WASHINGTON - At the winter meetings early this month, Nationals officials talked about their hope to have free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche signed or not by the end of the year. With that situation remaining unresolved, one official familiar with the team's thinking said General Manager Mike Rizzo could press the issue soon, not quite an ultimatum but something close to it.
Under that scenario, Rizzo would tell LaRoche the Nationals would like him to accept their two-year offer, but if not, then they would like to move on with their offseason and commit to Michael Morse at first base. Rizzo could not immediately be reached to comment.
Any kind of deadline would, by its nature, be tentative. The Nationals could always change course so long as LaRoche remains unsigned. But they do want to settle LaRoche's situation sooner rather than later.
The Nationals have kept a two-year offer available to LaRoche all offseason, but LaRoche wants a three-year deal. He prefers to stay in Washington, but would consider another team for an extra year. Owing in part to the fact an opposing team would have to forfeit a first-round pick if it signed LaRoche, he has apparently not received a three-year offer.
Any contact between the Nationals and LaRoche has been amicable, but there are two competing perspectives at play. As a free agent coming off a 33-homer, 100-RBI, Gold Glove season, LaRoche has earned the chance to pick his next team in any way or timetable he chooses. He said earlier in the week he would wait until "April 1" if he had to. But the Nationals have to finish building their 2013 roster, and LaRoche's status remains a key component to other decisions.
If LaRoche re-signs, the Nationals would effectively have to trade Morse and his $6.75 million salary in 2013. Rizzo has said he would be comfortable playing Tyler Moore at first base next year. But as well as Moore hit as a rookie in 2012, the Nationals would be taking a substantial risk handing the first base spot on a World Series contender to Moore when they have contractual control of Morse.
And so before the Nationals can deal Morse, they have to wait for LaRoche to sign somewhere - or walk away from him and decide to keep Morse.
If talks with LaRoche continue to drag out, potential trade partners with interest in Morse will continue to dry up. Here's one example. The Nationals had discussed a deal for Morse with the Mariners, according to a person familiar with the talks. But on Wednesday the Mariners traded for slugging first baseman Kendrys Morales, seemingly eliminating their need for Morse.
Whether the Nationals had LaRoche or Morse at first base would also trickle down to more trivial decisions, such as the type of minor league free agents the Nationals would pursue.
The apparent suitors for LaRoche have been dwindling at a surprising rate, likely pushed away by having to give away a first-round pick in order to sign him. The Rangers did not make a strong push for LaRoche, and their agreement yesterday with catcher A.J. Pierzynski satisfies their need for a left-handed bat.
The Orioles remain a potential fit for LaRoche, but the Baltimore Sun reported they are wary of giving up their first-round choice, a penalty that would be incurred by virtue of the Nationals offering LaRoche a one-year, $13 million qualifying offer at the outset of the offseason.
The new qualifying offer system coupled with new draft rules in the collective bargaining agreement have seemingly had a significant impact on free agency. On ESPN's list, 17 of the top 22 free agents have either signed or agreed to a deal. The five who haven't - LaRoche, Kyle Lohse, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Rafael Soriano - all received qualifying offers. Three of them are clients of Scott Boras, who tends to wait deep into the offseason. But the new system has seemingly hurt players who turned down qualifying offers.