The 2011 season can break one of two ways for the Washington Nationals. They can either take that final step towards a .500 season and use it as a conduit to future playoff contention or they can simply suck for a sixth consecutive year.
And which possibility becomes reality is dependent on who trots out to first base next Opening Day.
The Nationals have shored up enough of their offense—and will in the next month bring in enough starting pitching—that a defensive minded, 25 homer, 85 RBI type of first baseman should make the team at least good enough to take a run at respectability. Anything less and fans will still be talking in terms of “next season.”
Right now, three teams and two players are playing musical chairs with Russian roulette-type implications. The San Diego Padres, Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals are all without a first baseman and are chasing two pretty good ones: Adam LaRoche and Derrek Lee.
So, what’s taking so long?
Most teams have their rosters and payrolls pretty much set by the time they return from Christmas vacation. That means that players only have a few days to finalize their contracts and find homes in their new cities.
Now, the reality is that while the Padres want a new first baseman, they probably can’t afford one. If money weren't a problem they would never have shipped Adrian Gonzalez off to Boston. The reality then is that two teams need a first baseman and two good ones remain in the MLB cupboard (with a few more available in the scratch-n-dent bin).
The 34-year-old Lee is the short-term solution for both clubs. After averaging .292-32-85 since 2000, a little bit of age and an injured thumb slowed him down last year. He batted .260-19-80 playing for the Braves and the Chicago Cubs. He is a former Gold Glove winner.
Lee is a short-term solution because he is content with a one-year contract for “Carlos Pena money,” somewhere in the $8-10 million range. His hope is that he will be able to rebrand himself following a solid 2011 season and then sign a two or three-year deal next fall.
Over the past week or two, both Mid-Atlantic teams showed the most interest in the 30-year-old LaRoche. He has averaged .271-25-87 in his six full major league seasons and brings a glove that is almost Gold Glove quality. It makes a great deal of sense, then, to reward LaRoche with a two-year deal, perhaps with the team owning a third-year option.
Again, it’s been a couple of weeks since negotiations began between the two first basemen and the two teams. From all reports, the Orioles have in fact offered LaRoche a multi-year deal, probably for two years. The sticking point is that third year.
It has been reported that the Orioles were unwilling to include that extra year and they are now in negotiations with Derrek Lee. But those are the same reports coming out of the Nationals camp, that after initial discussions with LaRoche, the team has focused on Lee as their first baseman in 2011.
So what gives?
It would seem that LaRoche is seeking some stability after playing for four teams in five years. He wants to be able to unpack his bags and actually choose the color for his bedroom walls for once. And I don’t begrudge him that desire.
And really, I don’t see why the Nationals would have a problem with a three-year contract. He is the model of consistency. Beginning in 2006, LaRoche has batted .285, .272, .270, .277 and .261 last season.
And over the past four seasons, he has hit 21, 25, 25 and 25 home runs and drove in 90, 88, 85, 83 and 100 runs. It’s great. Just wind him up in March and watch him go.
Lee, on the other hand, had a difficult year in 2009, which could have been the result of either a damaged thumb or advancing age. If it was his thumb, then Lee should be able to hit .280-30-95; maybe better. If it’s the age, then .265-20-75 seems about right.
The problem, of course, is that no one will know until long after the contract has been signed.
The Nationals have two first basemen currently in their minor league system who could one day become major league players. Chris Marrero is 21 and just finished his first full season against Double-A pitchers, batting .294/.350/.450 with 18 home runs and 82 RBI. Over his five-year minor league career, he’s averaged .281-19-88 with a .347 on-base percentage over a full season.
But he went to the Adam Dunn school of defense and general manager Mike Rizzo has made it clear that defense and athleticism are priority talents for future National players. Thus, he has no real future in Washington. He'll likely end up part of a trade package for a veteran player.
Tyler Moore is two years older than Marrero and played in 2010 with Potomac, a level below Marrero’s Harrisburg Senators. However, Moore was drafted out of college, so his age really isn’t an issue. Moore batted .269-31-111 for the P-Nats while garnering a solid .552 slugging mark. Moore, however, is not a great defender.
So it’s not as though a multi-year contract to LaRoche (or Lee) will block some can’t-miss prospect in the minors. Marrero is a near-certain trade chip and Moore is at least two years away from the major leagues.
My guess is that we’ll wake one morning very soon and read that the Nationals signed one of these first baseman. I wouldn’t be upset if it’s Lee but hope that it ends up being LaRoche for two years with a third-year option at $8 million per season.
If the Nationals get one of those two guys—and add that elusive starting pitcher—the winter additions plus the overall maturation of the team will make a .500 run a real possibility. If, however, the team is forced to sift through the scrap heap to find their new first baseman, a 72 to 76-win season is about all we can hope for.
So Adam, hurry up, will you? Let’s get this taken care. The Nationals need you.