The Orioles need a power hitter for the middle of their lineup. They have a vacant spot at first base, if they can get someone that’s better defensively than Chris Davis.
The club has tried to make a trade to bolster those spots, but they haven’t been able to consummate anything yet.
So, until they do, one name is going to keep coming up: free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, who won a Gold Glove and hit 33 homers for the Washington Nationals last season.
LaRoche is by far the best fit available on the open market.
And, according to multiple sources, the Orioles have legitimate interest in adding LaRoche.
But the situation is complicated, and the real stumbling block isn’t a three-year deal -- which LaRoche apparently is seeking and what the Nationals reportedly are not about to give. And it’s not the money, which would likely be more than $10 million per season.
Some within the Orioles’ organization would be willing to give LaRoche a third year on a fair-market deal, but if they signed him, it would run counter to executive vice president Dan Duquette’s plan of rebuilding from the draft.
A LaRoche signing by the Orioles would mean the loss of their first-round draft pick in 2013 (the 24th pick overall) because the Nationals made the pending free agent a qualifying offer this fall.
Duquette has stressed the importance of building through the draft and the confidence he has in scouting director Gary Rajsich and his staff to uncover important building blocks. So you can’t expect Duquette to be thrilled to give up a draft pick for a 33-year-old infielder, no matter how much he may fit.
And though 24th is the deepest the Orioles will select for a top first-rounder since picking 26th in 1998, it’s not as if there won’t be potential stars available at the end of the first round – remember, the Los Angeles Angels took Mike Trout with the 25th pick in 2009, the year the Orioles selected pitcher Matt Hobgood fifth.
The Orioles will also have another pick at 35 – which is part of the new competitive balance selections – so if they gave up No. 24 for LaRoche they’d still get a shot at someone that’s basically first-round material. But Duquette wants to stockpile those guys, not do things that would limit them.
Duquette, as per his policy, is not talking about LaRoche or any other specific free agent target, other than saying LaRoche is a quality major leaguer.
But the truth is LaRoche can give the Orioles what no other free agent can: The opportunity to have the best defense in baseball. It may already be there with five players who have won Gold Gloves in the last four years: shortstop J.J. Hardy, catcher Matt Wieters and an outfield of Nate McLouth, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis.
Long considered an above-average defender, LaRoche won his first Gold Glove last season in what some observers say was his best year with the glove. Throw him in an infield with Hardy, 20-year-old Manny Machado, who was tremendous at third base in limited action last season, and potential starting second baseman Alexi Casilla, whose range has been heralded, and the Orioles have the potential for a plus defender at every position.
And that’s huge for a young and inexperienced pitching staff that can concentrate on throwing strikes and allowing the ball to be put in play.
There’s also another thing to think about with LaRoche, though, something the Orioles have talked about internally.
The consensus is that Washington has the leverage here, not LaRoche. The belief is that the Nationals don’t think many teams would want to surrender a top pick for LaRoche. And they have replacements for him (Mike Morse, specifically) if LaRoche were to leave.
LaRoche loved his time in Washington and wants to return. Plus, at 33, he wants to win and he’s never in his career been on a team that has won a playoff series. The Nationals are as best situated as any team in baseball to win in 2013.
So many within the Orioles organization think that when the dust settles LaRoche returns to Washington. Therefore, offering a three-year deal and getting involved in deep contract talks may only serve as a negotiating ploy for LaRoche’s camp, and that the Orioles ultimately will end up getting used.
Remember, they danced this dance in the winter of 2010, but LaRoche eventually chose the Nationals over the Orioles, partially because the Nats offered a mutual option for 2013 and the Orioles didn’t want to go beyond two years.
LaRoche also has some warts. He missed two-thirds of 2011 due to a torn labrum in his shoulder that sapped his power. Last season was his first 30-homer-plus year since 2006. Roughly 25 homers would be more of the norm for him.
Yet there’s no question that adding LaRoche would make the Orioles better, fill two of their needs (power and first base defense) and give them another good clubhouse guy. And it would appease their fans, who want the club to do something extra this offseason.
But it would come at the expense of a 2013 first-round draft pick. And that, ultimately, may be what keeps the Orioles from pushing harder for LaRoche.
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