23. Has Adam LaRoche turned the corner?

Adam LaRoche had a fantastic season in 2006, but can he do it again next season? Is LaRoche now a star player? The Braves Show's Bill Shanks talks about 'Sluggo' in today's look at the top 35 questions facing the Braves this winter.

One of the biggest debates over the last few years in the Braves' Nation has been about Adam LaRoche. Most fans were skeptical about LaRoche's prospects for stardom, while others believed patience was the key to seeing the left-handed hitter become a more complete player.

LaRoche's first two seasons in the big leagues were okay, but there was definitely room for improvement. He hit .278 in his first season with 13 home runs and 45 RBI in 324 at bats, and then in year two LaRoche hit .259 but with 20 home runs and 78 RBI in 451 at bats.

Many believed that LaRoche's unorthodox approach at the plate would keep him from being anything more than a platoon player, and most fans want a star at first base. LaRoche maintained that the key to his improvement was simply more consistent playing time, and that if he was no longer a platoon player he would be able to show he was capable of being a star.

The road for that consistent playing time was paved somewhat when Julio Franco, LaRoche's platoon partner in 2004 and 2005, left for the Mets last winter. But then in spring training, when it looked like the only other first baseman on the team would be a rookie named James Jurries, veteran outfielder Brian Jordan volunteered to play first base.

Jordan was trying to hang on for one more season, and he convinced Braves' Manager Bobby Cox that along with being an outfielder, he could also be the backup first baseman. Unfortunately for LaRoche, this meant he would continue in a platoon situation.

As he usually does, LaRoche struggled in April hitting only .200. But then Jordan started to show his age a bit in May as he hit only .178 in 45 at bats, and then on June 17th Jordan broke his clavicle. The injury was a blessing in disguise for Adam LaRoche.

With Jurries struggling in Richmond, the Braves did not have a right-handed hitting first baseman to bring up to replace Jordan on the roster. So instead, Scott Thorman, another lefty hitter, was brought up.

When LaRoche got to the ballpark on June 17th to face the Red Sox, he was hitting only .247 with 11 home runs, 36 runs batted in, 49 hits in 198 at bats, 15 doubles, 27 walks, and 51 strikeouts in 66 games. But after Jordan's injury LaRoche was pretty much handed the everyday job at first base and he responded. For the rest of the season, LaRoche hit .310 with 21 home runs, 54 RBI, 91 hits in 294 at bats, and 23 doubles in 83 games.

LaRoche finished with outstanding numbers overall: 285 batting average, 32 home runs, 90 RBI, and 38 doubles in 492 at bats. The corner was turned. It was arguably one of the best seasons ever by a first baseman, putting him right up there with Andres Galarraga and Fred McGriff. In fact, LaRoche's 71 extra base hits are only second to Galarraga's 72 he had in 1998.

LaRoche was simply outstanding after he got the chance to play everyday. He also fared much better against left-handed pitchers. In his first two seasons in the big leagues, LaRoche was only given 68 at bats against southpaws and hit .206 with 2 home runs and 7 RBI. But in his 112 at bats against lefty pitchers in 2006, LaRoche hit .241 with 7 home runs and 20 RBI – good enough to give Cox the confidence to leave him in full-time.

LaRoche had said all along that he could hit left-handers. Sure, his average could still use improvement, but there was definitely progress shown with his 2006 performance. And remember, LaRoche's dad, Dave LaRoche, was a left-handed pitcher in the big leagues for many years. Adam learned to hit facing his dad in the batting cages as a kid, so it should not be a shock at all that Adam can, in fact, hit left-handed pitchers.

So how good can LaRoche be? Well, I think the main desire will simply be for Adam to be more consistent. It will be very hard to expect Adam to start off strong, since he is a notorious slow starter. He's a career .206 hitter in the month of April, so there's no reason to expect him to automatically become a quick starter.

But the Braves would love to see him have a solid first half of the season. If he can do something similar to what he did in the second half of 2006 (.323 average, 19 home runs, and 48 RBI in 229 at bats) then the team can at least expect for the batting average to be even higher.

Defensively LaRoche continued to show how valuable he is at first base. With the other infielders not having great range, it became even more important for LaRoche to take some wild throws at first base, and he handled them very well. While his range is not exceptional, he compensates with his solid glove at what he can get to.

Some of the distrust in LaRoche's game comes from the mental lapses he has from time to time. And while he does not want to attribute his better second half to the medicine he started taking in June for his Attention Deficit Disorder, the fact is there were fewer hiccups in the second half. Perhaps he can avoid that now and show the entire baseball world exactly how talented he can be when given the chance to play everyday.

The Braves need a solid and powerful hitter from the left side of the plate, and they've got to feel good about the chances for LaRoche to continue his solid production. If he can hit even closer to .300 and once again hit close to 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs, those who loudly criticized him will slowly but surely come to realize how talented a first baseman the Braves have in Adam LaRoche.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look at the Braves' traditional front office philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves' Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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