Pirates Notebook: The future of LaRoche

Adam LaRoche had been with the Pirates for two years heading in to the 2009 season. In that time he combined for a .271 average and 46 homers in 1055 at bats. The majority of his struggles came in April of each season.

LaRoche hit .133 with a homer every 27.67 at bats in April of 2007, only to hit .296 with a homer every 26.67 at bats the remainder of the season. In 2008 he hit .174 with one homer in 86 at bats in April, and .291 with a homer every 16.92 at bats the remainder of the season.

With a career .182 average and a homer every 33 at bats coming in to the 2009 season, the expectations were small for LaRoche in the opening month. He surprised many with a .269 average and five homers.

Of course it all comes a little too late for the Pirates, who are almost certain to see LaRoche walk as a free agent after the season. Or are they?

LaRoche is making $7.05 M this season in his third year of arbitration. An extension on that same level would be affordable for the Pirates, but would be a poor use of payroll.

Adam’s brother, Andy LaRoche, has been heating up in the last few weeks, with a .318 average in his last 18 games, after starting the season 0 for 16 in his first seven games. Andy has recorded a hit in 15 of those 18 games. Aside from the hitting, his play in the field has been great. Andy started the season with three errors in his first two games, but has gone without an error in the next 23 games.

With top prospect Pedro Alvarez expected to be up in 2010, the Pirates will have a decision to make at third base, assuming Andy LaRoche keeps this play up. The popular idea is to keep LaRoche at third and move Alvarez to first base. Unfortunately that leaves no room for Adam LaRoche after the 2009 season.

So is the book closed on Adam LaRoche’s Pirates career after the 2009 season? Not necessarily.

Andy LaRoche had limited time at second base in 2008 with the Dodgers, playing eight games in AAA, and three games in the majors. It’s a small sample size, but LaRoche didn’t record an error in those 11 games. By putting Andy LaRoche at second base, the Pirates could keep Alvarez at third, and re-sign Adam LaRoche to first base.

This set of moves would raise two issues. First, there’s the issue of whether it is worth it to re-sign Adam LaRoche. Freddy Sanchez has an $8 M option next season, which becomes guaranteed with 635 plate appearances. After 26 games, Sanchez is on pace for 710 plate appearances this season.

Let’s assume the Pirates trade Sanchez either at the deadline, or in the off-season, ridding themselves of the 2010 option. That gives them $8 M to re-sign Adam LaRoche for the 2010 season. However, it may not even take that much. If anyone would give the Pirates a discount, it could be Adam LaRoche. This is the first opportunity that Adam and Andy LaRoche have ever had to play together on the same field. There’s a strong possibility that LaRoche would take less to stay in Pittsburgh and play with his brother, who is under team control through the 2014 season.

With the possibility that Adam LaRoche could come cheap for the Pirates, let’s address the second issue. Is his April start legit, or is it a product of a contract year?

One thing to consider is the fact that LaRoche has had three different hitting coaches since 2006, and this marks the first season that LaRoche has had the same hitting coach two years in a row since 2005-2006. In 2005, LaRoche hit .259 with 20 homers in 451 at bats, and in 2006 LaRoche hit .285 with 32 homers in 492 at bats.

Don Long also is responsible for the development of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in Philadelphia, and with Adam LaRoche serving as one of the top hitters on the 2009 Pirates, it’s not hard to imagine that Long spent some time working with LaRoche on correcting his early season struggles.

We won’t know for sure whether LaRoche’s 2009 April was due to a contract year. However, we do know that this is the first time since 2006 that LaRoche has kept the same hitting coach for more than a year. We also know that LaRoche saw a drastic increase in production from 2005 to 2006 when keeping the same coach. And we know that LaRoche currently has a good hitting coach in Don Long. While there are no guarantees that his April 2009 was legit, all signs point to that being the case.

Assuming Adam LaRoche would take a discount and sign for about $5 M, the Pirates would save $3 M in 2010 on a LaRoche/LaRoche/Alvarez infield, compared to Alvarez/Sanchez/LaRoche. If Andy LaRoche continues his recent success, and Alvarez lives up to his top prospect hype, the LaRoche/LaRoche/Alvarez trio would also provide more offense.

It’s a long way off (currently requires Andy to keep up his recent performance, and Pedro to break out in the minors), but it’s something to think about this year.

The MVP Tracker

Updates to the MVP Tracker after tonight’s loss to the Brewers. Just throwing this out there: the Pirates are 12-9 against teams not located in Milwaukee this season. They are also 7-2 in games against non-NL Central opponents, and 5-12 against NL Central teams.

-One negative point for Ian Snell for five earned runs in five innings.

-One negative point for Evan Meek for two earned runs in the eighth to put the game out of reach.

-One negative point for Adam LaRoche for the 0 for 5 night.

-One negative point for Nyjer Morgan for going 1 for 5 with three left on base.

-One negative point for Jesse Chavez for 0.1 innings, one earned run, two hits and two walks, before Sean Burnett bailed him out.

Other Stuff

-Matt Capps will be out until the weekend, according to DK at the PBC Blog. The Pirates could definitely use a strong start from Zach Duke tomorrow with the bullpen depleted and five of the six available bullpen arms pitching tonight.

-The Draft Prospects Tracker is updated.

-Dustin Ackley, playing in his first game since 4/26 (it was UNC’s first game since then), went 3 for 4 with three RBIs. He’s still my top pick, outside of Stephen Strasburg.

-Grant Green went 2 for 3 with his 14th stolen base of the season. Green is a great hitting prospect, with a .368 average this year, but he lacks power and his defense is horrible with 15 errors in 44 games. If the Pirates could fix his defense, he would be a solid prospect at shortstop, but that might be too big of a risk with the fourth overall pick.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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