The Curious Tale of Adam LaRoche

When the San Francisco Giants signed wayward first baseman/designated hitter Aubrey Huff to a $3 million one year deal this off season, it was immediately announced that Huff would play every day at first and not be platooned, and that Huff would bat fourth in the Giants 2010 line-up. At about the same time, word leaked out that the San Francisco had previously offered free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche a two year contract for $17.5 million, which La Roche turned down. LaRoche then turned around and signed a one year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks for $6 million.

Later, LaRoche let it be known that he made his decision based on the fact that he felt more comfortable with the hitting conditions at the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field than at AT&T Park. LaRoche said he like playing in domed stadiums. The subtext is that LaRoche was actually looking for $10 million a year for three years, and was willing to be underpaid in 2010 in order to reenter the free agent pool for 2011 to get a bigger, longer payday. All in all, a tidy little story. Except that it’s all subterfuge, gauged to cover up boatloads of world-class ineptness and damaged feelings by all parties concerned.
 
Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating train wreck. In the past five years, the Giants front office has faced two numbing fears which the team has worked overtime to downplay at every turn: first, how many seats would go unsold after Barry Bonds was cut from the Giants following the 2007 season. Second, would it become public knowledge that many top Major League hitters will do anything they can to avoid playing at AT&T Park, with its strong pitcher friendly dimensions.

The Giants did lose attendance revenue after Bonds left, but survived because the front office faced the issue with creativity combined with complete denial. But the other fear remains— that prime free agent hitters prefer to play elsewhere, and that talented players on other teams have it written into their contracts to which teams they will allow themselves to be traded. And those lists often do not include the San Francisco Giants.

Is it possible that Adam LaRoche would really kiss off $11.5 million to avoid playing in San Francisco? Or did LaRoche and his agent make a series of missteps that will cost the free agent first baseman millions over the next several years? The answer is “potentially yes” to both. But let’s first go to the damaged feelings. Over recent years, it’s apparent that the Giants have had any number of offers rejected by free agent players, and not because the money wasn’t there. The front office has been adept at playing this down to prevent it becoming a defining story about their beloved ballpark, perhaps sensing that every nationally televised game for the next ten years would lead off with that story, spooking the available pool of top hitters for all eternity.
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But when it became public knowledge that a free agent hitter would give up over $11 million rather than play at AT&T Park, the Giants hurt feelings turned into anger and they immediately signed Huff in a huff, a second tier player whose value is being questioned by baseball writers and commentators around the world. But in reality, Huff is a professional extra-base hitter on a team that desperately needs any kind of power upgrade, and $3 million for a 90+ RBI clean-up hitter could end up being the bargain of the year.

On a happier note for the Giants, the Adam LaRoche signing with Arizona earned him the prestigious 2010 Jody Reed Award for Unrewarded Greed.

After a good 1993 season, Dodger infielder Jody Reed was offered a three year $7.8 million contract to stay in LA. But Reed and his agent rejected the Dodgers’ offer, thinking they could score more money in the free agent market. Sadly, Reed ended up with one minor-league offer (from Milwaukee) and spent the next four years as a part timer with San Diego and Detroit before his career finally fizzled out; during those four years, Reed earned a total of $2.9 million. So he went from a $2.6 million a year offer, to actually making $725,000 a year; a $4.9 million loss.

In LaRoche’s case, he and his agent made two errors: the first was taking a flyer on the $11.5 million difference between the offers from the Giants and Arizona. And second, LaRoche’s master plan to make that money up next year as a free agent has one significant problem: the 2011 free agent pool is saturated with quality first basemen, including Lance Berkman, Derrek Lee, Carlos Pena, Paul Konerko, David Ortiz, Lyle Overbay, and Albert Pujols (and a number of additional lesser first baggers more in the LaRoche mold). Among that group, it is wildly unlikely that LaRoche will command a $10 million a year, multi-year deal.

So the Giants were stung by losing LaRoche and petulantly turned to Huff, not getting the power hitter they really needed. And Adam LaRoche stands to potentially lose millions in salary over the remainder of his career. But the biggest damage may be the outing of that nasty secret about how many prime Major League hitters have an aversion to playing in San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

Postscript: In a March 2, 2010 interview with Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic, LaRoche tried to spin the details of the deal with additional information, which actually makes the story an even bigger cluster. LaRoche said it wasn’t a two year deal, it was two years with options for three and four years! And, LaRoche’s agent made a counter-offer to the Giants, which means they likely asked for even more money. So LaRoche apparently turned down almost $9 million a year from the Giants for two guaranteed years, plus four years of options. Jody Reed lives!     

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