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Morse, LaRoche, and the Case of Too Many First Basemen

Going into the season, Davey Johnson, Mike Rizzo, and the rest of the Washington Nationals’ decision makers certainly expected to get strong production from their first basemen and that’s exactly what happened. Nationals’ first basemen combined to hit .285/.355/.547 with 40 HR, 118 RBI, and even a single, solitary stolen base. That .902 OPS was the third highest mark in baseball behind the Tigers — the honorable Prince Fielder presiding — and the Reds pair of Joey Votto and Todd Frazier, though the Nationals were the only team to break the 40 home run barrier. So all went exactly according to plan as Washington changed the old saying around to “first in war, first in peace, first in the NL East.”

Except it wasn’t nearly so simple as that.

The assumption throughout the offseason was that Michael Morse would make the lion’s share of starts at first as Adam LaRoche came back from a torn labrum that cost him nearly all of 2011. The injury doesn’t typically require nearly as much rehab time for hitters as it can for pitchers, but the belief that it could take LaRoche six to eight weeks worth of games to get back to his former level of production wouldn’t have been a bad one to make. Add in the fact that LaRoche is consistently a slow starter with an OPS over 120 points higher in the second half than in the first, and Morse moves from being the presumptive starter to one of the surer things in the Nationals’ lineup.

Morse, after all, wasn’t just a warm body that wasn’t notorious for painfully slow starts, he was coming off a season in which he hit .303/.360/.550 with 31 HR while starting more than half the Nationals’ games at first base. Unfortunately, a strained lat shelved Morse for the first two months of the season and thrust LaRoche into the Opening Day lineup. He went 0-for-3 with a walk and three strikeouts, playing perfectly into the narrative regarding his inability to hit before the All-Star break. The next day, LaRoche went 4-for-5 with his first home run, and the race to his best season ever was on. His first half slash line was .255/.340/.496, a solid improvement over his career first half line of .247/.326/.442 and he finished the season at .271/.343/.510 with 33 HR and precisely 100 RBI, making him Zach’s eighth best first baseman.

While LaRoche was proving wrong those who believed his best days were behind him, Morse’s season seemed to go in fits and starts. While his overall line of .291/.321/.470 with 18 HR and 62 RBI in 102 games is certainly livable, an August-long slump caused by some combination of hand, thumb, or wrist injuries muted his overall production. The fact that he didn’t go on the disabled list during that time also put owners in a bind as to whether they needed to bench him or try to ride out his issues. His strong September — .302/.330/.510 with 6 HR — was certainly an asset for the stretch run and will give owners a reason to target Morse for next season, though the fact that Morse made just a single appearance at first base this season means there will be some mental projection needed to see Morse as the Nats first baseman again next season.

Indeed, what seemed like an easy call to make heading into this season will be a something of a mess come February. LaRoche has a $10 million mutual option for next season, which he’ll almost certainly sign, leaving the Nationals to figure out whether they want him back at that price, whether they’ll let him seek fortune elsewhere, or whether they’ll let him hit free agency and try to negotiate a better deal. Morse, too, is under contract for next season already, though he could man the outfield with Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth if LaRoche does stay in D.C. Anthony Rendon is threatening to push Ryan Zimmerman off of third base, which could push Zimmerman into the first base mix. For redraft players, I can’t imagine this mass of humanity be much of an issue by the time drafts roll around, but for keeper players looking to slot Morse in as their 1B, be cautious as that option may not be available depending on what the Nationals choose to do with LaRoche.