Monday, November 22, 2010

Andy LaRoche

Fairly or not, Neal Huntington will be remembered for his first blockbuster trade, moving Jay Bay for 3B Andy LaRoche, OF Brandon Moss, RHP Bryan Morris and RHP Craig Hansen.

Well, Morris is moving along after a rough start in the organization, and Hansen is recovering from a nerve problem that may short circuit his big league career. Moss and LaRoche? Both were deep-sixed by the FO this month. And for LaRoche, it had to be a bitter parting; he was the key piece of the deal.

Andrew Christian LaRoche was born September 13, 1983 in Fort Scott, Kansas, the son of former pitcher Dave and brother of first basemen Adam. Like his big bro, he was a star at Fort Scott High - as a catcher.

LaRoche played for Grayson County College where his dad coached and became the top prospect in the wooden-bat Cape Cod League (.326/6/18 in 92 ABs). He gave up the tools of ignorance to play shortstop after being banged up behind the dish.

First drafted in the 21st round by the San Diego Padres in 2002, he turned down their $200K offer and re-entered the draft the following year. Despite breaking a bone in his left leg in a collision, his stock soared and scouts projected him as a first rounder.

But teams were worried about his "signability" since he had turned down the Padres and had a scholarship in his pocket to play for Rice University. He lasted until the 39th round of the 2003 draft when he was taken by the LA Dodgers.

But hey, no problems. He was inked for first round cash, a cool mil.

Questions about his range bumped him from from shortstop to third base, and that's where he played his half-dozen games with the Dodgers' Ogden rookie league team in 2003.

He started the 2004 season with the Class A team in Columbus, hitting .283 with 13 home runs and 42 RBI before being promoted to Vero Beach, where he struggled average-wise, hitting only .237, but still smacked 10 HRs and drove home 34 RBI.

LaRoche acclimated in a hurry. Repeating at Vero Beach in 2005, he hit .333 with 21 HRs and 51 RBI and moved up to the AA Jacksonville Suns, where he batted .273 with 9 HRs and 43 RBI. He was named the Dodgers Minor League Player of the Year.

The 2006 season saw him still at Jacksonville after attending his first Dodger camp. LaRoche hit .309 with 9 HRs and 46 RBI there and was promoted to AAA Las Vegas, where he batted .322 with 10 HRs and 35 RBI.

He broke camp with the big team in 2007. LaRoche made his major league debut on May 6, 2007, against the Atlanta Braves and notched his first hit. But he was sent down to AAA, and a .309/18/48 line in Vegas got him called back up in September.

LaRoche saw some playing time replacing the oft-injured Nomar Garciaparra, and finished his first season with a .226/1/10 line in 115 at-bats. He then played for Team USA during the off-season in the Olympic trials.

In 2008, during a spring training game, LaRoche tore the ulnar collateral ligament of his right thumb during a freak accident; a pickoff toss to third bounced off the runner and the deflection caught him on his throwing hand. LaRoche needed surgery to repair the ligament, which was tore completely off of his thumb.

LaRoche and Garciaparra began the spring fighting for the starting third base job. Both players ended up hurt, and rookie Blake DeWitt won the job through default.

After his rehab was done in early May, LaRoche was optioned to Las Vegas, a vote of confidence for DeWitt. He was recalled in June, but in 27 games hit just .203 with 2 HR. Out of the starting picture, Andy LaRoche was now expendible.

A career .295/.382/.517 minor league hitter who ranked among Baseball America's top 100 prospects from 2005 to 2008, LaRoche was a popular trade item, and became a key piece of the deal to land Manny Ramirez.

On July 31, 2008, LaRoche was traded to the Pirates as part of a three team deal that sent Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jason Bay to the Boston Red Sox.

He joined his brother Adam in Pittsburgh, but didn't have the same luck with the stick. After hitting .152/3/12 in August and September, LaRoche was already looking like he was overmatched at the dish, although the Pirate FO defended him staunchly and handed him the starting hot corner job in 2009.

LaRoche batted .258 with 12 home runs, five triples, 29 doubles and 64 RBI in 2009. It was a nice, workmanlike season, and his glovework shone under the tutelage of Perry Hill. But a very large shadow was being cast over LaRoche's stay in Pittsburgh, the shadow of Pedro Alvarez.

Not only was Alvarez's time fast approaching, but the brass seemed either clueless or indifferent to LaRoche's future with the team. During the offseason and from 2010 spring training on, the Pirates made no effort to work him anywhere but at the hot corner, even though LaRoche had publicly stated a willingness to return to a middle infield position where his bat would play better.

The Pirates and LaRoche got off to dismal starts in 2010. Pedro got the call to the show on June 16th, and became a fixture at third base. LaRoche started taking balls at second. He ended up playing first, third, and second, but had a disastrous season at the plate, hitting just .206/4/16.

LaRoche went to Venezuela to show he could regain his eye. Instead, he hit .186. Faced with keeping him on the 40-man roster and working out an arbitration deal, Pittsburgh DFA'ed LaRoche, in effect making him a free agent. So what happened?

Maybe the Dodgers saw in 2007-08 that LaRoche had a AAAA bat. Maybe the thumb injury never quite healed 100% and sapped him of his strength as a hitter. Maybe he was just another guy whose power numbers were inflated in the Pacific Coast League.

At any rate, as a MLB player, LaRoche has a line of .224/.304/.338 with 22 HR and 108 RBI in 1228 AB. Now he's hoping to resurrect his career as a utility infielder; St. Louis had some interest in him for that spot back in August. We'll see if they still have an eye on him.

This chapter in Andy LaRoche's career was one that neither he nor Neal Huntington saw coming, and a lesson on why GM's prefer to trade for guys with a track record rather than for prospects.

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