LaRoche Reaches End of the Line With Pirates

When the Pirates shipped Jason Bay to the Boston Red Sox on July 31, 2008 as part of a three-team deal that also put Manny Ramirez in Dodger blue, Andy LaRoche was the centerpiece from Pittsburgh’s perspective. GM Neal Huntington also acquired reliever Craig Hansen, starter Bryan Morris and outfielder Brandon Moss, but the big get was the third baseman who ranked as Baseball America’s number 31 prospect prior to the ’08 season. Huntington, at a press conference to announce the Bay deal, lauded LaRoche’s “tremendous command of the strike zone for a young hitter” and his “quality power.” A career .295/.382/.517 minor league batter, LaRoche looked like he’d be an above-average regular at the very least, and perhaps even a franchise cornerstone.

This past Friday, Huntington booted LaRoche off the 40-man roster (along with Zach Duke and Delwyn Young) by designating him for assignment. Buried on the bench in the second half of 2010 by Pittsburgh’s new hot-shot third baseman, Pedro Alvarez, LaRoche was deemed not worth keeping around as a bench player in 2011 for the high six-figure salary he’d draw as a first-time arbitration-eligible player. What happened here?

For one thing, the strike-zone control that LaRoche displayed in the minors just hasn’t translated to the big leagues. The righty batter has drawn a walk in 9.2 percent of his career plate appearances, which is just a bit above the 8.5-8.9 percent MLB average over the past few years. His plate discipline stats indicate his decent, but hardly outstanding patience. He swung at 25.2% of pitches thrown out of the strike zone from 2007-2009, right around the major league average, and went fishing 29.4% this past year (29.3% MLB average). According to StatCorner, LaRoche took 35.7% of pitches for a strike in 2009 and 34.4% in 2010, well above the 31% MLB average. So, he has been ordinary when it comes to laying off junk pitches, and he takes more called strikes than most.

Before the 2008 season, BA said LaRoche had “plus raw power” and had the potential to hit in the middle of a lineup. Well, his career Isolated Power now stands at .113, and he has gone deep just 7.1% of the time that he hits a fly ball. Not that he hits a lot of flys – LaRoche has hit grounders nearly 49% of the time (44 percent MLB average).

With so-so walk rates and little thump, LaRoche’s bat has been 25 percent worse than the average major league hitter (75 wRC+) in over 1,200 plate appearances. One might look at his career .252 BABIP and see room for some improvement, and that’s likely true to some extent. But there’s reason to believe that LaRoche is a low BABIP hitter. He pops the ball up a lot – nearly 14%, while the MLB average is a little more than half of that. Those pop ups are near automatic outs. And while line drive rate might not be the most consistent stat, LaRoche’s career rate of liners hit (17.1%) is below the near 19% big league average.

Defensively, LaRoche has held his own – he’s got a career +1.7 UZR/150, and Sean Smith‘s Total Zone rates him as slightly above-average as well. I know his defensive stats have been all over the place the past two years, but I’d be more inclined to trust the overall numbers.

While he’s a decent defender, the bat figures to remain ghastly. CHONE’s late August update pegged LaRoche’s offense as -11 runs below average per 150 games, with a .245/.325/.375 line. That looks downright robust compared to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection – .232/.309/.355.

Overall, LaRoche contributed 1.2 Wins Above Replacement during his time as a Pirate. Hansen whose career has stalled due to a neck injury, has been a half-win below replacement. Moss, recently signed by the Phillies to a minor league deal, chipped in 0.2 WAR. So, that’s 0.9 WAR for the Pirates from the three big league players picked up in the trade, compared to the 6.1 WAR that Bay put up in Boston and the pair of compensation picks the Red Sox turned into outfielder Bryce Brentz and right-hander Brandon Workman. Mercifully, Bryan Morris pitched well between High-A and Double-A in 2010. He’s considered more of a second-tier arm, though, recently placing 14th in BA’s ranking of the top 20 Eastern League prospects, and he has a Tommy John surgery in his past.

In retrospect, it looks like the Pirates have little chance of breaking even on the Bay deal, due mostly to LaRoche’s non-development. I have to admit, I liked the trade at the time. Getting 5-6 years of team control over a top position prospect like LaRoche had the potential to give the Bucs a lot of surplus value. It certainly didn’t work out that way, however.

As the team and the would-be trade centerpiece parts ways, the Pirates hope to salvage some value from the deal through Morris, and LaRoche will look to revive his career elsewhere. Considering that he’ll come cheap, LaRoche isn’t a bad bench option. At this point, though, it’s hard to see a team giving the 27-year-old meaningful playing time.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


28 Responses to “LaRoche Reaches End of the Line With Pirates”

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  1. Heather says:

    As a person who just takes a momentary interest here and there in the Pirates, I must say, it appears (to my outside, passing perspective) that a larger than normal majority of their top prospects flame out or fail to measure up to their potential.

    Has anybody questioned whether there is something wrong in their development system?

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    • Puffy says:

      There was supposed to be a regime change with Huntington and farm director Stark, who all came aboard after the 2008 season. At the time, Huntington referred to the farm system as “dysfunctional.” I’d also be curious to hear from Pirates fans where things stand today.

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    • john sparrow says:

      It certainly was dysfunctional, but Andy LaRoche had little to do with the Pirates farm system. He spent very little time there and did well in 2009. It’s unclear how much his back injuries affected him (there’s also the hand, maybe thumb, injury while with the Dodgers, just before he came to Pittsburgh…

      The jury’s still out on the current development system. Certainly, Owens and Morris appear to have taken forward steps. Justin Wilson has done quite well, for someone with very little expert backing. Guys like McPherson/Leach have taken steps forward. Jeff Locke has resurrected his falling stock, and guys like Presley have improved at higher levels. Lambo seems to have done OK since coming over, regaining some value on his rapidly plummeting prospect status. Neil Walker, Jose Tabata have made strides and had promising rookie seasons. While it’s still open to question, Pirates fans have some reasons to be excited.

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  2. Pat says:

    I wanted Niemann and Brignac soooooo bad! I don’t know for sure if Pittsburgh could have gotten that deal from Tampa during the deadline, but I remember the rumors floating around and I liked that offer much better.

    It’s a shame they didn’t get anything of value from Bay yet, I guess they would have been better off trading him when the season was over, even holding onto him and getting comp picks would have been better.

    I really wish the Bay and McLouth trades would have gotten better players in Pittsburgh because they could have turned the franchise around if they hit big on them.

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    • Kirsh says:

      The Pirates won the McLouth trade. They got rid of one of the flukiest one-hit-wonders and worst contracts in the game. Jeff Locke’s a very good prospect, and Gorkys Hernandez can’t hit for his life but is such a great center fielder he can still be a fourth outfielder (which McLouth isn’t much better than).

      In spite of his ERA last year, I also still hold optimism for Charlie Morton. He spent most of 2009 in the Majors and was very good, a sub 4-ERA pitcher if you take out one bad inning at Wrigley Field. Clearly, things can’t go much worse for a pitcher than they did for him last year, but he’s got a million dollar arm. It’s the ten cent head that needs to be worked on, and if he gets it together mentally, he’s an above average big leaguer, no doubt in my mind.

      Not saying he’s a sure thing, of course.

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      • odbsol says:

        “He spent most of 2009 in the Majors and was very good, a sub 4-ERA pitcher if you take out one bad inning at Wrigley Field.”

        I was at that game with my kids. It was an inning+. He gave up 7 hits, 3 BBs and 10 ERs. Even as a Cubs fan, it was painful to watch.

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      • David says:

        that’s an easy trap to fall in though – that 10% can be an insurmountable obstacle. Daniel Cabrera’s 2005 season was very promising as an Orioles fan – his control was a bit off but his peripherals were great (4.52 ERA but a 4.04 xFIP) and he showed a marked improvement in every area. in fact, the Orioles refused a trade offer from the Marlins of A.J. Burnett + Mike Lowell for Cabrera + Jorge Julio. but it was just that pesky 10% that prevented him from becoming a good consistent pitcher…

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  3. Seth says:

    Heather, it seems as though when people think of Pirates prospects they think of the past regimes failed prospects. These players were destined to fail because their ceilings were that of number 3 starters at best and management refused to spend on the draft. Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, and Andrew Mccutchen appear to be developing just fine. It’s all about selective memory. Personally I think there has been some busts and some bloomers with the Pirate’s prospects which can be expected from any team.

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    • Seth says:

      Also you could ask anyone that knows baseball and find out that Huntington and company completely overhauled the way things were done in the farm system. Just look at the top 11 prospects on BP, and you will see how far it has come.

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    • Bill says:

      In fairness, Cutch was drafted by the Littlebrain regime. Although, the former regime would have probably traded him for Jarrod Washburn and some magic beans.

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  4. Brian says:

    If you look at LaRoche’s record with his spring ’08 thumb injury in mind, it’s pretty clear that his power left the building then and there and never returned. He was a .200+ ISO, .500+ SLG hitter in the minors in 2006 and 2007, and since then he’s never topped .150/.440 at any level.

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  5. Alireza says:

    LaRoche’s bat speed never seemed to be MLB level and his patience hasn’t been able to pay off as a result. Blake DeWitt, who was once stuck behind him, has turned out to be a better player in every, single way.

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  6. Kirsh says:

    I should say first that I’m a pretty staunch supporter of Huntington, mainly because every trade he’s made, save the one for Dana Eveland, at least made moderate sense at the time it was made. That’s true with this one, too, even though I fully expect the Pirates to get nothing more than a decent bottom of the rotation starter out of it in Morris.

    There was absolutely nothing anyone could have done to predict or foresee LaRoche’s bat going 100% to Hell this year. He showed a lot of very promising flashes immediately upon being required and, in my opinion, was a quality player for the team in 2009. His defense is still solid, even though he made some lousy errors last year.

    The thing that I can’t figure is where the offense went. It was noted by the Post-Gazette last year that LaRoche couldn’t even hit the ball hard in batting practice. I know there isn’t a stat to measure how hard a player hits the ball on average, but I can say that everything that came off LaRoche’s bat looked like a Mo Rivera cutter. He made solid contact probably one in ten times up after being benched.

    He’s a bounceback candidate if he can ever get his swing right, but there were few more worthless players, ever, than the LaRoche we saw last season.

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    • wobatus says:

      I think some people did foresee that LaRoche could flame out with the bat. His 2009 was lauded mainly because he closed hot. If you look at this thread, several folks did think he was being overrated going into 2010.

      http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/laroche-living-up-to-the-hype/

      I especially like the “Laroche is worth more than Dunn” implication. Coming into 2011 we see who is worth more.

      Laroche might eventually be able to turn it around, but at his age it is now much harder to get chances.

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  7. AK707 says:

    This is why it is smart sometimes to trade prospects for current talent. Sure, you might get burned when a excellent prospect turns in years of cost-controlled performance for another team, but they also might flame out like LaRoche. You never know.

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    • David says:

      if the Dodgers knew something about LaRoche that the rest of us didn’t, then you’re right, they should be applauded. I think that’s what happened in the Alderson / Sanchez trade that everyone criticized – and Brian Sabean was completely right.

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      • AK707 says:

        What I was trying to say is that it is a calculated risk to trade prospects, because sometimes they bust, while other times they turn to gold. It seems like teams are getting too reluctant to trade young players because they have bad memories of the times they got burned, and forget about the times that it works out, like with LaRoche. Alderson is an excellent example, where the pirates overvalued a “young player with upside” in exchange for a perfectly useful player in sanchez.

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  8. DWrek says:

    We slammed the Dodgers for refusing to give LaRoche a chanace. Maybe this is why. I still wouldnt mind if my team took a flier on LaRoche.

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  9. AK707 says:

    Does anybody have a rough percentage as to how many of the “top 100″ prospects actually end up being good players? Huntington seems to know how to acquire the ones that bust, but is it just a percentages thing?

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    • Dodger300 says:

      The idea that there could possibly be 100 “top” prospects is a joke. If one figures that 17 players per team have a regular job and the other eight spots are backups or fringers, there are barely over 500 regular players in all of baseball. They are not all good, let alone All-Stars. But nowhere near 20% are going to turn over every year, even though we get a new list of 100 “top” prospects every year.

      If you see that a guy is a “top” prospect it is still more likely than not that he will never amount to a hill of beans. But publications have to create these “top” prospect lists in order to justify their existence.

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      • Joel says:

        To be fair there aren’t 100 new names every year, about 40 of them carry over from last year. Jameson Taillon will be on a top 100 list this year and every year until 2014 or so.

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    • Nathaniel Dawson says:

      Look at some of Victor Wang’s work: http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/the-bright-side-of-losing-santana/

      In it, you’ll find his calculations for the frequency of a bust.

      And a nice summation by Sky Kalkman of the info for the value of a top prospect: http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2009/7/20/950254/which-is-better-compensation

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  10. mtortolero says:

    LaRoche was playing here in Venezuela winter league, a kind of AA baseball, and his numbers were really awfull before was released:186/293/314 in 70 AB including 17K, 2 Hrs and 11 BB.
    Probably he will join to Sean Burroughs, Brandon Wood and Alex Gordon to write “When we were great 3B prospects” or how to be a totally bust.

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  11. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    Reading about the Pirates always makes me sad.

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  12. Doc says:

    Well, as long as we are talking about failed can’t-miss=third-base-prospects, the Pirates just signed Andy Marte as a minor league free agent.

    And while I have been encouraged by the development in the Pirates minors, I am less enamored of the Pirate trades. But that is another article entirely

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