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When will the offense arrive for LaRoche?

Going in to the 2008 season, Andy LaRoche ranked as the top hitting prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ system, and the number two overall prospect for the Dodgers. He also ranked 31st overall in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects in baseball. In their scouting report on LaRoche, he was listed with the potential of an every day third baseman with below average defense, who could bat in the middle of the lineup.

It’s easy to see why LaRoche was ranked so high. In his first full season in pro ball, LaRoche hit 23 homers in 463 at-bats. In 2005 LaRoche had 476 at-bats between high A and AA ball, hitting 30 homers with a .305/.374/.553 line.
From that point injuries slowed LaRoche. In 2006 he hit for a .315/.410/.514 line with 19 homers in 432 at-bats between AA and AAA, but dealt with a shoulder injury, requiring surgery after the season. In 2007 he dealt with back issues, but still hit for a .309/.399/.589 line with 18 homers in 265 at-bats in AAA. In 2008 he was slowed by a thumb injury, but hit for a .297/.445/.428 line with five homers in 145 at-bats between AA and AAA.
The thumb injury really impacted his power swing, and reasonably so, but there hasn’t been much talk about that issue, and I don’t think the thumb is a problem. Unlike his time with the Dodgers, LaRoche is getting a legit chance to start at third base, with everyday playing time to allow him to adjust to the majors.
So far this season, LaRoche has hit for a .248/.328/.367 line in his first full season as a starter, with seven homers in 436 at-bats. Those clearly aren’t the numbers that people expected from LaRoche, who was considered one of the top prospects in the game from 2005-2008. What could be holding LaRoche back?
Some may suggest it’s the inflated numbers in the high altitude Pacific Coast League that made LaRoche look much better than he actually was. It’s hard to buy that, because LaRoche hit for a .288/.340/.549 line with 31 homers in 468 at-bats in high A, and a .292/.394/.459 line with 18 homers in 479 at-bats in AA. His AAA numbers aren’t that far off, with a .310/.412/.544 line and 33 homers in 590 at-bats. He was also considered a top prospect before he even reached AAA. Finally, it’s not like there’s a rule that batters in the PCL never replicate their success in the majors.
Let’s go to LaRoche’s scouting report coming in to the 2008 season. There are two big things that he’s not living up to: the “middle of the lineup” bat, and the “below average” defense. Maybe the two are connected.
We know that Andy LaRoche has received a lot of attention from Perry Hill this season. We also know that his defense has taken great strides, as anyone who saw him last year, then saw him this year, can clearly see. Often we take for granted the effort that is needed to go through this type of transformation. It’s not like Andy just goes out and takes a few ground balls at the position. To go from where Andy was at last year, to a Gold Glove contender this year, had to take a lot of time off the field. Considering that LaRoche only has so much time to work with, one could assume that he’s devoted more time to improving his defense, rather than improving his hitting.
LaRoche wouldn’t be the first person this has happened to. Delwyn Young was hitting for a .323/.389/.437 average before the Freddy Sanchez trade. Delwyn had been working on his second base skills since coming over from the Dodgers in a trade early this season, but has really put in a lot of effort now that he’s looked to as a legit solution at the second base position. Since the Freddy Sanchez trade, Delwyn has hit for a .236/.264/.366 line in 123 at-bats. You could chalk that up to increased playing time, but Delwyn has been getting regular time since the end of June, hitting for a .314/.360/.486 line in 70 at-bats in the month leading up to the trade.
Then there’s Jeff Clement. Clement was hitting for a .288/.366/.505 line in 372 at-bats at AAA this season with Seattle. He came over in the Jack Wilson trade and immediately was shifted to first base. His line so far in Indianapolis is .221/.313/.463. Clement did play in the PCL, but let’s compare the Major League Equivalents (courtesy of MinorLeagueSplits.com) just to see how his numbers compare from each stop at AAA:
Tacoma (PCL): .254/.314/.417, 35.09 AB/HR
Indianapolis (IL): .194/.268/.398, 16.33 AB/HR
There’s a bigger drop off from Clement’s numbers in Tacoma (a 34 point swing in average, compared to a 27 point swing in Indianapolis), but there’s no questioning the fact that Clement has really struggled since joining the Pirates, coincidentally while devoting a lot of time to improving his defense at a position.
I don’t believe in closing the book on a prospect based on one season. It typically takes a player three years in the majors to reach his potential, and while some players have immediate success, other players take time to develop. I’m not buying the notion that the Dodgers are geniuses for supposedly realizing that LaRoche was a bust. The Dodgers have shown they aren’t the best at evaluating young talent. This is an organization that:
-Traded Edwin Jackson at the age of 21, after just 75 innings in the majors, for two relief pitchers.
-Held back Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp with high priced contracts to Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones.
-Traded catching prospect Carlos Santana, rated the 26th best prospect in the league coming in to the season, for two months of Casey Blake (that was the deal that allowed LaRoche to be traded, and they later re-signed the 35 year old Blake).
-Gave up Delwyn Young for practically nothing
It’s obvious the Dodgers aren’t a bad team. They are just a large market team that can afford to make big financial mistakes (and they made two of the biggest with Jones/Pierre), and buy players, thus avoiding the need to wait on prospects to develop. The Pirates are the exact opposite. The Pirates can’t afford to be impatient and cast off a prospect because he doesn’t have it all together in his first full season at the age of 25.
I’ve always felt that LaRoche had two strikes against him from the start. First of all, he was acquired for Jason Bay, our best player, which makes him hated from the start (and let’s not kid ourselves…a lot of people didn’t like Jason Bay when he was acquired for Brian Giles). Second, LaRoche is the brother of Adam LaRoche, who for some reason was despised by a lot of people, despite being one of the best hitters on the team the last few seasons.
It’s reasonable to raise the expectations for a guy who was acquired in exchange for our best player. That said, I think LaRoche would have an easier time if his last name was “Smith”. There is a difference between raised expectations, and unreasonable expectations. When you expect a guy to come in to the majors and have everything figured out his first full year, that’s a bit unreasonable.
LaRoche has put a lot of effort in to his defense this year, and it shows. Now that his work with Perry Hill is showing success, maybe he’ll start spending more time with Don Long working on his hitting, and getting some of those warning track shots to go a little further. At least that’s my theory on why he’s struggled at the plate, and that’s why I’m not writing off a guy who was a top prospect for several years, just because he isn’t an All-Star in his first full season in the majors.
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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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