Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti has said that LaRoche, 28, will compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster, which should have been fairly obvious (why else would the Indians have signed him?). “His defensive versatility and right-handed bat complement our other projected infielders,” he told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian.
It’s a good deal for the Indians in that they’re committing nothing and possibly getting something in return. LaRoche definitely has some upside, and on a minor-league deal the Indians don’t have anything to lose by bringing him aboard. But despite Antonetti’s vote of confidence, it’s hard to see LaRoche making a substantial positive impact for the Tribe in 2012.
First things first: there’s a reason the Indians were able to get him so cheap. LaRoche was below replacement level (-0.4 fWAR) in 40 games for the Athletics in 2011, hitting .247/.320/.333 with no homers and 10 RBI.
Once considered a top prospect, LaRoche appeared on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list four years in a row from 2005-08, peaking at No. 19 in 2006 and 2007. But he hasn’t lived up to his billing, with a .226/.305/.337 triple-slash (72 wRC+) across five MLB seasons, and just 1.1 fWAR in 403 career games.
There’s some reason to be optimistic about LaRoche. He has some demonstrated success—he was at least an above-average player in 2009, his only full season—and the prospect who looked like a future star is still somewhere inside him. If he can reverse the negative trend in his plate discipline and power numbers (both of which have declined significantly over the past couple seasons), while continuing to play slightly above-average defense, he could be a useful piece for the Indians’ bench.
But even if he fulfills these optimistic projections, Cleveland would still have at least two better options at third base. The starting spot will (or, at least, should) be Lonnie Chisenhall‘s to lose—if he’s not ready he’s not ready, but if he is, he’s the Tribe’s best option. If Chiz can’t handle it, the next guy in line is Jack Hannahan, who was a roughly league-average hitter last year while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at the hot corner. That LaRoche is right-handed (Chisenhall and Hannahan are both lefty hitters) doesn’t make up for the fact that he’s no better than the team’s third-best option.
And he might not even be that with Jason Donald and Cord Phelps both waiting in the wings. Donald played much better than LaRoche in limited time last year (though his success was at least partly driven by an inflated BABIP), and Phelps is three years younger and has a higher ceiling. I feel confident in saying that LaRoche is better than another recently signed infielder, Jose Lopez, but that isn’t saying much.
Antonetti has a point about the value of a versatile right-handed utility infielder to a young, lefty-heavy team. But a player’s handedness is secondary in importance to how good a hitter he is—and, in LaRoche’s case, he isn’t very good—and “versatile” might be a bit of a stretch to describe a player who has made only 20 starts that weren’t at his natural position in his five-year career. Maybe he can handle playing second or shortstop on a semi-regular basis, I don’t know. But it’s not as though he has a track record of doing so.
And, perhaps more importantly, Donald and Phelps have both of the qualities Antonetti mentioned. Both of them have more experience at multiple positions (Phelps hasn’t played much third base, but he’s played both second and shortstop). Donald is right-handed, and Phelps is even better: he’s a switch-hitter. Antonetti could just as easily (if not more accurately) have given that same quote about either of the two utility infielders he already has in place.
I’m not saying this was a bad deal for the Indians. In fact, it was a smart move—there’s no risk for a minor-league deal, so there’s something to gain and the worst that happens is…well, nothing. But while the potential good LaRoche can do is greater than what we’re likely to get from Lopez, it won’t be much. And I’m concerned that, like Orlando Cabrera last year, these signings will mean that mediocre veterans will be eating up playing time that could otherwise go to better and younger players.
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