17. Will Adam LaRoche be brought back?
The Atlanta Braves had arguably the least productive offensive first baseman in the game when Casey Kotchman was on the team for the first four months of the season.
Kotchman played stellar defense, not making an error in a Braves' uniform. But his offense (6 home runs and 41 RBI in 298 at bats) was just poor for a player that plays an offensive position. So the Braves looked for someone to replace Kotchman.
They found a match in Boston's Adam LaRoche, who had only been with the Red Sox for a week. Boston just didn't need a starting first baseman as much as Atlanta did, but they believed Kotchman could fit in better as a reserve infielder.
So LaRoche returned to the organization where he started his career in 2004. The Braves traded LaRoche after the 2006 season, when his value was sky high after hitting 32 home runs. And the Braves needed a reliever, so they dealt LaRoche to Pittsburgh for Mike Gonzalez.
LaRoche's return was a big success. He hit .325 with 12 home runs and 40 RBI in 57 games for the Braves, and really helped rejuvenate the Atlanta offense. LaRoche's OBP was .401, and his slugging percentage was .557, which gave him a .958 OPS.
It was a terrific two-month stretch. LaRoche actually equaled his home run and RBI total that he had with Pittsburgh earlier in the season, but he did it in 30 fewer games.
The Braves obviously got LaRoche at the right time of the season – the final two months. He is notorious for being more productive in the second half of the season.
And that split in how he does in the last few months of a season will come into play when the Braves make a decision on offering LaRoche a new deal. His contract is now up, and with no current option at the position, the Braves have to decide what to do.
There is no current option, but the future is not far behind. Freddie Freeman is the consensus number two prospect in the organization behind Jason Heyward. Freeman spent the last half of the 2009 season in Double-A Mississippi. He'll probably return there for the start of next season, and then could be ready for the big leagues in the next year.
But the Braves need a first baseman until that happens. Having a bridge at a position, waiting on a top prospect, is not always an easy thing to work out. Remember how Raul Mondesi sped up the development of Jeff Francoeur in 2005 when he just didn't produce? Well, that's the same spot the Braves are now in at first base (and at right field again as well).
So the Braves need a first baseman for 2010, and LaRoche does prefer to come back. However, this is his first crack at free agency, and he is understandably wants to cash in. It's his chance at a large contract, which is the goal of any player who finally hits free agency.
LaRoche would prefer a three or four year contract, but the Braves do not need him for that long with Freeman waiting in the wings. Now, Freeman is a prospect, while LaRoche is a proven major leaguer. So you always have to be careful planning the future around a young kid who has yet to prove much above the Double-A level.
But most coaches and scouts agree that Freeman could be a special player. And if the Braves knew exactly when Freeman was going to be ready, it might make it easier to make a decision on LaRoche.
The Braves like LaRoche, but they know how he is inconsistent in the first half of the season. In the last three seasons, LaRoche has hit .246 before the All-Star Break, while hitting .309 after the break. In April and May in the last three seasons, LaRoche has hit only .220.
So do the Braves want to pay a long-term deal to someone who struggles so much early in the season? Well, it will probably come down to the length of a contract more than anything. LaRoche could receive a three or four-year offer from another team. And with Freeman on the horizon, the Braves will not want to do a deal like that.
It's possible the Braves could offer a two-year contract, perhaps near the $10 million mark. That would give Freeman ample time to develop, and then the Braves could know toward the end of the 2011 season whether or not he would be ready to take over the next season.
Some have suggested the Braves sign LaRoche to the three-year deal he probably wants, and simply trade him once Freeman is ready. But it may not be as easy as people think to just trade LaRoche at the drop of the hat, and LaRoche might be skeptical is the team signs him to such a deal knowing a trade could happen. He would probably prefer a team make a full commitment to him for three or four years.
There have already been strong rumors that the New York Mets could make a long-term offer to LaRoche. They need to replace Carlos Delgado, who is also a free agent. The Mets would be able to offer LaRoche a deal that might make it tough for the Braves to counter.
The perfect scenario, really, is for the Braves to offer arbitration and for him to accept. That would bring him back for one more season, which would also give them more time to evaluate Freeman and determine the potential date of his debut.
So it will be an important decision for the Braves, and it will be tricky. They like LaRoche, but they've got to be very cognizant of the presence of a player in Freddie Freeman that could join Jason Heyward as one of the faces of the franchise for the next decade.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.
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