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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.