and provide an alternative if a long-term deal cannot be reached with Desmond. While there may be an element of posturing there, the fact is that the system lacks any plausible younger options at the spot. A player such as Brad Miller of the Mariners or Didi Gregorius of the Diamondbacks could slot in at second while also serving as a long-term shortstop option. (Again, it does not hurt that Espinosa constitutes a platoon option to both of those left-handed hitters.)

What could the Nationals deal to bring such a return? Other than Souza — who could be a long-term piece but who does not have a path to a starting job for some time — pitching seems the likeliest area. The Nats could dangle any number of their better young arms, depending upon the return and the team’s overall strategy, and Rizzo has shown a willingness to use his prospects to barter. Among the prospect crop, high-upside Lucas Giolito, top-100 arm A.J. Cole, an emerging (and perhaps underappreciated) Blake Treinen, and several younger hurlers all hold appeal.

Of course, it bears noting that last year’s two most effective starters, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, are each playing on expiring contracts. If an extension is not to be had, then the possibility of movement must at least be considered. Zimmermann, in particular, spiked his performance level last year after turning down a reported five-year, $85MM extension offer. While it would be tough to deal away the homegrown star, it could make sense if he brought back a useful big league piece with greater control rights. The Mariners (Miller) and Red Sox (Mookie BettsXander Bogaerts) would presumably have both the interest in the arm and the types of chips that would interest the Nats, though it is far from clear that a mutually agreeable swap could be arranged. Chances remain fairly low that any of the Nats’ starters will be dealt, though if a blockbuster did go down, I would expect the Nationals to immediately become a player for a high-upside arm of some kind in free agency.

In all likelihood, last year’s front five will remain in place. In addition to Zimmermann and Fister, Stephen Strasburg could also be approached about an extension, though it’s not clear how much traction can be expected given that he is represented by Scott Boras. Otherwise, the team will probably hope for a rebound from Gio Gonzalez (though his 3.57 ERA was hardly poor, and was backed by a 3.02 FIP) while crossing its fingers that Tanner Roark does not turn into a pumpkin.

Of course, five is never enough pitchers for a full season. A significant free agent addition seems unlikely unless a trade or injury intervenes, though a minor league depth signing would make good sense. First up among internal options may be Treinen, the righty with a huge sinker who impressed in spot duty in 2014. Ross Detwiler is still under club control, though he has occupied an increasingly marginal position and could be trade fodder. Otherwise, Taylor Jordan will look to return from season-ending elbow surgery to remove bone chips and the Nats will continue to filter up a fairly promising set of young arms.

The bullpen, too, could carry forward in much the same form or could see some changes. Rafael Soriano is out at closer, and is all but certain to find a new home. Drew Storen, with Tyler Clippard behind him, remain the likeliest late-inning pairing, though this could theoretically be the year that the rumors come true and one is dealt. (Certainly, they will not be cheap to keep in tandem.) It would also not be surprising to see the Nationals try to add to a strong group; indeed, MLBTR’s Steve Adams suggests the team as a reasonable bidder for top relief arm David Robertson, and I agree that is a possible area that the Nats could look to upgrade — as they did two years ago with Soriano — given its lack of obvious areas for improvement. Otherwise, Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett should form a solid middle-inning grouping, with Treinen also potentially a factor in the pen. Some combination of Jerry Blevins, Matt Thornton, Detwiler, and Xavier Cedeno will do the left-handed relieving. At least one right-handed addition would make sense, and the club could consider pursuing a solid veteran such as Burke Badenhop or Casey Janssen to add some solid depth.

Once again, 2015 provides ample opportunity for Rizzo to get creative. His sweet spot has been high-value, above-average regulars (Span, Fister, Blevins) and buy-low, high-ceiling prospects (Rendon, Cole, Giolito, Erick Fedde). I expect that he will again go hunting for value, while preparing for unexpected opportunities to arise, as he figures out how to fill the hole at second and deal with the running service clock of some of the team’s best players. But the pressure is on now to win while also keeping the window open for a still-young roster, and Rizzo will need to do it without trusted lieutenant Bryan Minniti. In a way, it’s his greatest challenge yet.


Front Office Notes: Nats, Trammell, Zaidi

The Nationals have hired former Reds executive Bob Miller to serve as a vice president and assistant general manager, reports Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post (Twitter link). Kilgore first mentioned Miller as a speculative replacement for departed AGM Bryan Minniti a couple of weeks ago. Miller will bring more than 30 years of experience to the Nationals’ front office and has previously worked with GM Mike Rizzo while with the D’Backs. He’s previously specialized in salary arbitration and contractual matters, per Kilgore.

Here are a few more front office notes from around the game…

  • The Tigers have added Alan Trammell to their front office as a special assistant to GM Dave Dombrowski, reports Tom Gage of the Detroit News (on Twitter). Trammell, of course, spent three seasons as the team’s manager from 2003-05 and has served as a bench coach for the Cubs and D’Backs. He also spent his entire 20-year playing career with the Tigers as a shortstop, hitting .285/.352/.415, making six All-Star appearances and winning four Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers.
  • The Dodgers have spoken to well-regarded Athletics assistant GM Farhan Zaidi about a role in their front office, reports Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports (Twitter links). It’s far from a given that Zaidi would leave the A’s and GM Billy Beane to work alongside Andrew Friedman in L.A., Rosenthal notes, though I’d imagine the Dodgers could benefit from flexing their financial muscle, as they did to acquire Friedman in the first place. Zaidi and colleague David Forst are two of the game’s most respected assistant general managers.


Nationals Claim Eric Fornataro From Cardinals

The Nationals announced that they’ve claimed 26-year-old right-handed reliever Eric Fornataro off waivers from the Cardinals.

Fornataro, a sixth-round draft pick by the Redbirds in 2008, made his Major League debut this season, allowing five earned runs on 11 hits and a walk with three strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings. His average fastball checked in at a solid 92.8 mph in that time, and he registered a 51.4 percent ground-ball rate in that small sample as well.

The rest of Fornataro’s season was spent at Triple-A Memphis, where in 56 innings he posted a 2.57 ERA with 5.6 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9, though it’s worth noting that at least part of his success was due to a likely unsustainable .254 BABIP.

Baseball America once ranked Fornataro 21st among Cardinals farmhands, writing prior to the 2013 season that his velocity jumped up into the 96-98 mph range and touched 99 on occasion following a move to the bullpen. BA praised his curve more than his splitter, adding that he tends to get grounders in bulk when he’s throwing well.


Nationals Exercise Denard Span’s Option; Decline LaRoche, Soriano

3:01pm: The team announced the move on Span while also announcing that it has declined its club option on reliever Rafael Soriano and the team end of a mutual option for first baseman Adam LaRoche.

Neither of those moves surprised, either. Soriano struggled in the second half and lost his closer job, and never was really in contention to have his $14MM tab paid. LaRoche, meanwhile, will get a $2MM buyout. While it may have made sense to exercise the $15MM option in other circumstances, Washington is expected to shift Ryan Zimmerman over to first.

2:26pm: The Nationals have exercised center fielder Denard Span‘s $9MM option, Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post reports on Twitter. Span, 30, will now enter his final season of team control before hitting the market after the year.

This news comes as no surprise, as Span put up an outstanding all-around year in his second campaign with the Nats. He led the league with 184 hits and slashed .302/.355/.416 in 668 turns at bat. Span also contributed a career-best 31 stolen bases.

Even with some defensive metrics looking down on his work in center — which, it should be noted, goes against the views of some observers — he was nearly a 4-win player in the view of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs. By measure of Baseball Prospectus’s WARP figure, Span tallied 5.7 wins above replacement.

Even better for Span and the Nats: since coming over from Minnesota, Span has only missed time sporadically while remaining an everyday presence in the lineup. While a slight step back in production may be expected, it is worth noting that Span produced at this level earlier in his career before concussion issues struck.

Span, of course, was acquired from Minnesota prior to the 2013 season in exchange for pitching prospect Alex Meyer. Though the Twins are only just preparing to see how their end of the deal that will pay out, the Nationals are surely happy that it was such an easy decision to pick up this option.


Nationals Outright Ross Ohlendorf, Who Elects Free Agency

The Nationals have outrighted right-hander Ross Ohlendorf, the club announced. Ohlendorf has elected free agency.

Today’s move was precipitated by Ohlendorf’s activation from the 60-day DL, where he had resided all year. An early-year back strain ultimately sidelined Ohlendorf for much of the year (including time missed after a re-aggravation), though he did throw 15 minor league rehab innings.

Ohlendorf was a pleasant surprise last year for the Nationals, throwing 60 1/3 frames of 3.28 ERA ball after signing a minor league deal. That included seven starts and nine relief appearances, over which he struck out 6.7 and walked 2.1 per nine.

After that solid effort, Ohlendorf was retained on a $1.25MM arbitration deal (including $3MM in incentives). If he can show that he can maintain the velocity increase that fueled his success last year, it stands to reason that Ohlendorf will receive plenty of interest from teams looking for someone to compete in camp on a minor league deal.


East Notes: Nationals, Phillies, Hamels, Rays

The Nationals will try to re-sign some combination of Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and Doug Fister this offseason, Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post writes. The trio combined for 10.8 fWAR in 2014, and all three are eligible for free agency following the 2015 season. The Nats might have to make decisions about which of the three to extend, and could consider trading those they don’t, although GM Mike Rizzo suggests no trades are imminent. “I think we’re a long way from that conversation,” he says. Kilgore adds that Zimmermann became more difficult to sign when the Reds signed Homer Bailey to a $105MM deal last February, changing the market for starting pitchers. Here are more notes from the East divisions.

  • Interim president Pat Gillick’s recent comments that the Phillies did not figure to contend again until at least 2017 marked a change in philosophy for the organization, MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki writes. “We’ve been talking about a lot of things internally,” says GM Ruben Amaro Jr. “[I]t’s pretty clear that we have had a shift. … [W]e’ve got some regrouping, rebuilding — whatever you want to call it. There’s things that we have to do that are different.” That means the Phillies will try to deal Ryan Howard this offseason, and they’ll also consider dealing Cole Hamels, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins if they get the right offers (and if Utley and Rollins approve trades). The Phillies could also sign Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who would be expensive but who would add youth and star power.
  • The Phillies are willing to deal Hamels, but they’ll be asking a lot, writes Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. Hamels should fetch a strong return on the trade market despite the four years and $96MM remaining on his contract, Heyman writes, because free agent aces Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are likely to get even more. Hamels has a 20-team no-trade list that he must update by November 1. Until then, Hamels can be traded to the Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Cardinals, Nationals, Braves, Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers without his consent. The Cubs claimed Hamels off revocable waivers in August.
  • The Rays‘ list of candidates to replace Joe Maddon could include bench coach Dave Martinez, Triple-A manager Charlie Montoyo, FOX Sports analyst Gabe Kapler, White Sox coach Joe McEwing and former Rangers interim manager Tim Bogar, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times writes. Topkin notes that Martinez has interviewed for five other managerial jobs already.

NL Notes: D-Backs, Nationals, Braves, Mets, Pirates

The Diamondbacks expect new assistant GM Bryan Minniti to focus on the administrative side of baseball operations while also contributing to the organization’s analytical development, reports Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic“I won’t say [administration is] a weakness for me, but it’s part of my job that I don’t necessarily want to embrace on a day-to-day basis,” said GM Dave Stewart. “He picks me up in that area and is very knowledgeable in that area. People in the industry say he’s one of the best in the business at that position.” Minniti said he is not an “analytics guy,” though he does have a statistical background and is said to have played an important role in that regard with the Nationals. Here are more notes out of the National League.

  • As Minniti settles into his new job, the Nationals have begun the process of replacing him, as Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post reports. They made a variety of moves in their front office, including promoting director of baseball operations Adam Cromie to assistant general manager and hiring two analysts.
  • Braves president John Schuerholz says that he never approached Royals GM Dayton Moore about a return to Atlanta and would not have done so since Moore has two years left on his contract, David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on Twitter. Reports had suggested that the Braves were considering making a run at bringing back Moore as general manager, but the team ultimately convinced John Hart to take over baseball operations and says it has no plans of hiring a new GM under him.
  • The Mets have hired Kevin Long as their hitting coach, the club announced via Twitter. Long had served as the Yankees’ hitting coach before his recent firing after eight years with the team.
  • The Brewers have named a new hitting coach as well, hiring Darnell Coles to replace Johnny Narron, as Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports on Twitter. Coles served as the Tigers’ assistant hitting coach in 2014 and managed the Brewers’ Double-A Huntsville affiliate in 2012 and 2013.
  • As the Pirates look forward to 2015, the club faces a number of complicated arbitration decisions, as Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review discusses. Two of those were seemingly resolved this morning when the Bucs designated John Axford and Jeanmar Gomez for assignment, but the Pirates still have 11 arbitration-eligible players, including three first basemen (or likely first basemen) in Pedro Alvarez, Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez.

Quick Hits: Nationals-Astros, Plantier, Cabrera, Hillman

Palm Beach County has approved $108MM in public funding for a $135MM spring training complex to be shared by the Nationals and Astros, writes James Wagner of The Washington Post. The clubs must still agree to a site for their new spring home. The move to Florida’s east coast also has implications for the Cardinals and Marlins. They are now more likely to remain in their shared complex, which included an opt out based on number of teams in the area.

  • Phil Plantier has been relieved of his duties as hitting coach for the Padres, writes Corey Brock of MLB.com. The Padres featured the worst offense by many measures in 2014, although much of that can be pinned on sub-par personnel. Assistant hitting coach Alonzo Powell is expected to remain with the club.
  • Jose Bautista spoke about Melky Cabrera‘s upcoming free agency on Sportsnet 590 the FAN and handicapped a return at about 50-50, reports Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca. According to Bautista, Cabrera will see what’s out there, but he’s “had a good experience in Toronto.” With Colby Rasmus expected to leave via free agency, the Blue Jays outfield could be in a state of flux is Cabrera also departs.
  • Newly hired Astros bench coach Trey Hillman has worn a lot of different hats in his career. Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle profiles Hillman in his latest piece. He was let go from on-field positions with the Royals (manager) and Dodgers (bench coach) before latching on with the Yankees as a special assistant. Per Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News, Yankees GM Brian Cashman approached Hillman about the opening left by former head of minor league operations Mark Newman. Hillman reportedly declined the position because he preferred an on-field role.

Free Agent Profile: Adam LaRoche

Though he’s not technically a lock to hit the open market due to a $15MM mutual option ($2MM buyout), Adam LaRoche is a near certainty to be a free agent due to the rarity of such options being picked up by both sides of the agreement. The soon-to-be 35-year-old first baseman should represent one of the few steady power bats on the free agent market.

Strengths/Pros

Power is on the decline league-wide, but LaRoche remains a steady source of home runs from the left side of the dish. He’s averaged 26 homers per season over the past three years (the same number he totaled in 2014), and excluding a 2011 season that was ruined by injuries (more on that below), he’s averaged 25 homers per season dating back to 2005. He’s cleared the 30-homer plateau twice — most recently in 2012 when he went deep 33 times.

Adam LaRoche

Early in his career, LaRoche walked at a decent clip, but he’s taken that ability to new heights since joining the Nationals in 2011. His walk rate in a Nats uniform has been a hefty 12.3 percent, and this past season it ballooned to 14 percent — far and away the best mark he’s posted in a full season.

Correspondingly, LaRoche’s strikeout rate dipped to 18.4 percent — the second-lowest total of his career and the best mark he’s posted since 2005 when he whiffed just 17.3 percent of the time. His 14 percent walk rate this year is almost double the 7.8 percent mark he posted in ’05, however, so it seems fair to say that LaRoche has matured as a hitter. LaRoche chased out-of-zone pitches at just a 25 percent clip this year, which is well below the league average of 31.3 percent. It’s not surprising, then, to see that he averaged 4.04 pitches per plate appearances, which ranked 30th among qualified hitters and tied him with Chase Headley for tops among free agent hitters (Victor Martinez was a close second at 4.03).

LaRoche has a good defensive reputation, and he hasn’t had a negative mark in Defensive Runs Saved since 2009. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him slightly below average over the past two seasons. Scouts around the league will have their own opinions, of course, but it seems unlikely that any would place his defense as a significant negative.

Weaknesses/Cons

I did a midseason assessment of LaRoche’s free agent stock back in June and noted that while he’s typically shown a platoon split, he had held his own against southpaws with a low average but a .381 on-base percentage. That trend regressed significantly, as LaRoche finished the season with just a .204/.284/.336 line against southpaws. He drew 15 walks in 155 plate appearances against same–handed pitching, but he also whiffed at a 27.7 percent clip against lefties, compared to just 15 percent against righties. There may be some teams that simply don’t want to give LaRoche everyday at-bats given the increased struggles he’s shown against lefties over the past two seasons. (He hit .198/.254/.313 against lefties last year.)

As I referenced previously LaRoche has been durable but he does come with a history of some shoulder issues. He missed about a month of his rookie season due to a separated AC joint in his left shoulder, and he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in that same shoulder in 2011. I’d imagine that he and agent Mike Milchin of Relativity Sports will simply point to the fact that LaRoche hit 33 homers the following season and has averaged 149 games over the following three campaigns as proof that it needn’t be a concern, but it may be something that teams want to look at more closely before agreeing to a multi-year deal. He missed a couple of weeks this season with a strained quad, as well, but that appears to be an isolated incident.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a 35-year-old first baseman doesn’t exactly have a gleaming baserunning reputation. Fangraphs pegged him at 5.5 runs below average on the basepaths this season. Among free agents, that figure was sandwiched between the marks posted by Billy Butler and Michael Morse, which should give an indication of what to expect from LaRoche’s running. Additionally, age will be a consideration, as this next contract will carry LaRoche into his late 30s.

Personal

In his free time, LaRoche is an avid bow hunter and outdoorsman. LaRoche is one of several famous baseball names featured on the Outdoor Channel’s show Buck Commander (along with Chipper Jones and Ryan Langerhans, among others). He’s also a devout Christian and teamed with Denard Span and Ian Desmond to host Faith Day following one of the team’s games at Nationals Park this season, as Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post wrote back in August.

LaRoche was diagnosed with ADD in high school and has dealt with the disorder throughout his career. He’s been taking Ritalin to combat the issue since 2006, which has at times caused him to struggle to maintain his weight, according to this 2013 piece from Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.

Baseball runs in the LaRoche family veins, as his father, Dave, was a two-time All-Star and enjoyed a 14-year Major League career. Adam’s brother, Andy LaRoche, also played in the Majors. The two were teammates with the Pirates in 2008-09. Adam is married with two children, per his bio on the Buck Commander web site.

Market

Milchin can make a very legitimate case for LaRoche as the best first baseman on the free agent market. Morse is younger but comes with durability concerns, Cuddyer has those same durability concerns (and may wish to play an outfield corner), and Corey Hart had a disastrous season. Butler and Martinez are better suited to serve as designated hitters than full-time first basemen, and the same can be said for Kendrys Morales.

LaRoche’s preference is to finish his career in D.C., but that seems unlikely. Ryan Zimmerman‘s chronic shoulder woes have created a persistent throwing problem that will require shifting him to first base or the outfield (an outfield that is currently occupied by Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth). It’s possible the team could deal Span, move Harper to center and put Zimmerman in left, freeing first base for LaRoche’s return. But the more likely outcome seems to me to be that LaRoche will walk, Zimmerman will slide over to first and the Nats will pursue a second baseman or third baseman, with Anthony Rendon occupying the other spot.

Looking around the league, there are a few teams with clear needs at first base. The Brewers’ Lyle Overbay/Mark Reynolds platoon was a flop, and there’s no clear-cut in-house alternative. LaRoche could receive some interest from his former club, the Pirates, as they look to improve upon Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez. The Marlins are known to be looking for a bat and could upgrade over Garrett Jones. The Mariners could make some sense, but Logan Morrison did have a strong finish, and their lineup already leans left pretty heavily. I can see the Padres showing interest as well, and I’ll list the Blue Jays as a dark-horse candidate with the caveat that they’d first have to trade Adam Lind to a more cost-conscious club (e.g. the Pirates).

The other thing to consider with LaRoche is whether or not he will receive a qualifying offer. Like nearly any veteran player coming off a strong season, LaRoche will want the security of a multi-year deal. However, he also has stated a strong preference to remain with the Nats, and his return could present somewhat of a defensive logjam for the team. Because of their roster construction and his desire to stay, I can see the Nats being a bit hesitant to risk a QO. My expectation is that they’ll buy out his mutual option, but there are scenarios in which he could end up with a QO.

Expected Contract

LaRoche struggled to find a suitable deal in his last go-around with free agency despite the fact that he was fresh off a 33-homer season. Part of that, of course, was due to the draft pick attached to his name. He also had steeper competition, with Mike Napoli and Nick Swisher representing younger options coming off very strong seasons.

This time around, LaRoche could be free of draft pick compensation and is arguably the best first baseman on the market. I think something like his previous two-year, $24MM contract with a mutual option is the floor for LaRoche this winter. There’s some case to be made for a three-year deal, which I would imagine to be the target for LaRoche’s camp, but that case would be much stronger had his numbers not dipped in 2013. My prediction is that LaRoche will land in that Napoli range and sign a two-year, $30MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.