Saturday, February 16, 2013
LaRoche is back in the saddle
VIERA, Fla. -- When last seen wearing a curly W cap, Adam LaRoche was among those inside a sullen clubhouse at Nationals Park, the sting of a Game 5 collapse to the Cardinals in the NLDS overwhelming all other emotions.
LaRoche's dismay could have been compounded by the possibility he had just played his final game as a National, his free agency future unclear. The veteran first baseman, though, insists that thought didn't cross his mind in that moment.
"No, at the end of the year, I didn't think anything of it," he said. "As a matter of fact, I left my stuff in D.C. I just assumed we'd work something out and I'd be back."
The path toward a new contract was perhaps longer and more complicated than he expected, but LaRoche ultimately worked out a two-year, $24 million deal to return. And yesterday morning, he was back on the practice field outside Space Coast Stadium, a curly W cap on his head once again to the relief of everyone else in the organization.
"He's like an insurance policy at first base," manager Davey Johnson said. "I compare him with Keith Hernandez. He's cut out of the same mold. He makes it look easy over there. It's very nice, from an infielder's perspective, that you know if it ain't perfect, he's going to make it right."
Coming off a career year in which he was named both the NL's Silver Slugger and Gold Glove award winner, LaRoche figured to command plenty of interest on the open market. But only a handful of teams wound up in the running for his services, and none was willing to offer the three guaranteed years he sought.
The biggest reason? Clubs were unwilling to forfeit the first-round draft pick it would have cost to sign LaRoche after the Nationals made him a qualifying offer at season's end.
How often did LaRoche hear that explanation?
"Every week," he said. "Whether it was the same team that we talked to a few times, and that being a major hang-up for them, or new teams calling and saying: 'Hey, just want you to know, we'd love to do something, but we can't afford to give that up.' So it got frustrating."
All along, though, LaRoche wanted to return to Washington. As did the Nationals, with their manager leading the recruiting charge.
Johnson spoke to LaRoche several times over the winter, each time trying to up the ante by offering to buy beef from LaRoche's "E3" Ranch or even offering to fly out to Kansas and put his cattle-rustling skills to work.
"Most of them were pretty comical," LaRoche said. "It was him either threatening me, or the next conversation wanting to fly out and help me work. He's great, and I've said it: That's a big reason I came back, the skipper we've got. I love playing for him. Had a blast last year. How could you not, with the record we had and the team we had out there? I just didn't want to miss out on that."
In the end, LaRoche settled on a two-year deal that includes a $15 million, mutual option for 2015.
"We got it done," he said. "It's a great deal, I'm not complaining about that at all. If anything, I wanted to stay longer."
And Johnson never even had to put on his cowboy boots and head west to Kansas for a last-ditch push to bring his star first baseman back to the Nationals.
"I didn't have to," the manager said. "I was close. I had my bags packed."