18. Can Adam LaRoche become more consistent?

Adam LaRoche will enter his third season in 2006, and most Braves fans hope he'll turn the corner and become an elite first baseman. As he continues his 35-part look at the top questions facing the Braves this winter, BravesCenter's Bill Shanks talks about LaRoche's future.

Adam LaRoche has become a pretty good topic for discussion in the Braves Nation. Fans are somewhat split on his future in an Atlanta uniform. They see things that they like about Adam's game, but they're not sure if someone else might do those same things better.

Most of you know that I have always been a huge Adam LaRoche supporter. I met him in his first spring training, in 2001, the spring after he had been drafted in the 29th round out of a junior college. That was the first year of my television show on the Braves' minor leaguers. I didn't interview a lot of late round picks from that draft - it was mostly Adam Wainwright, Bubba Nelson, and Zach Miner - their top picks. But I saw something in LaRoche's swing that made me want to talk with him.

The next few years I just fell in love with his game. I continued to watch him swing the bat like John Olerud, and catch the ball at first like Mark Grace. I thought we had something in between - a player that would be in the mold of Olerud, Grace, or even Will Clark.

I remember in the 2002 season when one of the Braves' coaches told me they believed LaRoche was a Quad-A player, meaning he was a player that might be better than a Triple-A player, but never quite good enough to be a solid major leaguer. I was a bit surprised, and very disappointed. I thought LaRoche was going to be our future first baseman, but it was evident even then that the opinion on Adam was a bit mixed.

He came back with a terrific 2003 season in AA and AAA to convince everyone he was more than a Quad-A player. LaRoche was given the starting first base job in 2004 and for the last two years has split time with Julio Franco, who has been a tremendous influence on Adam's career.

But we all know what has left a somewhat bad taste in many people's mouths when talking about LaRoche. That .202 batting average in August has many people concerned, including the Braves. It's natural to wonder if that was an indication of an inconsistency that might be a part of Adam's game. What's more indicative of his ability? The .202 average in August or the .310 average in September?

LaRoche did finish with 20 home runs and 78 runs batted in - not bad for someone with only 451 at bats. But the stat heads will point to other numbers, particularly when comparing him to other first baseman, to try to prove that LaRoche is nothing more than an average player - at best.

I firmly disagree with this. I think LaRoche is still developing into a more complete major league hitter. For some reason, many people assume that once you get to the big leagues, you stop developing. But didn't Andruw Jones develop over the years into a more complete player? He averaged over 30 home runs and just under 100 RBI for like seven years in a row until busting out this season with huge numbers.

I just think Adam is only going to get better. I think the main thing he needs is more consistent playing time. He's had several occasions when he was on a roll offensively, but then had to sit because of a left-handed pitchers on the mound for the opponent. This totally kills any rhythm in his swing. He needs more at bats against left-handed pitchers. LaRoche deserves a chance to play everyday to see if he can be more consistent and avoid those months where he might hit .202.

How will we know how good Adam might be unless he gets a chance to play everyday? We won't. And that's why he deserves a chance to get more playing time. Now his critics will say that he's already struggled enough against right-handers to prove he doesn't deserve more playing time. I just don't agree with that logic. I think until he does play consistently, we won't know whether or not he can be more of a complete player.

I think if LaRoche were given 100 additional at bats he would have between 25 and 30 home runs and drive in close to 100 runs. Plus the batting average would be more where many believe it can be - close to .300. A lot of Adam's offensive game is about rhythm, and when he has to sit against a lefty, even when he's been hot, that just goes down the drain. He's got to be in the lineup when he's hot, whether we're facing a righty or lefty.

Of course, there are other issues here. The presence of the best third base prospect in the game in Andy Marte, along with a veteran third baseman in Chipper Jones, has many wondering if LaRoche could simply be squeezed out in favor of Jones moving across the diamond. There's little doubt that this has probably been discussed in the Braves' front office. But wouldn't they be better off knowing exactly what LaRoche can do as a regular before making such a drastic decision, especially with Jones showing he is once again a fantastic fielder at the hot corner?

I still believe Adam LaRoche has the potential to improve on his 2005 numbers. But there's more than that. Even though he's only heading toward his third big league season, LaRoche is a leader in the making. He relishes the responsibility of being a leader on this team, and now that he is no longer a rookie, and especially since there are so many other younger and less experienced players now on the roster, LaRoche can assume more of a leadership role.

Adam is going to be a great leader. He knows, from being around his dad (former big leaguer Dave LaRoche) all those years what it takes to be a big leaguer. Adam told me two years ago, before he started his big league career, that he couldn't wait until he did have a few years under his belt so he could be more of a leader. And now he's ready for that chance.

The questions and worries are understandable. People expect so much out of a first baseman. But Adam LaRoche deserves more playing time. He deserves a chance to be a full-time player before any conclusion is made about his future. Hopefully the Braves will give LaRoche that chance before doing anything drastic or making a move (Jones to first) too prematurely.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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